Thursday, April 30, 2020

Distance is back

In a recent report 'The future is not what it used to be' McKenzie takes as its first premise:

1. Distance is back


What McKenzie said:


"In the mid-1990s, the idea of the “death of distance” gained currency. The thinking was that new web-based and telecom technologies had made it possible to communicate and work in new ways that dramatically reduced the value of physical proximity. As the flow of information became cheap and seamless, global supply chains of bewildering complexity were able to deliver just-in-time products as a matter of routine. Cross-border trade reached new peaks. And the world’s burgeoning middle class took to travel and tourism with something like abandon. 

Even before COVID-19 hit, there were signs of unease, expressed in calls for protectionism and more restrictive immigration and visa policies. In these ways, people sought, in effect, to create more distance from those unlike themselves.


Such attitudes were far from universal, of course. But to deal with the pandemic, governments around the world have imposed restrictions on people and goods of a severity not seen for decades. According to one study, more than three billion people live in countries whose borders are now totally closed to nonresidents; 93 percent live in countries that have imposed new limits on entry, because of the coronavirus. If a modern-day Hannibal wanted to cross the Alps peacefully, his elephants would be turned away. Eventually, the tourists will come back and the borders will reopen, but it is certainly possible that the previous status quo will not return.


Indeed, for businesses, the prospect of more border restrictions; a greater preference for local over global products and services; the need for resilience across supply chains driving a move to bring sourcing closer to end markets (see element 2, “Resilience AND efficiency”); and perhaps renewed resistance to globalization, are all possible second-order consequences of the actions being taken now to cope with the coronavirus. Technology continues to shrink physical distance, but in other ways, it could be set for a return."

What I said:

I couldn't help but remember a paper I had given to the European Group for Organization Studies (EGOS) colloquium in Lyon, France in 2001.

Paper title: 'Distance, space and isolation: An organisational research agenda'

Abstract:
The ‘death of distance’ is but one of the many claims associated with information technology and other forces of globalisation.  But it is a significant claim and one, which, until rather recently, has gone, unchallenged.  Is distant really dead?  Or even dying?  In this paper, I assemble some interdisciplinary views on the topics of ‘space’ and ‘isolation’ and then put forth the argument that distance and ‘isolation’ are relevant and deserving concepts for more extensive organizational research. I also suggest a list of organizational research questions which might be asked in the pursuit of an enhanced understanding of distance, place and isolation.  


Conclusion:

An Odyssey usually means going to far away places.  But, in the complex connectivity of global culture and organisational life, has the ‘isolation’ of far away places become a thing of the past?  Is distance ‘dead’?  I would argue that distance, place and isolation are still part of the Odyssey of organizing.  And, if distance is not dead, perhaps we are oversimplifying its role in our studies of organizations and management.  I believe that while we are increasingly drawn closer together by technology, spatial relationships, especially ‘isolation’ deserves research attention.  There is clearly much more we might learn about this phenomenon as it applies to individuals, groups and organizations.  The purpose of this paper was to reiterate the fact that distance is still a valid concept, to highlight various disciplinary angles on the topic and to outline areas where further research is needed.  Indeed, distance may not only be manageable, it may be a good thing for organizations.  It is hoped that this research agenda will, in some measure, be accomplished, not to ‘shrink’ the planet, but to further our understanding of our shared Odyssey upon it.

The full paper is available upon request.  Just email me d.kolb at auckland.ac.nz



Indeed, for businesses, the prospect of more border restrictions; a greater preference for local over global products and services; the need for resilience across supply chains driving a move to bring sourcing closer to end markets (see element 2, “Resilience AND efficiency”); and perhaps renewed resistance to globalization, are all possible second-order consequences of the actions being taken now to cope with the coronavirus. Technology continues to shrink physical distance, but in other ways, it could be set for a return.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Virtual is the new Reality


Martin Scorsese once said, 'When it's personal, it's real.'

Sociologists might say, when it's social, it's real.'  By that, we mean that things become real ('reified') when we collectively treat them as real.

After years of referring to online experiences as 'virtual reality,' society has almost instantly and almost universally come to accept that when we do things online, they are no less 'real' than they were with physical proximity.

Virtual drinks with friends, virtual holiday gatherings and virtual catch-ups remind us that the feelings we have for and with others can be just as intense when we experience it in mediated space. One might wonder what took us so long to discover the reality of virtual worlds.

