Friday, July 19, 2013

Digitally disrupted spaces

I have just returned from Sydney, where I met with my colleagues and industry partners in the Digital Disruption Research Group, which was chaired by Kai Riemer, before attending and presenting at the Community, Work and Family Conference at the University of Sydney. Our conference symposium, chaired by Kristine Dery, also focused on digital disruption, especially as it pertains to 'digitally disrupted spaces,' which my colleagues, Kristine Dery, Pascale Peters and I describe below.

Digital disruption is a term used to describe deep changes to current organisational practices brought about by the digital revolution. “It is a neutral term; a description of what is happening,” according to Deloitte (2012). The digital revolution began with the emergence of the Internet; it was further spurred by the proliferation of mobile technologies and is today taken deep into markets and organisations with the rise of social and cultural changes, such as the wide-spread adoption of social media both outside and inside of organisations. 

Digital disruption affects most organisations in a wide range of industries in a multitude of ways and challenges old paradigms, resulting in new ways of understanding work itself.  Digital innovations open up unprecedented possibilities: changing markets and economies, reinvented relationships between organisations, new ways of understanding relationships with customers and suppliers, and new ways of thinking about our individual ways of doing work. The disruptions caused by these innovations are profound. It is not merely about speeding up communication, it is about fundamental changes to the very nature of consumption, competition and markets. “More profoundly, it is also driving a significant shift in the balance of power between organisations and individuals. The explosion in connectivity and the availability of information is putting today's consumers, employees, citizens, patients and other individuals squarely in the drivers seat” (Deloitte report, p6). 

These paradigm shifts are particularly evident when we consider the disruption caused by mobile connectivity. The growth of smartphones is exponential and continues to maintain momentum with somewhere between 650-730 million devices sold globally in 2012 ( a 40-45% increase on 2011) with further growth expected in 2013 (albeit at a lower growth rate). Currently, more processors are produced for mobile devices than for PCs, marking the end of the PC era. Mobile technology has enabled new ways of working: increased mobility of workers and of work itself, increased flexibility around when and how work is performed, new understandings of what is work and non-work, and new ways to connect through a multiplicity of channels including social media. Engagement with these new technologies has resulted in practices that challenge our understanding of spaces and the traditional boundaries between work and non-work.

Digitally disrupted spaces refers to the way in which technologies, in particular mobile technologies, have redefined our way of understanding the nature of work and the increasingly permeable boundaries between work and non-work activities. For some the disruption represents a nirvana where the workplace is individualised according to professional and personal needs, while for others the redefining of spaces has resulted in work seeping into all corners of life and is met with resentment and burnout. The digital disruption itself, however, is evident in all corporate arenas. Our challenge is to understand more about what this disruption means, how we are redefining work space, and how we can better manage new ways of working to achieve effective outcomes for the organisation and the employees.

Given its technological, organisational and social nature, research in this field requires inter-disciplinary research efforts Our symposium pulled together researchers from Australia, New Zealand, UK and Europe who have been looking at the impacts of mobile connectivity in organisations aver the past 5-10 years. We share a particular interest in the impact of mobile connectivity on new ways of doing work from a range of different perspectives. 

Clare Kelliher’s work on remote workers examined the way in which work space is being redefined as technology increasingly enables work to be taken into spaces traditionally used for recreational or personal use. Her findings suggest that it is individually constructed routines rather than physical office space that establishes “work space” and this has significant implications for the management of remote workers. 

Kristine Dery and I examined the effects of mobile connectivity in high performing work environments, in particular the factors that influence how executives interact with technology to define their work and non-work spaces, challenging the idea that workspace is clearly defined and something from which executives connect and disconnect, but rather we suggest that a process of 'connective flow' is used to create a more individualised understanding of work space, which is more fluidly aligned with non-work space. 

Pascale Peters and her colleagues in The Netherlands challenge our understanding of boundaries, suggesting that the apparent paradox between being flexible and establishing boundaries between work and non-work time and space, is critical to the effective management of more flexible work spaces. In their quantitative study of Dutch workers adopting 'New Ways of Work,' they found that there were significant benefits to those who adopted ‘bounded flexibility strategies’ to manage digitally disrupted spaces. 

Thinking about digital space and 'flow,' I revisited Manuel Castells' commentary and theorizing on the notion of 'spaces as flows' in his classic volumes on the Network Society.  Writing more recently, Castells observes that, 'Space does not reflect society, it expresses it.'  Thus, if we are living in a network society as Castells suggests, then our use of space--for work, play and family--is an expression of that networked society.  If we look at the spaces and places where people are working ('homes on the run as much as offices on the run'), instead of disruption and fragmentation, through the lens of a networked society, we see individual actors connecting, disconnecting and reconnecting within networks (social, professional and community) then we see 'flow.'

Castells sums it up as follows, '...the key reminder is that we move physically while staying put in our electronic connection.  We carry flows and move across places.'   He also wisely adds that, 'moving physically while keeping the network connection to everything we do is a new realm of the human adventure, one about which we know little' (2005, p. 54).


Castells, M. (2005). 'Space of flows, space of places: Materials for a theory of urbanism in the information age.' In Sanyal Bishwapriya (Ed.) Comparative Planning Cultures.  New York: Routledge, pp. 45-66.

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