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A Conversation at the Crossroads

By: Chuck Piazza | 19 Apr | 3 comments


In the 1990s, Manuel Castells was extensively describing the "network society" that was emerging due to the Internet and modern digital technology. During this same time period, Howard Rheingold was promoting the value of virtual communities and charting how mobile information technology was enabling people to quickly organize to create movements and collaboratively take social action. In the early 2000s, Rob Cross was profiling organizational social networks, describing how they enable effective decision making and task completion if properly designed.

Recent world political events, the continued emergence of the transnational company with its global workforce, and the ubiquitous nature of social media as a central component of modern communication and social relationships indicate how integrated these trends have become in our individual and collective psyches. Fundamentally, they are transforming how we understand ourselves as citizen, friend, community member, and worker. They are reshaping the way we live and work.

For example, the current information-driven and knowledge-powered organizational culture continues to give rise to various types of workplace structures and processes that are comprised of weaving people and technology into a web of adaptive networks. Today, information is not only more accessible, but knowledge is readily shared, generated and applied without regard to time and geographical boundaries. Through this collaborative networking, an organization can easily tap its inherent intelligence, utilizing it to understand and analyze complex situations, innovatively problem-solve difficult issues, and quickly make organizational shifts to respond to market changes.

Such interactive connectivity created by digital information, communication, and collaboration technology (or ICCT) applications, particularly mobile technology, is giving rise to the notion of "social business" where employees are connected 24/7 and are able to hold conversations where ever and whenever they are needed. Their workplace is not bounded by an office building.

Cisco Systems in their 2011 Cisco Connected World Technology Report states that the upcoming generation of workers who were raised with the Internet and mobile technology are seeking an interactive social media-based work environment. For some this is more important than the salary amount they will receive when considering a job.

So it is a given that we now live and work in a technologically networked society and workplace, and there is no way to return to the past, even if one wanted to. But, what form it takes is up to us. We can consciously take responsibility for shaping the future networked society and technological workplace by formulating the principles that undergird organizational models and the values that guide technological applications. 

In The Unfinished Revolution, the late MIT scholar Michael Dertouzos stated that technology and its application is to serve the people who use it and not vice versa. It is to fit their life and work style and to improve the quality of their livelihood. He called this approach "human-centric computing." Saybrook University has a unique opportunity to not only engage in this challenging conversation, but actively contribute to crafting a vision of technology and it social and organizational applications from such a human-centric perspective.

Some students at Saybrook University are already participating in this conversation and solution creation by designing innovative organizational models and processes rooted in systems thinking principles, humanistic values, and sustainability approaches. Among them are the students in a course titled "Organizations as Sociotechnical Systems." Their contributions range from examining how natural ecologies can provide models for sociotechinical systems to actively engaged knowledge sharing work environments, to strategically using inquiry in applying technologically generated information in political campaigns, to examining ways to pass on practical wisdom to the future workforce via facilitated inter-generational virtual mentoring opportunities.

In his post "Innovation as Tension Resolution," Jay Cone stated that "innovation…means getting someone to use what you create. It's about turning interesting ideas into useful ideas." Blogs are to present ideas in an interactive manner that encourage conversations that critically reflect upon the notions outlined or solve the problems presented. They are about dynamic exploration, co-creation, and application.

In light of the above, the Rethinking Complexity blog begins an experiment to create an ongoing dialogue pursued by a community of interest. The overall goal is to devise ways that technology can be designed and utilized for it highest purpose—the serving of the common good by enhancing the quality of life and work and by creating a sustainable future for all. Nancy Southern’s post "Emergent Change in K-12 Education" is a very fine example of this point regarding technology’s vital role in learning.

This conversation is not merely focused on exploring the issues created by technology and how they affect us all, but about:

  • Collaboratively identifying the needed underlying sociotechnical concepts for a human-centric and sustainable use of technology; and then
  • Practically applying them to current situations in society and organizations.

So check out the links in this post and reflect upon the viewpoints they present. Then watch for the upcoming blogs on this theme and join the conversation.

I look forward to discussing the topics related to this issue with you and to collaborating on designing solutions that create a sustainable networked world and vibrant future.

Read other posts by Chuck Piazza

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Comments and Discussions

In his blog, Chuck challenges

In his blog, Chuck challenges us to “consciously take responsibility for shaping the future networked society and technological workplace” by clearly defining the values, principles and practices that may guide us as human participants in a cybernetic world. This is a timely discussion to be having, and I think it is important that we begin with a reflection on how the process of critical reflection itself, including our quintessentially human capacity for open, generative dialogue, may itself be impacted by rapid adoption of digital technology across various domains of human activity.

Given that this is a very large topic, I will share just a few initial thoughts to move the conversation forward: Our current media technologies allow us to be much more interactive in the ways that we select and take in information. As we make choices, such as which web links to bookmark, which groups to join on Linkedin or Facebook, or which conversations to follow on Twitter, we tend to favor content that complements our existing views or reinforces our existing beliefs about the world. For those of us who still watch TV, we process the daily “news” in the same way, selecting from among hundreds of channels for those reporters and pundits who construe events and render opinions in ways that reflect our own pre-existing views on any given matter. Once we find those complementary voices, we can program our receivers to filter out all contrary opinions. Similarly, when we use web browsers, search engines and social networking sites to find and retrieve information, we enter into a sort of information bubble, where commercial interests are able to gather data about our search preferences and use it to deliver responses that such interests deem to be in line with our pre-existing social preferences and consumer habits. In other words, as we are become more connected, we are also becoming more selected. In the organizational context, as in society in general, the emergence of affinity groups as enclaves of selective information processing and cultural bias can be quite problematic.

