Future of Work : Twist on Technology

Patricia Shafer is president of USA-based Compel Organizational Excellence Alliance, Ltd., a management services firm dedicated to evoking courageous leadership. Patricia has provided consulting and coaching services to executives, managers and public officials in 15 countries.

Prior to founding Compel Ltd., she held leadership positions in two Fortune 100 companies, where she was involved in management, merger, restructuring, innovation and culture initiatives touching 2,000 retail sites, 80,000 employees, and 200 manufacturing facilities.

She holds an M.B.A. from top-ranked Northwestern University Kellogg Graduate School of Business, and an MSc. ( with distinction ) in Consulting and Coaching for Change, a joint-venture of Oxford University and Hautes Etudes Commerciales ( HEC ), Paris.

Patricia has been recognized for her expertise at using narrative techniques to help leaders understand and shape organizational change. In 2004-05, she co-authored a five-continent research project: “The World at Work: Men and Women Managers Tell Us What’s Changed and What Still Needs to Change in Organizations.”

For more information on this topic, the overall research project from which it originates, or permission to use and or distribute, please contact:pshafer@compelconsulting.com; Tel: +1 704.607.1333

This article is adapted from research conducted by Ms. Shafer and colleague Dr. Barbara Trautlein, initiated within the Consulting and Coaching for Change Programme, a joint-venture of Oxford University, UK, and Hautes Etudes Commerciales ( HEC ), Paris.

A funny thing happens in global research. You begin with an idea, shaped by messages reinforced every day that the world is chaotic - separated by nationality and culture. Yet, with an open mind and careful observation, it’s possible to conclude the opposite. This was the case when my colleague Dr. Barbara Trautlein and I conducted an ambitious worldwide research initiative from 2004 to 2005. We found much more similarity than difference across geography, industry and gender.

Under the title, “The World at Work: Men and Women Managers Tell Us What’s Changed and What Still Needs to Change in Organizations,” we interviewed managers in multinational organizations and consultants to multinationals representing five continents, nearly 30 nationalities, and multiple industries. Manager responsibilities ranged from mid-level to senior-level and spanned the organizational Value Chain.

One of our conclusions is that it’s time for technology professionals to rethink their roles. And they should begin by boldly asking themselves and their organizational partners: “Are we designing systems to truly enable vs. becoming mesmerized by new technologies ?”; “Are we implementing ‘solutions’ that will empower rather than encumber ?” and “Are we creating rather than eroding connections ?”

Technology Looms Large in Managers’ Minds

Our observations about technology were an unexpected outcome of our research. We did not begin with a focus on technology, per se. But the subject of technology was certainly present when managers responded to these categories of questions :-

  • What are the most and least successful change projects you have been involved in or led - and why ?
  • What has changed most in organizations during your career ?
  • What still needs to change – in other words, what would the ideal organization of the future look and feel like to you ?

Consistently, managers ( and consultants ) had very strong views about “technology” and its impact on changes that have occurred in organizations. So, with our curiosity piqued, we dug into the contents of the interviews and considered:

  • How do managers around the world view technology ? 
  • What does the answer imply for information and other technology professionals ?

Changed ? - People First, Technology Second

What did these managers in multinationals report has changed the most in organizations ? Number One in their minds is “people.” Around the world and across industries, managers spoke first and foremost about changes in how people are treated in organizations, including increased expectations placed upon them, factors that diminish loyalty, and work-life balance issues. References to changes in the human experience – many of them not desirable - outnumbered all mentions of the “mechanics” of organizations, including structure, systems, technology and results.

Technology did, however, rank Number Two as the aspect of organizations that has changed the most - though it must be noted that technology received the most mentions in North America, fewer in Europe, and - against stereotype – even fewer in Asia. More than half of all managers, including 57 percent of men and 41 percent of women had technology high on their list of changes that have been the most pervasive and had the greatest impact during their careers.

Positive, Negative and Neutral

Yet, while managers were decidedly confident about changes they perceive in organizations, they had very mixed feelings about whether the impact of technology has been positive, negative or neutral. About 22.5 percent described technology in positive terms. But 26.4 percent of responses were negative, 39 percent mixed, and 12.1 percent neutral. Paradoxical examples peppered collective comments of the managers.

For instance, managers reported new freedom thanks to systems, networks and information management tools. Yet, each change sparked by IT that results in downsizing, cost-cutting and outsourcing seems to have reinforced manager fears that organization leaders really want to make people obsolete.

