Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Inaugural lecture - Introduction, thanks, why 'connectivity'?

Darl G. Kolb
Professor of Connectivity
Inaugural Lecture
University of Auckland Business School
15 September 2015
Connectivity isn’t everything
(but it’s almost everything)
Connectivity underpins almost every aspect of contemporary life.  From toddlers with tablets and texting teens to smartphone addicts and the Internet of things, we are increasingly able to be connected anytime/anywhere.  But, ubiquitous and near-constant connectivity also comes with a price of fragmented attention, blurred work/non-work boundaries, and even (ironically) social isolation. The democratization of information and media is shifting power to the consumer of everything from hotels to hospitals, amidst unprecedented threats to privacy and security. Moreover, digitization, automation and machine-to-machine connectivity are changing work and organizations, and disrupting extant business models. Socio-technical theories have explained the interaction between humans and machines in the past, but we need new ways to think about information and computing tools that literally go with us everywhere we go. The conceptual and practical challenges are great, but increasing connectivity also brings extraordinary opportunities for news ways of working, innovative business models that can succeed from anywhere, and enhanced personal performance and well-being.


Thank you all for being here today. 

What some people won’t do for a glass of Goldie wine on a Tuesday afternoon. J

As some of you may know, the tradition here at Auckland is to give this lecture in academic regalia.  I like the tradition and my Cornell regalia, but the gown may have to go if it gets too warm in here.

One more caveat on format.  This is an inaugural lecture, not an inaugural TED Talk and while I normally admire and aspire to deliver TED-type talks, I can’t do that for 40 minutes, so if you’re expecting a TED Talk, this will be twice as long and half as entertaining. J

Before I begin, I would like to say a few words of thanks to those who have played a role in my being here today. To Stuart for the cool title.  To the Deans, Alastair (MacCormick), Barry (Spicer) and Greg (Whittred), all of whom have encouraged and supported me in different ways over the years.

To the many great academic and professional colleagues within the School, many of whom are here today.  Thanks for making this such a great place to work for nearly 24 years.  To every teacher who put up with me in class, thanks for your patience and encouragement! And, to my students over the years who have challenged and also contributed to my understanding.

To my parents who encouraged me to go out and see the world, knowing that I might not come back home. And, last, but certainly not least, many thanks to my wife, Joline Francoeur, who pulled me back into the raft in the middle of a rapid 36 years ago and who has helped keep me afloat in many ways ever since.

It is an honour to be giving this inaugural lecture, not just as a Professor of the Graduate School of Management, of which I am very proud, but as the first Professor of Connectivity.  I imagine many of you are wondering what a professor of connectivity does.  Some think I might fix their wireless router, but I am not that kind of doctor. In this talk, I hope to explain what this Professor of Connectivity does.  And, maybe inspire others to join me in this emerging field.

But, first, having lived in New Zealand for 23 years, I have come to appreciate the Maori concept of ‘whakapapa,’ that is introducing yourself, not by your credentials or achievements, but where you come from.  Where is your mountain.  Where is your river.  Where is the place and who are the people that brought you here and shaped who you are.

I grew up on a farm in Western Maryland.  My mountains are the Allegheny Mountains and my river is the Youghegeny River.  The significance of this place was that it was relatively isolated, geographically and socially, but we had a strong connection to the land, something I will return to later in this talk.

The other significant mountain in my life is Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Alaska.  Climbing Denali, the highest peak in North America, at the age of 28 was a life dream, and it gave me the confidence to pursue another life dream, which was getting my PhD. 

The thing about climbing Denali and running the Grand Canyon and working month-long wilderness courses in the Colorado mountains or the Chihuahuan Desert was that I was fortunate to experience considerable isolation.  Such experiences are rare today.   I will also return to the importance of ‘solitude’ later in this talk.

So, these are some of the places and experiences I bring with me to this place and time.  Speaking of time, maybe I should get on with the talk. J

Why connectivity?

You may wonder how I came to be interested in the subject of ‘connectivity.’  Well, at the end of the 1990s, I was in the market for a new and ‘enduring problem’ to research. And, so it occurred to me that New Zealand had this problem with distance, which ironically seemed more pronounced after the World Wide Web and the tech boom of the 1990s. I decided that ‘managing distance’ would be my ‘enduring problem.’  So, I began reading the sociology of globalisation and the organizational literature on ‘distance.’ 

