The Changing Nature of the Web and Technology

I consider myself to be somewhat of an oddity in my field.  As the head of an IT organization at a small, private, four-year college, I do not have the typical resume that you might expect to find for such an individual.  My undergraduate education was in Biology and I have been working throughout higher education in fields such as undergraduate admissions, advancement, and institutional research for over a decade.  Yet, prior to nine months ago, had never worked in an IT department.  To say it has been a learning experience for both me and my staff would be an understatement.  While I believe I embrace technology, I also feel very strongly regarding the need to prioritize in-person conversation and require my employees to focus their efforts not only on innovation and efficiency, but also on customer service and education.  While the world is changing rapidly with the use of technology it is my strong belief that technology should not simply replace and remove the other ways in which we communicate, solve problems, and be innovative contributors to our fields and to society.

Friedman (2005) provided a compelling argument for how technology has increased the pace in which globalization is occurring.  He wrote of the process of information exchange that now occurs over the web in a manner that frankly dictates the daily lives of many across the world.  While his book and the forces that he described as being relevant to the world’s flattening are still relevant today in my view, I believe that in the twelve years since the book was published, some of the forces have exploded and now carry greater weight than others.

Friedman (2005) referred to personal digital devices as “steroids” that allow people to access information.  Interestingly, his examples are now twelve years old and do not refer to smart phones, tablets, and other technology that is now visible in many US homes and offices.  Technology consultant Gartner projects that the number of internet connected devices will soar to over twenty billion by 2020.  Estimates from Statista show that that figure could be greatly exceeded.  This includes devices Friedman may not even dreamed of just twelve short years ago.  The weight of the steroids and the In-forming, as Friedman called it, carry great weight and the ability to influence the world economy, business practices, and politics.  From peer-reviewed journals to social media to this blog itself, information is available and ready to be consumed whether or not it is accurate and will positively contribute to change.  Friedman is accurate though when describing the world as flat in that traditional borders are no longer the same as they once were.

Borders, however, do still exist.  They are no longer the traditional lines we see on a map, but instead the way in which the global community grows, excels, and benefits from advances in technology and accessibility to information and innovation. Florida (2005) argued that the world is spiky rather than flat when you consider the concentrated nature of innovation and growth in cities and urban areas compared to rural communities.  He argued that while information is more accessible to the world’s population, the innovation centers still necessitate that those who innovate from around the world will need to do so in the economic growth centers.

I believe Florida (2005) scope was too narrow when describing innovation as he used patent applications as his data point.  Innovation and efficiency exist throughout the world in ways that do not require a patent or the need to manufacture a product.  I do agree with his assertion regarding the world and use of technology as spiky, however, particularly with his comparison to the global economy.  While both technology and personal wealth are greater than they were 100, 50, or even 25 years ago, the disparity between those at the top of the global economy and those at the bottom is similar to the gap we see in technology and innovation.  While Friedman (2005) was correct when he described greater access to information than the world has ever seen, Florida (2005) is equally correct in describing growing inequality.

So, what does this all mean for business, humanity, and leadership?  Bostrom (2015) provided listeners at his TED talk with a comparison of the speed and power in which computers can function in modern-day technology in comparison to the human brain and said that the limits of computers and potential for super intelligence is limited only by matter itself.  As leaders, I believe we must embrace the power and potential of technology and what it can help us achieve, but also recognize the economic and social disparities that technology can create in a spiky world Florida (2005)Bostrom (2015) shared an important point that leaders would be wise to adhere to when he stated that if you are going to try and optimize technology to meet your objective, you must ensure that your definition of the objective incorporates all that is important to you as a leader.  As a leader, that is worth a significant amount of reflection each time we sacrifice the human contribution as a means to achieving our objectives.

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6 thoughts on “The Changing Nature of the Web and Technology

  1. As I read your opening that you are non-traditional as the head of an IT department, I thought back to the 1980’s when the Japanese management process was the rage. The Japanese groomed future leaders by having them experience multiple departments, becoming in effect well rounded as leaders. As a military person at the time, this resonated with me, because my naval career was similar, rotating between ships and shore assignments. I grew to be a leader that could see multiple aspects of problems … and people.

