I ponder this week what the rise of the Internet has meant and will mean for the nature of work. The answer is both simple and complex. Yes, the Web is changing my work. No, it does not change work for everyone. It is changing the nature of leadership for some leaders, while there are fewer implications for others. There is a greater need to ensure communication is received as intended and acted on correctly, as dramatically demonstrated by the very low tech “telephone game.” In a fast moving, remotely connected, virtual environment, the opportunity for miscommunication is greater and has larger ramifications (Ark, 2013). At the same time, there are many benefits. There is great power in connection, whether physical or virtual. And the beauty of virtual is that it extends many aspects of the physical, while offering a few additional, unique strengths.
Husband’s (2017) wirearchy concept is specifically about the power of connection. The author made clear wirearchy should not be misconstrued as about technology. However, technology is at least a facilitating factor that supports open organizational design. Wirearchy visually depicts people as connections points in a web able to leverage each other, and Weinberger (2014) noted that the digital age has allowed “topics” themselves to reflect better their own nature as a web or network. Topics have become webulous. I possibly made up a word right there, combining web and nebulous, or as is more likely, 100 other people also coined it for the same or different reasons, and the Internet allows me to connect to that collective thought to mine value.
Hyperlinked thinking means that leaders may put greater energy into capitalizing on and expanding ideas. The earlier reality was trying to anticipate what might be important and possibly missing valuable concepts in the process (Weinberger, 2014). Where once leaders were “hacking the future,” or attempting to predict and act in advance, leaders now help filter forward versus filter out (Weinberger, 2011). Weinberger’s (2014) example of encyclopedias and libraries being forced to literally throw away information resonated. This winnowing was an “art based upon a limitation.” Space was limited, so they had to make cuts. From books to the simple one page resume, the digital environment allows us infinite access to infinite information, eliminating the urgency to anticipate, making for a broader future.
I feel fortunate to have a few points of comparison, considering how my work has changed with the rise of the Web. I began my career in communications in 2001. We certainly had access to the Internet and were already at that time bridging multiple locations to connect our team. However, this was more out of necessity than by design. For example, I worked on an account where the team was cobbled together between Portland and Seattle, and the clients were located in Seattle, Fargo, and Denmark due to various acquisitions. While one could argue that virtual is all I have known in terms of the working world, I nonetheless note differences between my work then and now. Back then, we were handed a reality, and we used the Internet and available tools to navigate it. Now, work and teams are built to function virtually. And if an Internet connection goes down, it now feels as though you can’t actually do your job (a perceived limitation). In the early days, this was just a nuisance.
Consider now a physically isolated location like Antarctica, with an entire population of workers. I was employed as a contractor there during the two austral summers between 2010-2012. It is a prime example of an environment that requires a good Knowledge Management system to function well. It benefits from Internet connection to function optimally. Leadership would be hard pressed to make decisions without access to knowledge, and management would find it difficult to run systems and processes given perpetual turnover, resulting in large part from the nature of a contract workforce. My time there was relatively short, making it difficult to note changes in the work itself. However, I can speak to how it was at my moment in time, working in the Vehicle Maintenance Facility, using very outdated DOS based programs. I existed in one of likely many transition periods. I had the luxury of software and Internet connection to facilitate my work. I could capture data, analyze it to a degree, and connect with full time employees in Denver to make additional sense of data. I know subsequent years brought in a newer, more dynamic software program, and where full time employees used to deploy as a requirement, this is happening less and less with connectivity. It is fair to say that in a place that was once completely cut off from the rest of the world, while you were there, connection has changed things.
My team today is entirely virtual and was designed so. My work is more about making connections and leveraging resources than it was 16 years ago. I utilize hyperlinked thinking often, where this would not have been possible at the beginning of my career. Once I might write a story, and it lived in isolation, whereas now I contribute to a web of stories. I can write a single piece and help make connections for my readers by linking related thoughts and ideas, often in the form of my own earlier published stories on their work that they may have long forgotten about. This helps get people thinking about the far-reaching impact that something they did years ago still has today. A volunteer effort, for example, that exists alone is great. But a volunteer effort that one can see occurring year over year, involving more team members, because the reader has hyperlinked access to the bigger picture becomes notable. There is power in something as simple as glancing at the Netvibes outlook that connects the various blogs in my doctoral class. Scanning everyone’s post headlines in one place offers a thought provoking snapshot.
After analyzing all of the above from my own perspective, I do pause. I realize how limited my view is as I catch sight of my husband walking by. He has worked in the fire sprinkler trade for approximately 20 years. Installing pipe requires a hands on approach that cannot be managed virtually and does not benefit much from digital connectivity. We came up short trying to brainstorm possibilities. Perhaps that is failed anticipation, but trying say to imagine someone carrying around a computer that has my husband video conferenced and aiming it toward installation points for instruction feels cumbersome and ineffective. Though the Internet can speed up aspects of his role, the nature of his work is unchanged and he feels unlikely to change. It can be made more convenient, but it cannot be made different. It is dependent on codes, with limited scope for creativity. It requires he physically go to a physical space and physically install the pipes.
So the long answer to a relatively short question is yes and no. The Internet has completely altered the work of some, while it has not much affected, if at all, the work of others. While some of us in some roles and some leaders may benefit from the shortening of long-form thinking, there is no real way around long-form for others (Weinberger, 2011). Predictions from analyst firms such as Gartner (2010) or reporters like Dishman (2016) neither fully help nor hurt. Predictions will never be applicable to everyone or capture everything (McCreary, 2008). They are an attempt to anticipate and narrow a future that may not come to pass. Yet this does not render the exercise of trending useless, there is some value in the opportunity to prepare for a possibility, but the future cannot be known and optimized until it becomes the present.
Dishman, L. (2016, December 15). These are the top 5 workplace trends we’ll see in 2017. Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/3066605/the-future-of-work/these-are-the-top-5-workplace-trends-well-see-in-2017
Goasduff, L. (2010, August 4). Gartner says the world of work will witness 10 changes during the next 10 years. Gartner. Retrieved from http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/1416513
Husband, J. (2017). What is wierarchy? Wirearchy. Retrieved from http://wirearchy.com/what-is-wirearchy/
McCreary, L. (2008, March 10). How I missed the online revolution. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2008/03/how-i-missed-the-online-revolu
Ark, T. A. (2013, September 16). Leadership implications of the brave new blended world. Education Week. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/on_innovation/2013/09/leadership_implications_of_the_brave_new_blended_world.html
Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room [Kindle version]. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/
Weinberger, D. (2014, October 22). David Weinberger and the power of the Internet. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPXmEh24KXA&feature=youtu.be