A turning point, however, was when my friend Deb Shepherd said to me after a research seminar I had given, ‘Distance is not a problem for most people in the world.  What about looking at the positive side of connectivity?’  And, that turn has made all the difference! Thanks, Deb!

Literature landmarks

From my Inaugural Lecture, 15 September 2015

Title: 'Connectivity isn't everything (but it's almost everything)'

Landmarks in the Literature
While all social science disciplines are concerned with human connections, there are three (3) landmarks in the literature that underpin my work.  These are information theory, social network theory and structuration theory and its variations.

In 1937, Claude Shannon, while a student at MIT, produced what has been called the most influential Masters thesis of the 20th Century. Published in 1938, it contained what we now call ‘information theory,’ the proposition that any and all data can be expressed in binary terms, of zeros (0s) and ones (1s).  Information theory made way for digitization, which underpins, just about everything we experience nowadays. It is estimated that a duodecillion, that’s 10 to the 39th power (1039), zero/one switches take place every second of every day, but that figure seems low to me. :-)

If information theory has created the digital world, the landmark that has transformed our social world is network theory.  In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram and others’ experiments demonstrated that it is ‘a small world after all.’  Milgram challenged his students to deliver a letter to a subject 1000 miles away using friends-of-friends.  The average number of links was 6 and therefore the popular notion of ‘6 degrees of separation’ was born. 
A few years later, Mark Granovetter discovered that we get more and better resources from those more distant and less well known to us.  His article, entitled the ‘strength of weak ties,’ basically explains how Facebook and LinkedIn work.  While the power of Social Network Analysis is debatable, networks are currently seen, not just as a way to find a job or a place to eat, but as a metaphor of society (Castells, The Rise of the Network Society).

The third major landmark in the literature is the social construction of reality, which challenged functionalist views of society and technological determinism.  In my senior year at college, we read Berger and Luckmann’s book, entitled The Social Construction of Reality and it blew my mind! 

Returning to the sociology literature years later I discovered Giddens’ structuration theory and it was slightly easier to understand, but also offers a more compelling case for individual agency or choice in the face of social structures (norms), something I believe is critical to living in a connected world.   In structuration, agency is intertwined (constrained and enabled) with structure in a duality, a relationship that I also found applicable to connectivity. 

A related strand of thinking that is more specifically related to connectivity is the evolution of our thinking about how we socially create meaning through, around and with technology.  The socio-technical school begin in Britain in the 1950s and advanced through Barley and others’ work in the 1980s.  Orlikowski, Scott, Barley et al have since reminded us of the importance of the material attributes of technologies and we now have the ‘sociomaterial’ school of thought. 

Essentially, the sociomaterial view is that while society is still socially constructed, our interpretations, enactments and sense making all involve, and are affected (though not necessary determined by) the material attributes (including design, functionality, look and feel) of the technology and anything in the material world.  In short, we humans make stuff up in our heads, but the stuff outside our heads--and in our hands--still matters!

Based on these foundations, I would now like to highlight four (4) contributions that I having introduced to the literature, namely the:

sociomaterial nature of connectivity,

the duality of connects and disconnects,

attributes of connectivity, and

states of connectivity.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Defining connectivity

From my Inaugural Lecture, 15 September 2015.

Title: 'Connectivity isn't everything (but it's almost everything)'

Defining Connectivity

In my 2008 Organization Studies article, I define connectivity as being socio-material in nature. It includes the physical and technical along with multiple social dimensions of connectivity:

“Connectivity is defined here as the mechanisms, processes, systems and relationships that link individuals and collectives (e.g. groups, organisations, cultures, societies) by facilitating material, informational and/or social exchange.  It includes geo-physical (e.g. space, time and location), technological (e.g. information technologies and their applications) as well as social interactions and artefacts, including shared histories, travel, trade, migration, culture, politics and other social activities.” (Kolb, 2008, p. 128)

It is a comprehensive definition.  You can see why I say that ‘connectivity is almost everything.’ J

In that same paper, I have drawn upon information theory to identify a duality of connects and disconnects across ten (10) dimensions.

Attributes of connectivity

From my Inaugural Lecture, 15 September 2015.

Title: 'Connectivity isn't everything (but it's almost everything)'

The final contribution of the Organization Studies paper was a short list of attributes of connectivity that was prompted by a reviewer, who challenged me to say why connectivity was a unique metaphor for organisation.  That was a blessing, because it is so rare to be able to contribute anything novel or new in today’s academic literature. And, here was a top journal asking for something original.

