Clearly, the natural order of the workplace has changed dramatically with the proliferation of information technology, especially in the past 20 years. The previous parameters of Moore’s law on the evolution of technological innovations has shrunk from centuries and decades to at most years and in some cases months and weeks with the ubiquitous “app” development and fielding cycle. 20 years ago, I had one computer on my desk, no email, and a PSTN phone. Today I have 4 stand alone computers, two of which operate on different networks (total of 6); 3 phones, 2 of which are VOIP enabled; and 3 different video chat/VTC systems. That’s just at work, add the personal devices some of which also connect to work networks as well thus blurring the lines and it’s no secret to see the influence of technology.
Both Husband (2013) and the Gartner (2010) analysis were useful in describing the nature of these circumstances and providing helpful insight on how workers and leaders ought to think about this phenomenon and actions to consider taking to better use the technology to further individual and organizational progress. I agree with the “wirearchy” description as it applies to effective workplace action and the relationships it builds and sustains. I think Husband’s working definition of wirearchy as“…a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology”…is right, except I would change “two-way” to multi-directional/dimensional. I would posit that most of us in our professions and vocations see this happening daily and like any organism is quickly adapting to changes in the environment and growing stronger. This seems to be what the Gartner analysis is describing in the “swarming” descriptor. Swarming is to Gartner what “teaming” is to Google and other innovative technology organizations. This concept is proliferating rapidly into other sectors, and threatens to make traditional command and control institutions (like mine) an anachronism.
So, back to the question of the day, how do leaders contribute to this process; retaining the responsibility of leaders without inhibiting the flow of information, collaboration, networking, and rapid innovation/adaptation? A couple of thoughts. First is the establishment of clear expectations on what the organization is trying to accomplish (mission), a solid description of the broad view of how it ought to get there (vision), some specificity of the way points along the voyage that are definitive enough for all to understand without being too prescriptive or inflexible (goals), and clear delineation of what the team embraces as defining (or not) them as individuals and the larger organization (values). Second and directly related to the first, is empowerment of the workforce to take action and the statement/building/reinforcing trust between and among leaders and workers at every level. Trust is key in this rapid and dynamic world as actions that before might have taken days or weeks now might happen in hours down to milliseconds. Trust also acknowledges that people are able to make decisions, and sometimes make mistakes that leaders need to underwrite. Honest mistakes happen- provide an environment for using a mistake as a means to educate and grow all without retribution and watch how effective the team becomes. Third, there has to be an open and as flat as possible flow of communication that is transparent to all. Chains of authority are not the same as conduits of information. This is where the wirearchy concept is useful. Lastly, leaders must clearly outline the levels of decision authority, reserving only a very few at the highest level and pushing the remainder down the organization as low as possible. This obviously reinforces the other points but I believe is key to effective execution in the flat and wired environment.
Another point in this whole discussion, and one that should be assisted by technology but too often has been inhibited. Leaders need to clearly identify what success means in themselves and their organization. Too often it seems, the addition of more and better information technology is stifling decision-making rather than enabling it-leader wait for more and more information to take action just because it’s available, regardless of whether it’s useful or not. In the military, it’s the difference between information and intelligence (the latter being information that is analyzed, and the useful parts provided to help fill in the answers to critical questions). I read an interesting article about a book written by a professor at Swarthmore that seems to have some insights that might be useful in this regard. The book is titled The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less-How the Culture of Abundance Robs Us of Satisfaction (Barry Schwartz. Harper Perennial, 2005), and the basic premise is that our culture of so many choices in every aspect of life is not producing a feeling of abundance and satisfaction but is further exhausting us. Schwartz says that “Clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress and dissatisfaction-even to clinical depression.” He divides people into two broad categories: Maximizers and Satisfiers. While Maximizer seems like a good descriptor, in this case the Maximizer is one who is seeking only the best; the elusive quest for perfection. The Satisfier on the other hand, seeks a “good-enough” solution without unduly sacrificing standards, understanding that nothing will be perfect. Seems to me, that a Satisfier Leader who can implement effectively the points outlined above will not only be better at using technology to their advantage but will also have an exceptional organization with a motivated team and therefore by extension a superb outcome.