Technology and Organizations
In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson provides a fictionalized account of the architecture tasks (as well as serial killing) related to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Trains (a crucial technology in the modernization of business), enabled a distributed group of architects to participate in this world changing event (e.g., extension of the “raft” foundation enabling skyscrapers, the ultimate choice of AC v DC electricity).
Modern technology has enabled a thinning of physical organizational boundaries. I’d like to highlight three organizations that use modern technology infrastructure to enable creative organizational forms by reducing traditional space and time constraints. These examples may be useful in your own settings, or spur you to consider additional opportunities – which I hope you will share with the rest of us via the comments section below.
The Internet is likely a more valuable lever to most of us than are the trains mentioned above. Many modern jobs include work process/product that is amenable to electronic presentation/transport. The point is that technology can provide access to the market and reduce transaction costs, but that this is even easier to the extent that the work itself has a strong electronic component.
I met the principals of oDesk, my first example company, at the 2007 Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco. The 2008 Web 2.0 Expo was last week and I was happy to see them again. They describe oDesk as “..an online staffing marketplace and management platform that provides a convenient way to hire, manage, and pay individuals no matter where they are located.” “Certified professionals. Verified work.” What initially caught my eye was their “filmstrip view of work performed.”
In 1984 I started studying telecommuting. A common lament among managers was that they couldn’t manage without being able to see the work being done – and thus an increased emphasis on electronic monitoring (my term, not oDesk’s). I think the “The Work Diary” – that’s oDesk’s term – provides monitoring as a service versus a more punitive form of monitoring. (For more on the distinctions, see my chapter on monitoring entitled “Social and Technical Aspects of Electronic Monitoring: To Protect and To Serve,” paraphrasing the motto of the LA PD.)
oDesk uses the Internet as a foundation to enable virtual work. They bring together organizations and web/software developers, QA specialists, etc by providing a platform for hiring, managing, and paying professionals from around the world. They are happy to share their results (including a live “oConomy” tracker), so expect to see more about oDesk as I get to know them better.
Pixel Corps, a guild of media developers is my second example. As a “guild” they train both face to face and in a distributed form. They provide low cost licenses of expensive software to their membership via relationships with vendors. Their infrastructure allows for global distribution of the work – including to the developing world. They create on-line “challenges” to extend learning and allow the guild members to get experience working on group projects through “peer to peer learning”. Their website provides a clear description of their approach and goals
Production companies have already begun to use the Pixel Corps as a resource for staffing. As we grow and if we are successful in our training and networking, we could become the most direct route to work. Our growing membership alone offers a building network of freelancers able to trade work among themselves.
The Pixel Corps is not about simply collecting current computer artists... It’s about providing access to anyone interested in the field...Enthusiasts with little interest in a fulltime career, graphic artists migrating to greener pastures, visual effects artists keeping up with an ever-changing field, educators staying current with industry trends, Students augmenting their schooling, and those who can’t afford traditional schooling but still have the will and drive to enter the industry.
We are committed to collecting these individuals, training them to be the best in the world, organizing them to work more efficiently than any other group in the world, providing them with the benefits of collected effort and, together, taking over the industry... and while many will struggle in a changing economy and quickly shifting market, our members will drive the change rather than wait for it to come to them.
And this perfect statement regarding the social construction of this style of learning and work: “The easiest way to predict the future is to create it.”
Guilds are foundational to skilled work. The Oxford English Dictionary places the origin in medieval times. Pixel Corps has reinvigorated this organizational form based on the ability to learn and work virtually. But even televised sports coverage, something which requires the camera and the action to be physically together, has been enabled by Internet infrastructures.
At the Pacific Life Open in Palm Springs, CA, I had the pleasure of a seat directly behind the baseline, such a good seat that it was also where the main TV camera was set up on that court. After four hours of great tennis, I'd had ample opportunity to study the equipment and chat with the cameraman. What made the experience interesting in terms of this post was the European phone numbers on the camera which was being operated by a local freelance cameraman. Each piece of the equipment had a barcode and the name of the equipment rental company, in this case from the UK. A TV network had rented the gear, hired the contractor, and was then providing the video from this secondary court (often where the best action is) to other networks. Contracting was enabled via the Internet.
While this contracting approach to media has been around for decades, it is facilitated and spread via current technologies.
Questions: What other organizational forms are offered by broadly available technologies? What are the trade-offs and/or management shifts your firm has had to make to gain value from these new forms? What happens when you try to make a change to a new style of technology-enabled work, but do not make changes in how the work is managed?
Technology AND Organizations: Value from Intertwining Organizational Practices, Technology Features, and Implementation Actions
My colleagues and I recently published an article making the following point (paraphrasing): Dealing with social and technological systems of organizations in concert, which was a critical part of sociotechnical systems theory in the 1950’s, is an approach that we need to rediscover because information technology has become inextricably intertwined with social relationships in weaving the fabric of organization.
That point describes my perspective and that which underlies each of the posts in this blog (like these examples). However, in talking with some readers, I realized I had never explicitly described the background for this lens.
The basic idea is that implementing a new technology or organizational practice is effective only to the extent that practices and technologies arejointly considered as part of the overall design and implementation. Many change failures are the result of a “magic” or “silver bullet” approach where there is an assumption that simply adopting a new technology or practice will have a determined benefit (Markus and Benjaminprovide an excellent overview) -- For example, thinking that building a team portal for sharing documents and ideas will result in greater team collaboration. However, no silver bullet for integrating technology with organizational practice has yet to be discovered and without this integration is it unlikely that benefits will be realized.