 After some thought, I came up with four (4) unique attributes of connectivity. I tried to think of a fifth, because five (5) sounds like a better list, but I could only come up with four meaningful and universal attributes of connectivity, and here they are: 

Latent potentiality means we have lots of connections, but use them as we need them, bringing them from the background to the foreground.  Weak ties by definition are distant links that we reach out to as needed. 

Actor agency incorporates the structuration notion of choice or freedom to act as an individual within social structures (norms and expectations). Most of us can choose when, how and how much to connect with others, even though it may not always feel like a choice.

Temporal intermittency means connectivity comes and it goes.  Unlike a state of connectedness, which is always there, connectivity is seldom seamless.  Even if the technical connectivity is robust, we humans have to sleep and cannot be consciously connected all the time.

Unknowable pervasiveness reminds us that the extensiveness of networks now exceeds our ability to know who is connected to whom.  The very culture of sharing that ushered in the Internet is now one of its dark sides.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

States of connectivity

From my Inaugural Lecture, 15 September 2015.

Title: 'Connectivity isn't everything (but it's almost everything)'

States of Connectivity

While metaphors are powerful, ‘there is nothing so practical as a good theory’ (Lewin, 1948). 

My research has been following a classic trajectory, with a few pure theoretical papers, followed by empirical field and survey research, which in turn is being followed with applied research.

When my colleagues and I went into the field, our primary research question was: How much connectivity is enough?  Too little? Too much? In relation to team performance.  Our field work was conducted at three product development sites within a multinational medical electronics company.  The sites were located in Boston, MA, Seattle, WA and Bangalore, India.  From the field research, we developed a theoretical model as well as an extensive survey instrument, through which we have collected data from 29 globally distributed work teams.

In our model of ‘requisite connectivity’ (Kolb, Collins and Lind, 2008), we identify four (4) states of connectivity in relation to performance.  The states of connectivity are ‘hypo-‘ (too little), ‘hyper-‘ (too much), ‘requisite’ (a threshold condition, good enough) and ‘flow’ (an ideal, optimal state).

The model has general appeal when I talk to knowledge workers and those who work across distances. 
We have however learned through that large-scale team study that these states of connectivity do not actually occur or have meaning at the team level (which was sort of a bummer).  Essentially, we found connective states to be in the ‘eye of the beholder,’ and so individual-level analysis is our focus at the moment.

The state of ‘flow’ has become a metaphor on its own. Kristine Dery, Judy MacCormick and I have used the metaphor of flow to describe how smartphone users do not necessarily switch ‘on’ and ‘off,’ but rather they regulate the ‘flow’ of messages between work and non-work connections, much as one might open a water tap more or less, without shutting it off entirely.  We call this ‘working with flow.’

Media flow

From my Inaugural Lecture, 15 September 2015.

Title: 'Connectivity isn't everything (but it's almost everything)'

Media Flow

Now, the prescription for this talk is to locate one’s work in the broad spectrum of one’s field and not to talk about specific research projects, but I have to show you a little bit about what we’re doing right now, because it is so exciting.

One of the problems we encountered in our distributed teams study was this: we wanted to understand individuals’ perceptions of their state of connectivity and, of course, it would be good to measure how much connectivity they had or didn’t have.  It turns out that individuals are perfectly capable at reporting how they ‘feel’ about the amount of media and meetings they have to deal with, but they are pretty bad (we all are) at estimating how much connectivity, i.e., the number of emails, text messages and social media messages, they actually were receiving.  

Our ‘Media Flow’ project addresses this problem by allowing us to measure the flow of messages a person receives.  Working with a tech partner, called Unified Inbox, we can redirect participants’ media through a common portal (Inbox), where it is not only counted, but time stamped so we can monitor ‘media flow’ in real time and over time to see patterns of connectivity.  In exchange, participants get to see their own media patterns and trends on a dashboard, which we have created. 

The obvious next stage of this research is to add bio feedback and so we are working with the Health Innovation team in the School of Population Health on a Strategic Research Fund application.  Our intent is to couple the media flow analytics with bio feedback so that users can monitor and modify their media use to not just for better performance, but for better well-being.

Overall, my intent and long-term goal for connectivity research is continued theorizing and empirical research, with direct applied benefits for those living in an age of connectivity.

So, that’s my research story … so far.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

'Connectivity is Productivity'

From my Inaugural Lecture, 15 September 2015 that the University of Auckland Business School.