Another paradox . . . while managers can see the potential of technology for integrating a diverse, multicultural organization in a global world, they also lament technology’s negative effects on relationships. Said one manager, “IT has allowed a lot of centralization capability and centralized control that . . . from an employee standpoint undermines or undervalues the role of the employee . . . It’s compromised our organization.”

Some managers credited technology with creating previously unimagined business opportunities. Others were quick to describe technology as bombarding managers with data, being inescapable, and forcing managers onto a “24/7” schedule.

Managers’ Yearning – Not More Process or Technology

Just as provocative, managers rarely mentioned the potential role and value of technology in the future of organizations – inadvertently countering the active public dialogue about the increasing integration of the hard sciences, life sciences, technology and nanotechnology.

Indeed, managers often cited technology as a key failure factor in change initiatives and said that organizations often apply pressure to technology groups to do things that can’t actually be done well.

Instead, managers vocalized desires for organizations to more actively move toward “putting people first.” Nearly 92 percent of managers said the best organizations would focus more on the human factor by empowering, enabling, and adopting more people-friendly HR strategies in the face of increased pressure to focus on the bottom line. In stark contrast, technology ranked last of six categories, identified as a key organizational driver in the future by less than 10 percent of managers.

The managers who did mention technology envisioned it primarily as a work facilitator, with a caveat that there is still a lot of room for technology to be more intelligently deployed, standardized and consolidated. Quipped one manager, “Heaven and earth may have been created in seven days, but God didn’t have an installed base.” Another manager reflected a broad sentiment: “One of the consistent problems is mistaking technology as a leading component of the change process. In fact, it’s usually the people side and leadership that is the big challenge.” 

Opportunities for Technology Professionals

These findings raise the question: “What should information and other technology professionals do ?” 

First, celebrate the influence of technology in the evolution of organization tasks, processes and procedures – often resulting in greater efficiency, lower cost, and in many cases increased customer satisfaction ! Our research confirmed that managers do understand that organizations need professionals who can harness technology. It’s just that managers don’t view technology as the “end” nor as the most useful means to a desired end.

Second, consider that the results beg for a new way to leverage technology in organizations. Faced with fierce competition, most organizations experience continuous change. As a consequence, most managers have learned a lot about change management through trial, tribulation and triumph. Their collective conclusions – as expressed through our research – point to a set of competencies needed by all professionals in the 21st century – people-focused competencies related to “being” as much as “doing” that include communication, collaboration and cooperation, and a focus on using tools to support and serve people. ( See also: Somerville & Mroz, “How Well are You Organized for Your World ?”, in Organization of the Future, 1997 ).

New Take on Technology

We propose that technology professionals may be on the cusp of a significant shift in expectations. It’s increasingly assumed that technology professionals must have technical know-how, keep abreast of developments, and help organizations strive to reduce costs and stay competitive. So, technology professionals face the challenge of finding other ways to add value. A big opportunity is for technology professionals to shift mindset and become the catalysts that collect, interpret and share information that truly helps achieve excellence in human ( and therefore organizational ) interaction and performance.

The challenge is that organizations are often in the groove of directing and coordinating, not re-thinking and re-forming. Many executives operate in a state of frenzy, focusing myopically on statistics, data, productivity and financials. Re-visioning of technology, its role, and strategic priorities calls for a shift in technology values, as well as elbow grease to spark interest, engage people, and gain commitment. It means technology professionals and their organizational leaders, managers and employees stepping back, reflecting and deciding together which technologies fit. This is especially true in multinational firms that by nature must become less hierarchical and more networked in order to foster good decisions across vast geographic expanses and cultures.

Technology Professionals as Leaders

It follows, then, that technology professionals should take a lead role in communicating with and educating organizations on better uses of technology. This starts with the leadership skills development that helps technology professionals courageously bring forth and facilitate productive dialogue around important technology questions.

As Brown and Isaacs suggest about the nature of organizations as systems, learning conversations are a core process. Getting good at them requires training, practice and coaching just like any other process ( Source: Brown & Isaacs, “The Systems Thinker”, 1996/1997 )

In the words of one manager: “Poor or good communication is 90 percent of everything, especially in IT.” Compelling conversation connects people, ideas, organizations and aspiration.

© Copyright July 2005, Compel Ltd., Patricia Shafer and Dr. Barbara Trautlein

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