A Conversation at the Crossroads

2002 branzi network society - A Conversation at the Crossroads

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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