Necessity is, of course, the big driver for doing things differently, but I believe there are two other reasons for this phenomenon.  For some, it's the herd mentality, i.e., everyone's doing and so should I. The other factor is, at least in some societies is an element of altruism, where using new technology is associated with being a team player, a good citizen, or at least a good sport.

While new and even more radical technologies have been adopted by humans forever, but I don't know of any time when so many people took up a new way of work in such a short time.  It may not be much fun, but we're living history.  Let's keep good notes.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Connectivity's Consequences

Today my home country (New Zealand) is going into a 4-week nation-wide lockdown.  Only essential services and businesses will be allowed to operate and everyone is required be live in isolation 'bubbles' at home or another place of residence (i.e., in student dorms for international students).

Other countries are already in lockdown and others are heading in that direction it seems, so we are not alone in this 'grand social experiment.'  With our normal social contact and the physical dimension of connectivity (trade, travel and tourism) enabling the spread of the deadly Coronavirus around the world, our radical isolation efforts force us to rely on technical connectivity at a rate and extent never seen before.  These times reinforce the notion that connectivity isn't everything, but it's almost everything.

What this means for many of us is an overnight shift from co-located work environments to working from home, or wherever we have chosen to self-isolate (or shelter-in-place). While working from home is nothing new, what's new is the sudden scale and scope of such arrangements.  Whole companies and institutions working remotely brings with it an extra emphasis (and stress) on the 'technical' aspects of socio-technical (also known as sociomaterial) systems.

The unthinkable, improbable, but possible technical risk is that the Internet breaks. This seems far-fetched, but in 2006, an article in MIT's Technology Review, titled, 'The Internet is broken,' reviewed the potential weaknesses in a system that miraculously, but organically grew rapidly without much redundancy designed into it.  And, that was before we understood what havoc hackers can cause.

The social 'experiment' is living with social distance and, in many cases, isolation.  For many of us, this represents an opportunity to embrace solitude (as opposed to isolation), to simplify our lives and reconnect remotely with friends, family and neighbors.  It is nonetheless stressful, as family or apartment units are not always based on 'natural' social boundaries, i.e., we're sometimes 'stuck' with folks we're not that comfortable with and miss those with whom we have more in common.

The 'experiment' part is that very few of us have encountered situations that demand so much time with so few people around us.  Like any experiment, we need to try things out, reflect on what works and what doesn't and then try something else until we get our systems and approach refined to what works best for us.

We can, of course, share what we've learned with others, which brings me to the other element of this experience.  This is perhaps one of the greatest 'shared experiences' of our time, if not all time.  Wars are impactful on the whole population of the nation states who wage them or engage in them, but less important to those not directly affected.  The irony of the pandemic is that it is both a consequence of globalization and a salient symbol of the unity of humanity, as we all share its consequences on our health, our economies and our lives.

As with any experiment, we do not know how this will all work out.  We hope the accelerated uptake and applications of the tools of digital connectivity don't let us down, and perhaps lead us to discover new ways of work en masse.  And, hopefully we will discover that the population of this small planet can use the social fabric of our cultures as a protection against harm and a shield against ignorance and the forces that would disconnect us from each other.

Stay safe and go well.


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Disconnection means death

Disconnection means death--and connection means life.  This is the theme of the three most powerful books I read in 2018.

The first is Yuval Noah Harari's provocative and brilliantly crafted Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow (Harper 2017), in which the title of this post is embedded thusly: "Eventually we may reach a point when it will be impossible to disconnect from this all-knowing network (think Internet-of-all-things) even for a moment. Disconnection will mean death" (p. 349).  Importantly, his word choice 'may' means this is not a fait et compli future.  Paradoxically, one way for Homo Sapiens to persist in the face of ever-encompassing 'Dataism,' is to not let consciousness be completely separated from intelligence.  That is to say, we need to consciously disconnect (at least in part) from the super-intelligence systems we are creating, if we want to preserve our humanity.

Meanwhile, global and local tribalism is disconnecting us from one another and it seems to be increasing at an alarming rate.  Amy Chua's account of Political Tribes (Bloomsbury 2018) describes the age-old and enduring human tendency to bond together, unfortunately often 'against' the 'other.'  This form of disconnection from other humans puts the entire global community at risk.  This successful author describes historic blunders around the world, not so much as ideological, but rather as tribal conflicts.  Through this lens, American tribalism is not just about different deeply held belief systems, but also a simple, blunt dynamic of 'us' vs 'them.'  Reconnecting this disparate band of brothers will require a narrative of unity, of a super-group. Not super as in superior, but rather 'super' as being above the self-interests of the sub-groups. New storytellers are out there. We just have to keep looking and listening.

