Cyborgs or Weavers: Let Systems Savvy be Your Guide

MIT's Tom Malone and Wired Magazine's Clive Thompson have new articles out showing the opportunities we have when we use technology either as a mediator of collective human intelligence or as machine intelligence to add to our own. Malone's focuses on the opportunities for decentralization within and across organizational designs. Thompson's speaks to individuals blending their own "smarts with machine smarts" in a form of "cyborgian activity." Both describe the vast differences people have regarding the underlying values of possible new approaches and the differences in awareness regarding the opportunities. One of my goals in this blog is to acknowledge individual differences in technology and organization understanding and help to create awareness for better organizational design. MIT's Tom Malone provided the following in his interview:
So much has been made of the ways that technology has evolved–computation, storage, communication, and now instrumentation—and how it has completely changed what companies can know. As a close observer of all this, do you see executives keeping up? Well, sure, executives and everybody else knows about the new kinds of technologies that keep popping up. But there’s a key perspective that a lot of people don’t really get yet, which is that these new technologies change the essence of organizations. To a greater degree than any technologies since those that enabled the Industrial Revolution, we’re now in the midst of a transformation in how businesses are organized. And the changes are not in production technology, but in coordination technology.
Malone credits Mitch Resnick of the MIT Media Lab for the idea of the centralized mindset describing "a set of often unquestioned assumptions about how to organize things, about how to get things done when you’ve got a bunch of people involved." Malone suggests that most of us are still victims of this mindset and that it limits how we approach ways of organizing. Clive Thompson, speaking of the results of Kasparov's freestyle chess tournament where computer, human, or combined teams could compete, "The most brilliant entities on the planet, in other words (at least when it comes to chess), are neither high-end machines nor high-end humans. They’re average-brained people who are really good at blending their smarts with machine smarts." Thompson continues:
People who are thrilled by personal technology are the ones who have optimized their process — they know how and when to rely on machine intelligence. They’ve tweaked their Facebook settings... trained up the [artificial intelligence] recommendations they get from Apple’s Genius or TiVo. And crucially, they also know when to step away from the screen and ignore the clamor of online distractions. The upshot is that they feel smarter, more focused, and more capable. In contrast, those who feel intimidated by online life haven’t hit that sweet spot. They feel the Internet is making them harried and — as Nicholas Carr suggested in The Atlantic — “stupid.”
Both articles end similarly pointing to the need to better understand how to bring technology and human capabilities together. My own work takes on this challenge. For example, Greg Northcraft and I suggest the following in our chapter, Borgs in the Org?:
  • We need to be assume that practices and structures will change - technologies change, organizational needs change, the people involved change. Our approaches should change, or at least be reevaluated, in sync.
  • We need to grasp organizational realities that may provide or inhibit a particular technology or practice use - organizations have policies about use of technologies within their walls and/or vary in levels of support and availability. Just as we should think about what to take on a trip, we should think about what to take into different technology/organization environments.
  • We must understand that systems integration is a life skill - systems design is not just for information technology designers. We have choices about which phone to use, which applications to work with, etc.
  • We must have an appreciation for when to integrate technology and when to stick with a tech-lite organizational practice. Learning may be better with the metrics provided by a technology -- or using a technology may hide outcomes in a way that reduces our learning. We need to make informed decisions about the best path.
Ironically, we need to learn to weave technology tools, organizational practice, and human capability together to be effective -- even though it was the mechanization of weaving that triggered the Luddite anti-technology movement of the early 1800s. The ability to acknowledge the possibilities across the dimensions of technology, organizations, and people, and then weave them into strong and dynamic organizational design is what distinguishes people with Systems Savvy.  Systems Savvy may be the most powerful skill we have in modern organizations.  Systems Savvy allows us to see our opportunities and make effective decisions about technology, organization, and even basic work process.

Subscribe to Quick Insights You Can Use