Title: 'Connectivity isn't everything (but it's almost everything)'


 ‘Connectivity is productivity’

Of course, I couldn’t help but notice this full-page HP ad in the New York Times on 5 July this year, which said simply in bold letters, "Connectivity is productivity." 

This advertisement prompted the title of my talk, which is a play on the economist, Paul Krugman’s claim that ‘Productivity isn’t everything, but it’s almost everything.’

We have talked about productivity at the individual and team level, but I would like to mention a few other ways in which connectivity is increasing productivity.

Some countries and regions are taking new ways of work very seriously. The Dutch, for example, have not only been studying the application of new technologies, but many of their corporations actively encourage workers to work wherever and whenever in order to promote better outcomes for business along with better outcomes for the environment.

Connectivity began with machines, and is moving back there rapidly.  In fact, the social network era will no doubt last, but it may, in the long run, be overshadowed by the Internet of Things.  With a massive number of sensors deployed around us and nearly every appliance and machine connected to the Net, connectivity will become more embedded into our lives than ever before, and often without our knowledge. 

Which brings us to some downsides of these technologies…

Connectivity also has a ‘dark side.’

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Problems, problems

From my Inaugural Lecture, 15 September 2015.

Title: 'Connectivity isn't everything (but it's almost everything)'

Problems, problems

Of course, too much time on-line will continue to be a struggle for some.  Managing 'screen time' is likely to remain a challenge for homes, schools and organisations.  The question of ‘how much is enough’ is likely to be asked over and over again.

But, there are other connective challenges looming.

One example stemming from the Internet of Things is the rise of High Frequency Trading (HFT), where incredible connective speeds have produced moral hazards and unethical behavior in Wall Street banks and similar risks are possible in other industries.  (See my post on this here).

Security and privacy are constant concerns and hardly a week goes by where some Internet security or privacy breach is not reported.

Another emerging reality is the rise of hyper-scale businesses, which lead to ‘winner-take-all’ economics, where the leading company in a space gathers not just an expected market share, with others taking a portion, but rather the top company dominates the sector (Brynjolfsson and MacAfee, 2013).  Of course, monopolies are nothing new, but global monopolies are making it increasingly difficult to succeed against such unprecedented scale.

And, the digital divide will persist.  The Internet is lumpy at best and it's performance is always relative.  When you have slower broadband than your neighbours, you feel deprived. 

There are, of course, other areas of concern about connectivity, but to articulate them all would keep us from the wine longer than I am prepared to risk.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Taking a Stance

From my Inaugural Lecture, 15 September 2015.

Title: 'Connectivity isn't everything (but it's almost everything)'

Taking a Stance

They say there are two ways to engage an audience: a story or a stance.  You’ve heard my story, now here is my stance. 

There are 3 things I believe are important going forward.

First stance – New Zealand business is still isolated: When I started thinking about New Zealand’s distance from the world, I wanted to help our organisations be better connected to everyone else in the world.  In fact, I still believe we should aim to better connected than we are.  We need to not just be good consumers of the latest and greatest (and expensive) technologies, but we also need to be using those technologies to enable and support new and better.

Why not extend our ‘lifestyle’ values to truly flexible new work practices that are completely possible, but largely resisted by our public and private organisations.  Why pretend that we have a ‘good lifestyle’ while we sit in traffic and pollute the planet (which of course goes against our other essential New Zealand value of a ‘clean green’ environment).

Beyond our shores, cultural connections beat technical connections every time and we need more and better social connections in a world where physical distance still matters. 

Second stance:  If content is King, then context is Queen.  When something is digitized, it is never exactly the same as the original.  When this talk goes onto my blog or a video stream, it will not be the same as being in this room, right now.

We must not forget the importance of authentic, in situ life.  We must remain as ‘real’ as possible in a world that allows and encourages infinite artificial curation. Social media sites have become known for producing (and reproducing) the ‘curated self.’  And, artistic creativity is being reduced by the hegemony of the global few popular people and things.  As individuals, we must still aspire to do things, not because they are popular, but because they are the ‘right’ thing to do.

Stance 3: Let’s not become disembodied cyborgs.  My experience growing up on a farm and leading people in wilderness environments has taught me the value of keeping our minds and bodies connected.

Sociologists talk about ‘deterritorialisation,’ which means that mediated and virtual environments lift us out of our local place.  The danger of losing touch with place and our physical selves is not new, but it is one that is increasing rapidly as more and more of our world goes on-line.  As I said in the beginning of my talk, knowing deeply where you come from is still important.  Stay grounded. Clouds are for data, not people.