Raising our sights toward a more humanistic and simultaneously more competitive business future, in 2018, Tom Peters produced another call to action called, The Excellence Dividend: Meeting the tech tide with work that wows and jobs that last  (Vintage 2018). In his inimitable style, the master storyteller takes on the bleak outlook for humans in a tech-driven future. By his own admission, his thesis has not changed in the 30+ years since In Search of Excellence was published.  Essentially, the point that Tom makes is that people still matter, mostly because only people, and people-centric technology can produce excellent products and services.  Price pressure notwithstanding, people still want the human touch as consumers. And, we certainly want it in our workplaces. The hopeful message is that in the face of uncertainty, we can still strive for and deliver excellence, which is its own reward as well as the most rewarding way to run a business.  In Tom's words, "Excellence is a way of life that sustains us and inspires us day in and day out, minute in and minute out. There is no 'long term.'  There is only the way we act when we step out into the corridor after a meeting--or, yes, the quality of your next four-line e-mail. ... The manifestation of excellence--or not--in our moment-to-moment behaviour is the bedrock beneath the bedrock" (p. 44).

Not surprisingly, we humans are better off when we find ways to connect and worse off when we focus on our (surprisingly small) differences as a way to divide ourselves.  That sort of disconnection indeed means death--on all sorts of levels.  By contrast, seeing and celebrating difference is the one form of intelligence that makes us truly human.

This brings me to the most powerful talk shared with me in 2018.  This comedy routine cum oratory masterpiece called 'Nanette' by Hannah Gadsby is at once provocative, stirring and uplifting.  Her concluding comments include a plea for us all to challenge the dominant power narrative that marginalises so many within our various human societies.  The counter-narrative must be one of connection.  Now, more than ever, for us humans, connection is life.


Friday, June 1, 2018

The One Device We Can't Live Without

Yesterday, I forgot my phone as I left home. By the time I remembered it, I was almost to the train station 15 minutes from my house and too far to go back for it, as I had to meet my class.

I'm sure this has happened to others and, like most people I found that living without a smartphone changed my day.  While I remembered my lecture and one other meeting that day, I was at a complete loss as to what my schedule was for the week ahead.  Even though I rarely make phone calls, if I wanted to make one, I had no contact phone numbers that day.  And, of course, I had no maps, no Siri, no camera, and no email contact as I traveled to and from work.  Actually, the list of things I was not able to do without a smartphone is endless.

Coincidently, I had just finished reading an excellent exploration of the background and (amazing, but now taken for granted) features of smartphones in Brian Merchant's book, The One Device: The secret history of the iPhone (2017, Little, Brown and Co, New York/London).  In this tightly written epic, all roads lead to the iPhone, but not before reminding us that humans have had 'a century-long drift towards being always connected, always available' (p. 39), including an 1879 vision of FaceTime. And, the scientist/inventor, Nikola Tesla told Collier's magazine early in the last Century, 'We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone.  A man (sic) will be able to carry one in his vest pocket' (p. 43).

Merchant then takes us on a physical trip to the Cerro Rico silver mines Bolivia and goes on to trace the origins of some of the 'rare Earth' metals contained in an iPhone. In total, there are 30 chemical elements that make up 129 grams of the iPhone's weight, but which are only worth $1.03, according to the chart on page 56 of my hard-cover version of the book.  It may sound dull, but it's fascinating in Merchant's narrative.  While straightforward and revealing, his purpose in the mining story is not to judge, but to inform us as owners of resource implications of these everyday luxuries.

The engineering and industrial design threads are even more captivating. Whether you're a technical person or not, the historic development of features like 'multi-touch' interfaces, 'gorilla glass' and 'lion' batteries are fascinating accounts of marvellous technologies that we all use and seldom appreciate. Indeed, most, if not all, the brilliant technologies incorporated into the iPhone were invented long ago by companies all over the world.  Many sat dormant for years after prototypes failed to excite executives, just as Steve Jobs himself was not originally interested in developing a phone. In fact, he hated phones, until he saw what was possible if the phone was re-imagined and reinvented, which is what Apple did, at first without and then with Steve's blessing (and obsessions).

