Back to basics

Back to basics

On a sunny Sydney morning I sat watching the ladies run around the Domain as part of the Sydney triathlon. As I observed these athletic creatures pound the pavements and their support teams cheer them on (ever mindful of their various national allegiances and individual heroines) I couldn’t help thinking what an essentially “physical” species we are.  We are of the earth, on the earth and to the earth we return. Despite the sophistication of our technologies we are forever working with and against physical forces. We witness our bodies age and decay; we are forever repairing things damaged by physical use, and we are constantly guarding against the ravages of the natural forces which surround us.

We touch, we feel and we hurt.

So much of our very existence has been developed over aeons to cope with the physical world, and our rules of engaging with each other and our surrounds are based on these essentially physical constructs.

So, what happens when the world within which we interact changes at a quite literally atomic level and the physical ether becomes the electronic space?

This is what is driving so much change being brought about by information technologies, and is what Zuboff addressed in her 1988 book “The Age of the Smart Machine”. In this insightful work Zuboff investigates the evolving process as the skills developed to understand and integrate physical information become redundant within a computer-mediated environment, and new ways of interacting with information begin to emerge.  She cites examples from engineering, medicine and office work and her work is prescient of the world in which we find ourselves only thirty years on.

This is the new world that we need to learn to navigate, and nowhere more urgently than in how our governments operate and attempt to “serve” the people.  This is also what underpins much of my own work and in particular a new initiative we are developing with ANZSOG.

Last week we had a planning session prior our forthcoming workshop to be held on 20th April, 2012, around the concepts of “Government as a digital platform”. As we considered the changing context of information management it became obvious to me that in order to understand what new capabilities are required, and how best to teach them, we need to go back to basics.

So much of education – in strategy, marketing, finance and organisational systems – has been developed for the physical world, the world where people interact with systems and each other in human time and space.  What new media and digital interaction technologies are doing is changing those interactions to both computer time and electronic space, and we – as humans – are struggling to cope.  The more we develop systems to help us the worse it gets; the more tools we have to save us time the busier we become; and the more we rely on technologies to make us more efficient the more over-loaded, and I would suggest, less efficient we get. We focus most of our attention on just getting through and far less on actually creating true value to the extent where it is creating not just stress, but a “culture of fear” (as Dana Boyd suggests in this excellent talk).

The digital world, where end users are as technologically empowered (sometimes more) as people within organisations, is different. These end users – which is all of us as private citizens regardless of professional identity – are driving the change. We are demanding new ways of interacting, and determining to do so through the medium of conversations conducted on a global scale.  However, regardless of the technologies employed we are still humans and we behave as humans do.  It is the environment which is different and something we have not experienced before, except perhaps in our dreams.

So, how do we develop new capabilities to live in the digital space?

For a start we go back to first principles on every level.  Basic strategy is still strategy; basic marketing is still marketing and basic HR is still HR.  We need to peel away all of the levels of over-complication and complexity that have evolved as a result of the last fifty years of management education and go back to the basic ideas which drive everything in terms of the fundamental rules of our societies, facilitated by commerce, managed by good governance (according to our values and morals) and enabled by people who behave according to the accepted cultural norms.

We need to harness and utilise the basic principles learned through philosophy, anthropology, ethnography, theology, sociology and psychology, and the skills and knowledge contained within these disciplines are now urgently required.

What Zuboff observed as her “smart machine” is now getting smarter by the minute, developing new skills and capabilities that are far beyond those of its creator on one hand, and on the other still inferior.  Smart algorithms help us find unprecedented amounts of information and capture and store mind-boggling amounts of data; they help us lift heavy loads and cope with complex logistical problems and they are redefining everything from surgery to spelling.  But they cannot yet run or swim or cycle in a triathlon.  It is the perfect human machine which excels here.

As we have learnt to master the physical world so we must learn to master the digital world, but ever-mindful of our essential humanity and of the fact that there are some things we do well and other things we don’t, just as with the technologies we create.

After I watched the triathlon I went to hear the third “Living Myths” seminar in which Julian Doogan suggested that recent archaeological discoveries such as Göbekli Tepe might actually prove that instead of complex societies creating complex technologies it may be the other way around, and the technologies may in fact be as much of a cause of the complexity than a result.

If this is true and we are looking to our technologies to simplify our lives then we are looking in the wrong place and we are applying the wrong thinking.  Our technologies should, in theory serve us, but instead we seem to be party to, and witnessing, the opposite.

In order to regain the upper hand we need to more fully understand ourselves and then we can apply that thinking to the technological environment which surrounds us.