Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Friday, 25 June 2010

Technology as a loudspeaker - what are you broadcasting?

Technology is a terrific enabler and accelerator of organizational processes, but it's not a cure-all. Read on to explore the nexus where technology overlaps human behaviour and interaction; learn why it's important to know what message your technology is broadcasting - both to your employees and to your clients!

In April I was invited to a seminar in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on the uses of technology in higher education and corporate training.

Among other tech companies and educational institutions, Microsoft was on hand to showcase Surface, its "social way of computing," as envisioned for university campuses and business meetings of the future.

In this idealized future, businesspeople easily find and exchange information with world-wide colleagues and their road-warrior lives are made easier with access to timely information on hand-held devices that speeds them along to fruitful and interactive meetings.

It was pretty slick stuff: technology enabling a whole new way of doing business and, as you'd expect given the theme of the conference, there was a lot of enthusiasm and buzz in the room.

As human behaviour specialist, I was left wondering how these admittedly snazzy tech-tools would help you to deal more effectively with colleague who's just off a red-eye flight filled with screaming kids and has spilled coffee on herself in the taxi ride from the airport.

Or how those gizmos would help to effectively manage interpersonal conflict that might arise in one of these tech-enabled meetings...quite possibly with the frazzled and overtired colleague just described!

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

The more (and faster) technology changes, the more human behaviour remains stubbournly the same - complex, unpredictable and non-linear.

Now don't get me wrong: I love my gadgets as much as the next guy and technology is a great aid to our working lives. It's in the nexus where technology overlaps human behaviour and interaction, however, where we can clearly see that technology's role as an enabler and accelerator of what's already happening in the organization (you can even say it's also an amplifier) is not as straightforward as some tech-enthusiasts may believe.

For example, if you've been in meetings that look a bit like this unfortunate group - where people aren't engaged, there's an atmosphere of negative interaction and conflict, and a people manager who fundamentally can't manage people - then it's probably clear to you that no amount of technology is going to improve the situation.

Putting touch-screen computers into this meeting will not magically transform it into a smoothly-functioning team. Quite the opposite, in fact: in dysfunctional organizational cultures, technology is more likely to give people more tools to extend unhelpful behaviours and disengagement to a much wider audience, even faster (email flame wars, anyone...? or text messages that read: "PLEASE get me outta here! :-( MeetingFAIL!!!").

Technology as enable/accelerator/amplifier (or, behavioural loudspeaker) 

If you remember the classic technology equation (Garbage In = Garbage Out) and then factor in technology's role as enabler/accelerator/amplifier, it's clear that technology most often functions as a loudspeaker to surface dodgy behaviours in an organization. Technology therefore cannot be the quick-fix panacea to address unhelpful behaviours, because they aren't technology problems - they're management problems, and they need management solutions.

This fact about technology helps explain why some leaders are so resistant to introducing social media tools - because amplifying the kind of talk that happens in a toxic corporate culture will most likely serve to  increase dissastisfaction (and staff turnover), to undermine the command-and-control structure typical of such organizations...or quite possibly a combination of both.

So I would argue that our awareness of the kinds of behaviour being enabled/accelerated/amplified with technology (social media or otherwise) needs to at least keep up with the pace of technological change. And in many organizations that's going to be a pretty steep learning curve.

When it comes to awareness of human behaviour dynamics and taking practical action to create Positive Change, we can't release a new patch or upgrade each year, it's an ongoing effort. Thankfully it's the same complexity and unpredictability of people that also makes us hugely creative and adaptable - and that's very good news indeed for those looking to create Positive Change.

Some questions remain - what do you think?

My next post will tell you more about what Positive CHANGE looks like and how it can help shape behaviour and interactions in your organization. The end result is certainly worth the effort: effective teams that can take adversity in stride and maintain a positive focus on contribution and results.

Other interesting questions remain: in what ways could technology actually expand and deepen our perspectives on human behaviour so we interact and engage with each other more effectively? Beyond being simply an enabler and accelerator, can technology serve to positively shape human behaviour and interactions...?

I look forward to discussing these questions and more at next week's instance of another technology-in-business conference: Melcrum's Social Media conference in North Sydney. See you there!

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