The human and organizational story in this history is no less intriguing, informative and inspiring.  Though never officially sanctioned by Apple (as one might expect), the author tracks down many key members of key teams and others associated with and/or close enough to the action to relate the intensity and extreme pressure the engineering, human interface, design and programming teams were under once the iPhone project moved from a renegade movement to a massive master endeavour within One Infinite Loop and Apple's partners.

Speaking of partners, there is an eery account of Merchant's chance (unsanctioned) access into Foxconn, whose scale and secrecy is surpassed only by Apple itself.  By his reckoning, the author estimates that in one quarter (based on 2015 figures), workers spent 1,152,000,000 hours screwing, gluing, soldering and snapping together iPhones.  Besides the visceral reality of the place, the economic reality is that, unlike Ford's Model T, at Foxconn, Merchant found no one who was assembling iPhones could actually afford to own one.

Even though the component technologies had long been in the making, the actual concept and design of the iPhone was audaciously ambitious.  The notion of simply putting a phone into the company's wildly successful iPod product line was tempting (and there was a team devoted to that mission), but in the end, Apple's leadership decided to put the Mac OS into a phone, which is what made the smartphone 'smart' and not just another phone.  Ultimately, Steve Jobs made this and other major calls, but only after agonising and debating with others over competing priorities and practicalities.  The politics and some might say insane commitment of the folks involved in the development cannot be overstated. Those who love Apple mythology won't be disappointed.  There are fables and fairytales, heroes and, of course, there is Steve Jobs.  The various teams were locked down and pushing themselves to the limits, and paying the price in terms of divorce and lost family time.  Most were of course proud of their unfathomable success in the end.

Why should we care about the 'one device'?  Besides a story of the convergence of many extraordinary technologies, the smartphone that Apple gave the world cleverly brought computers to our daily lives in a way that had never been done before and which has changed our lives.  But, Brian Merchant reflects on how 'human' this one device also is.  In his words, '...it's worth thinking about the computer--especially this, the bestselling computing device of all time--as being powered by human work.  Because the iPhone, more expertly than its many predecessors, hides the immense amount of effort and ingenuity that's gone into it.  As the screens get sharper, the apps get more addictive, and the phone becomes more seamlessly integrated into our daily routines, we're drifting further away from grasping computing as the work of human beings--at a time when they are in fact the work of more human beings than ever' (p. 378).

While smartphones are here to stay, the iPhone itself will be surpassed by other devices. As Henri Lamiraux who oversaw the software engineering for the iPhone reflects, 'It's not like you created something, a piece of music that's going to be appreciated for a long, long time. It's just going to disappear and be replaced with something better, and be gone' (p. 380).

That may be so, but until it's replaced with something better, most of us won't go anywhere without ours.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Special Issue 'Connectivity In and Around Organizations' - Call for Papers


Organization Studies


Special Issue: Connectivity in and around Organizations

Guest Editors   
Darl G. Kolb, Graduate School of Management, University of Auckland, New Zealand
Marleen Huysman, KIN Research Group, VU University, The Netherlands
Kristine Dery, Center for Systems Information Research, MIT, Australia & USA
Anca Metiu, Senior Editor, Organization Studies, ESSEC Business School, France

The journal is seeking papers for a Special Issue that reflects and considers the impact of ubiquitous and near-constant connectivity in and around organizations.

In 2008, Organization Studies published an article entitled, ‘Exploring the Metaphor of Connectivity: Attributes, Dimensions and Duality’  (Kolb, 2008). A lot has happened in the world of connectivity in the past 10 years. Following the BlackBerry (‘CrackBerry’) era, the release of the iPhone in 2007 accelerated the ‘smartphone’ era. To be sure, the topics of mobile communication practice (Dery, Kolb, & MacCormick, 2014; MacCormick, Dery, & Kolb, 2012; Mazmanian, Orlikowski, & Yates, 2013; Sergeva, Huysman, van den Hooff, & Soekijad, 2017) virtual work and collaboration (Fayard & Metiu, 2014; Kolb, Collins, & Lind, 2008), work-life balance (Bakker & Leiter, 2010; Mazmanian, 2013), perceptions of proximity (Leonardi, Treem, & Jackson, 2010; Wilson, O'Leary, Metiu, & Jett, 2008), cognitive and socio-emotional effects of hyper-connectivity (Carr, 2010; Turkle, 2011) have received considerable attention in the years since the past decade. However, with some notable exceptions (Bakker & Leiter, 2010; Flyverbom, Leonardi, Stohl, & Stohl, 2016; Leonardi & Barley, 2010; Orlikowski & Scott, 2008), theoretical developments have been relatively sparse in this relatively new, yet important field of inquiry. 

