Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The connected executive: Tethering limits us

Mountain rescue teams express concern at ill-prepared groups entering the wilds with just a phone and no map or compass, unprepared for the technology to let them down when out of cell tower range. And incapable of independent thought.

As my daughter's team prepared for a Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme expedition over the weekend I became aware of a rule that they could only take one mobile phone, which had to be kept in a sealed bag for emergency use only.

I don't think a single expedition group kept to the rule: pressure came from kids who've grown up always connected, permanently entertained, able to deal with difficulty by withdrawing for a season into a world dominated by input from headphones and screen; or by making a Google search; or an SMS for an SOS.

But rebellion came, too, from parents - so used to the potential for contact at any time for any reason.

When the kids were small we let them toddle along in a harness, attached to us by reins: a deft flick of the wrist could keep them suspended before they fell and scraped a knee. Now as parents we give our kids more apparent freedom, but it's conditional on our ability to communicate wherever, whenever; and it's an illusory freedom. To some extent, we're chained to one another more completely than ever before.

Today's mobile communications technology extends the range with an invisible leash, but we're all used constantly to being able to summon driving directions, price comparisons or just the comfort that we're not missing out on a crucial status update...

Jeremy Bentham famously designed the 'Panopticon,' a prison where a single guard could peer in at random without the incarcerated knowing whether they're being watched. He described it as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example." For the most part, current technology appears less sinister than this: but to the extent that we're all so used to others being instantly available; to us receiving an instant response to each email, tweet or text; ... to that extent we're all chained to one another, living in a mutual Panopticon.

And this 24-7 connectedness extends to the work realm. In fact, the boundaries are blurring out of existence. The Economist's Babbage blogs that at 3am we all know exactly where our phone lies: within reach on the night stand. Some 30% of Europeans will check for incoming email in the small hours, and the figure rises to 60% in the work-focused Asia-Pacific cultures.

Many old-style managers adopt the position of Bentham's Panopticon guard, determined to ensure that work is being done through random observation. How wonderful for them that they can simultaneously cut office costs by letting staff work from home, hotel and coffee shops while keeping ever closer tabs on what employees do and when. And doing it regardless of geography and time.

Just as the invisible technological tether to our children extends our mutual dependency well into teenage years, so the tech attachment to colleagues can limit our independent creative thought, or the taking of responsibility for the decisions we must live by.

If Peter Drucker were writing today, he might title a piece on The Connected Executive, but would the executive be more effective?
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