In the language of systems thinking, participation in today’s highly connected and interactive media culture has assumed the dynamic characteristics of a self-reinforcing causal loop. We obtain continuous validation and reinforcement of our worldviews within digitally-constructed information bubbles, even as we become less and less able to make sense of the contrary views of those who occupy bubbles that are different from our own. At the individual level, this process of selective information processing is described by Peter Senge (1990) as a “ladder of inference” wherein our ability to take in new information is delimited by self-perpetuating hidden assumptions and beliefs that comprise a continuous loop of perception and inference, leading to rigidity of thought and action. At the global level, a similar technologically driven balkanization of worldviews in the cybersphere may be emerging with dangerous implications.

A few years ago, I was mostly concerned that global connectivity might lead to global hegemony and loss of cultural diversity. However, today, I believe the greater risk is that we might lose our ability to find common ground on the basis of our common humanity. Therefore, as Chuck suggests, it is time for us to pause and consider how best to ensure that we protect and nurture our humanity, including our human capacities for critical inquiry, genuine dialogue, self-transformation, cultural revisioning, and collaborative problem solving, all within the context of an increasingly cybernetic world.

So where do we start? I believe we must start with ourselves, that is to say, by inquiring into what it means to be human in an increasingly virtual world. Today, especially in the realm of information processing, we are functioning as highly networked cybernetic beings at levels of temporal and spatial scale that are unprecedented in the history of our species. In this context, can we safely afford to think of ourselves as solely biological beings? Can we beneficially assume the existence of a bright line between the natural and the synthetic? I think not! As we co-evolve with our technology, we must learn to see the natural in the synthetic, and to work with and through our technologies in participatory and mindful ways that mimic the functioning of healthy natural ecosystems. The emerging field of biomimicry offers principles and practices that might guide us well in this area.

I submit that, as we enter this timely dialogue about the implications of living in a cybernetic world, we have an opportunity to attend to some unfinished business: the legacy of the very industrial culture that brought us to our current crossroads of promise and peril. We must undertake the business of healing the separation between humans and nature; of guiding our human designs to reflect the wisdom embodied in naturally-evolved, and infinitely complex, systems of abundance within limits.
-- Brett Joseph

Generational changes in SocioTechnical Systems

I am highly intrigued by the idea of a paradox within out current work evironments. Technoloy is changing the way, or method by which we communicate and in some cases, creating a divide between generations that are not evolving as quickly as others towards the constantly transforming mediums of communication. Another perspective suggests maybe the generations, not necessarily the technology, is what is driving the change in communications. Forever pressured for new and innovative ways to differentiate individual self AND expand inrinsic and extrinsic values can be motivation enough for the younger generation to push for the "human-centric computing" Dr. Piazza speaks to above.

I have the honor of mentoring several Millennial think-tank groups within organizations that are attacking complex issues within the work environment. This generation is very excited about the possibility of the future and wants to make significant impacts in the environment and social structures in our world. They are in-tune to the separation between profit driven and social/environmental motives within organizations. However, a re-occuring theme is how do they get the older generations to engage to help them make up the gap in knowledge that cannot be found on Facebook or You Tube, without being told what is not possible. They understand those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it, but some do not have a grasp on how to ask the right questions. Who of us did in our twenties (or 30s, 40s... for that matter)? I believe mentorship is going to be critical not only to bridge the gap, but also to help this generation reach their full potential. I agree with Dr. Piazza's dialog that technology is a tool to serve this relationship. but we cannot shirk our responsiblity to provide the authentic value in the content. If the motives of all parties (mentor, mentee and sponsoring organization) are alighned to the common goal of passing legacy and creating a space to expand into the unknown, we have an incredible chance for profound transformation in all aspects of our society, not just business. However, if we allow mentoring to be a method of control or conduit for propoganda, we may be doomed to repeat unsavory history.

Knowledge Management in US Navy

Chuck's introduction into this ongoing dialogue touches on many of the concepts that are seminal to sustaining a sociotechnically (STS) savvy society in the US, and by extension, into the rest of the world. In my initial studies into the field of STS, I have begun to concentrate on Knowledge Management, or KM, as a critical aspect of the field. KM is critical to me because my work with synthetic, distributed training for the US Navy hinges on the often abused principle of "The right information to the right place at the right time."

KM must consider many factors, most of which have very little to do with digital technology whatsoever. In my position as a Technical Director, I have far more decisions to make, actions to advise, and architectures to implement that depend more on the training culture than on the technological systems they employ. This field, reminiscent of Chuck's "human centric computing," has been dubbed "Network Centric Warfare" (NCW), and now requires a team of experts who are concerned not only with the proper technology to use, but also how that technology can be employed to present the most advantageous information to the users: this team enables NCW largely through the application of KM--not only the digital technologies, but the humans who must wield them in NCW.

As I note in one of my essays: One of the keys to managing knowledge is, of course, open communication—in military jargon “distribution”--of information throughout an organization. This communication, especially when assisted or perhaps entirely enabled by technologies, must pass through the boundaries of these systems with appropriate speed and appropriate focus. In other words, KM must consider not only the operating systems which first gather the data (then analyzed to provide information that is then evaluated to become knowledge), but also the systems into which it must be sent for the proper eventual decision-making to occur.

This process, of course, is not limited to the military's NCW, but is also applied in distributed operations within the corporate world. Many digital tools have been developed and fielded to help businesses execute KM as well. For example, NetMeeting, GoToMeeting, Sharepoint, and more.

And these are only a glimpse into the current and future development of KM in the business world.

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