A team portal may have no benefit if the team isn't involved in an overall evolution of practice at the same time as a new tool is designed and implemented. Sometimes it's a team's practice that needs to adjust with the opportunity to use a new technology tool. Sometimes it's a new technology that needs to support a team's new practice. Ideally, both are being considered at once.
The following are links to some of my key sources (my own work in this area is best represented in “Technology Features as Triggers for Sensemaking” and "Why New Technologies Fail: Overcoming the Invisibility of Implementation").
Technology as an Occasion for Structuring: Evidence from Observations of CT Scanners and the social order of radiology departments
Bijker, Pinch, & Hughes
The Social Construction of Technological Systems
DeSanctis and Poole
Capturing the Complexity in Advanced Technology Use: Adaptive Structuration Theory
Jasperson, Carter, & Zmud
A Comprehensive Conceptualization of the Post-Adoptive Behaviors Associated with IT-Enabled Work Systems
The Duality of Technology: Rethinking the Concept of Technology in Organizations
Technology as Equivoque: Sensemaking in New Technologies
Organization Science Special Issue: Information Technology and Organizational Form and Function
“..43 Folders, Merlin Mann’s family of websites about stuff like personal productivity, life hacks, and simple ways to make your life a little better.” Lifehacker “features tips, shortcuts, and downloads that help you get things done smarter and more efficiently.” Both of these blogs provide great tips on a variety of topics – often stretching how you might think about using the technology you have and use everyday (i.e., duct tape and twine).
In this post I apply the same perspective to helping groups get things done just a little bit easier – without having to learn or buy new tools.
Recently I posted about the kinds of things groups might gain from visualization of their processes. The more I thought about it, the more I thought there might be lower hanging fruit – actions that are a touch easier to apply and still may provide great benefit in your teams.
A friend of mine runs a weekly conference call managing a medium sized project. She sends out an email including the agenda and an email attachment of the prior meeting’s minutes. She runs the call and takes careful notes as the meeting progresses. After the call she spends at least 90 minutes creating the post meeting notes (minutes), formatting, and the like. Good for her and the team that they have an agenda for the call. Basic team meeting 101 – otherwise how can people have access to the material they will need to contribute, when they need to contribute it?
Where I think there is low hanging fruit is in the minutes: If the team rotated who took notes (perhaps using the agenda as the base for the notes) – and more importantly, took notes in a way that all could see them as they were being taken, they would gain at least four benefits.
First, the real time nature of the notes provides visualization of what one member thinks is being said. The rest of the team can then chime in with corrections, elaborations, agreement to action items and the like. There is stronger engagement as the team is going to be held to their immediate agreement about the outcomes of the meeting.
Second, once the meeting is over, value added work can begin, rather than spending time typing up notes from work that has now past.
Third, since the team lead isn’t trying to take notes and run the meeting, both activities should be of higher quality.
Fourth, the minutes are a living document versus an attachment that seems to just get archived and not looked at again. Free tools that might make this work: Any wiki (depending on your need for privacy, you might pay a monthly fee – see WikiMatrix for a list of many options), or Google Sites.
Certainly there are caveats: For example, how comfortable will people be at having their initial typos and typing speed observed? In this last sentence I had to backspace for corrections twice (coffee hasn’t kicked in yet…) For this issue I do think there will need to be some social adjustments as well as the technical and practice ones. See my comment on “alpha drafts” – short version is that perhaps we can adjust our expectations for real time versus finished product.
My colleagues and I were running a four-hour workshop at this year’s HICSS conference. We had about 50 people in the audience and were hoping for an interactive event. We’d also put together a wiki (with multiple pages so multiple people could contribute at the same time) with the idea that people would add to the wiki as the discussion progressed.
It became clear that this wiki mode wasn’t working (I have successfully used this “live” wiki approach at another conference, but it didn't work this time – another possible post topic). Instead of forcing the wiki, I started taking notes on the presentation PowerPoint slides. We had created a simple set of slides to lead the discussion so it was easy to just add the notes from the computer running the presentation – and then all the room could see them and elaborate. It was then a simple task to cut and paste those notes into the wiki after the session ended.
Three take away points and a question: 1. Simplify the meeting process by doing note documentation during the meeting rather than taking up time after the fact – yes it may make the meeting a bit longer, but I think the benefits will outweigh the cost. 2. Engaging participants in the live creation of a single set of notes enhances engagement, and provides an opportunity for elaboration, action item creation, and error correction. 3. When the notes are a live work product they are more likely to be recycled – the whole group created them (generating greater commitment and understanding) and will be more likely to effectively search for the content when needed.
Question: Given the ubiquitousness of powerpoint and projection in large meetings, why ever use a flipchart or whiteboard? Flipchart sheets, for example, are then either transcribed (adding effort), or thrown away. While they provide the value of the “at the moment” representation of the group’s thinking, their value sharply decreases after the meeting. Electronic notes can work face to face or in a virtual setting, can be searched and archived without additional effort. (For smaller meetings or cases where you don’t have access to projection, a variety of products let you easily – and in some cases for free – take a picture of the notes on the whiteboard, chalkboard, flipchart, marble tablet that you were using and through OCR have that material transformed into searchable notes. I’m just beginning to use Evernote (free) for this purpose.)
Thank you to Michael Griffith (my brother and Director, Application Development Group for the U of A College of Medicine) for comments on an earlier draft.