    Last year, I read two books that had me rethinking how I approached this course. Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots suggests we are doomed, while Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable suggests we should embrace the coming change (and listen to what the machines are telling us). As we move through the next 8 weeks, I will be interested in how you and your classmates gravitate to these two views.

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  2. Thank you for your comments, Dr. Watwood. I truly believe that my varied experience within higher education has served me well. In particular, it has allowed me to work more easily with people with vastly different backgrounds, experiences, and personalities. As you know, those who work in IT departments are a different breed from most. Learning from them though has been one of the most exciting and eye-opening phases of my career. I am truly fortunate to have entered this world.

    I will certainly put both of the books you listed on my reading list. Just looking at the titles and your brief descriptions, I suspect most people fall somewhere in the middle. I refuse to believe that we are doomed and do not have control over our own destinies. However, I also look to embrace the changes that we are creating through technology and innovation, frequently trying to determine how I can utilize it to improve my own destiny and that of my organization.

    Thanks again,
    The Ayes Have It

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  3. Matt,

    I could not agree with you more in your comments concerning growing inequities. It seems to me that though the reach of various technologies continues to expand it is not doing so in a way that is equal around the global. An interesting article I came across from 2014 in the MIT Technology Review (https://www.technologyreview.com/s/531726/technology-and-inequality/) offered a few interesting takes on the subject we are discussing this week. One of which discusses the loss of the middle class due to the increasing improvements to technology specifically in “spiky” areas such as Silicon Valley. One of the comments in the article pointed to the fact that some jobs are being replaced or eliminated because they can be completed with the use of technology. I appreciated your comment regarding the need for the people, but it seems leaders continue to be asked to do more with fewer resources. How do leaders balance keeping people and maximizing the bottom line by using technology to streamline and potentially reduce “people costs?”

    Jason

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  4. Hi Jason,

    It looks like I didn’t do a very good job staying anonymous on this blog! Your points and those you discussed from the MIT Technology Review article are extremely valid. I witnessed the department I now lead have its numbers reduced because of the belief that cost savings and the use of technology was more imporant than the people themselves. What do we find though when we have finished letting technology replace what we do today? I believe we will find two things. First, we will be humans who strive for collaborative innovation, help, and assistance. We will still continue to seek out others who can allow us to build and expand in ways in which we previously thought not possible. Human imagination and innovation can never truly be replaced in my view. The second is more on the hard truth side of things. We are going to need to adapt and realize that the jobs we have known and the tasks we have performed may no longer be necessary. It will be our job as leaders to identify new needs and new skillsets to seek out in our employees. We will still need people to interpret technological advancements and what they allow our businesses and society to seek out next. The rapid nature in which this will continue to occur will make many of us nervous, but we must embrace it to avoid being left behind.

    Best,
    The Ayes Have It

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  5. I have to agree with the first paragraph of your post. It is important to root technology use with good old face to face communication when possible. One of the classes I teach is Interpersonal Communication. When my students discuss relationship development, it seems technology is always an important driver of relationship formation. One of my students said, “you know how close you are to someone based on social media platforms.” He went on to say “if someone says follow me on Twitter, they have no interest in really knowing you, but if you connect on all the social media platforms and they still want your number to text, then they are your friend.” As I listened to the student explain the social media hierarchy and his fellow students agree with his observations, I could not help but think of the profound shift that has occurred as a result of computer-mediated communication. The Pew Center for Research by Lenhart, Anderson, & Smith (2015) said 59% of teens reported social media helped with relationship maintenance. Specifically, teens feel social media help them feel connected to their significant other.

    Shelli
    Lenhart, A., Anderson, M. and Smith, A (2015). Social media and romantic relationships. The Pew Center for Research. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/01/social-media-and-romantic-relationships/

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