We believe the time is right for a dedicated collection of scholarly work that advances our theoretical and practical understanding of the unprecedented connective context within and around organizations. Our intent is to produce a provocative and memorable Special Issue of Organization Studies. We therefore invite refreshing scholarly discourse on what constitutes connectivity (what it is and/or what it means), including its antecedents, its social materiality and the conceptual relationships that underpin and/or define connectivity, thereby offering advances in theory. Meanwhile, we expect critical evaluations of some of the ‘consequences’ and implications for practice. We are also seeking empirical studies that illuminate the subject and provide evidence and evocation for theory-building or theory-challenging.


Objectives of the Special Issue:
·         To advance our understanding of how connectivity affects organizational life
·         To stimulate dialogue and debate on connectivity as a dimension of contemporary life
·         To offer fresh, empirically-based insights into the practice of connecting with others through technology

We invite papers that will address, but are not limited to the following themes:
·         new perspectives on mobile human-computer interaction,
·         advancements and/or challenges to socio-technical and sociomaterial theoretical lenses,
·         the integration of work and non-work dimensions of life,
·         the stresses and strains associated with work-life integration, and
·         isolation and alienation that accompany and contradict increased connectedness. 

We are particularly interested in papers that provoke new ways of thinking about questions such as, but not limited to:

·         How do face-to-face organisational processes and practices compete for attention with ubiquitous personal connective technologies?
·         Who decides when and how much organizational members connect or disconnect?
·         What are the implications of near-constant connectivity on health and wellness?
·         The paradox of autonomy: How do independent individuals still work collaboratively?
·         How are work practices co-evolving with connective technologies?  
·         How are organizational structures co-evolving with connective technologies?

Papers may be conceptual, theoretical and/or empirical in nature, with a preference for empirical-based theoretical work.  While qualitative research may be most appropriate for supporting new theoretical directions and critical perspectives, quantitative research is also welcome, as long as it addresses new questions and contributes to the conceptual conversation in straightforward (accessible) language.

The scope of papers is intentionally broad, but papers should have a bearing on ‘organizational’ phenomena, as per the overall purpose and general guidelines of Organization Studies. Manuscripts submitted to a Special Issue should to adhere to Organization Studies Aims and Scope and contributor guidelines: http://www.uk.sagepub.com/msg/oss.htm#HOWTOSUBMITYOURMANUSCRIPT


References
Bakker, A. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2010). Work Engagement: A handbook of essential theory and research. New York: Psychology Press: Taylor and Francis Group.
Carr, N. (2010). The shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. London: Atlantic.
Dery, K., Kolb, D. G., & MacCormick, J. (2014). Working with flow: The evolving practice of smartphone technologies. European Journal of Information Systems, 23(5), 558-570.
Fayard, A.-L., & Metiu, A. (2014). The role of writing in distributed collaboration. Organization Science, 25(5), 1391-1413.
Flyverbom, M., Leonardi, P. M., Stohl, C., & Stohl, M. (2016). The management of visibilities in the digital age. Interntional Journal of Communication, 10, 98-109.
Kolb, D. G. (2008). Exploring the metaphor of connectivity: Attributes, dimensions and duality. Organization Studies, 29(1), 127-144.
Kolb, D. G., Collins, P. D., & Lind, E. A. (2008). Requisite connectivity: Finding flow in a not-so-flat world. Organizational Dynamics, 37(2), 181-189.
Leonardi, P. M., & Barley, S. R. (2010). What's under construction here? Social action, materiality, and power in constructivist studies of technology and organizing. The Academy of Management Annals, 4(1), 1-51.
Leonardi, P. M., Treem, J. W., & Jackson, M. H. (2010). The connectivity paradox: Using technology to both decrease and increase perceptions of distance in distributed work arrangements. Journal of Applied Communications Research, 38(1), 85-105.
MacCormick, J., Dery, K., & Kolb, D. G. (2012). Engaged or just connected?: Smartphones and employee engagement. Organizational Dynamics, 41(3), 194-201.
Mazmanian, M. (2013). Avoiding the trap of constant connectivity: When congruent frames allow for heterogeneous practices. Academy of Management Journal, 56(5), 1225-1250.
Mazmanian, M., Orlikowski, W. J., & Yates, J. (2013). The autonomy paradox: The implications of mobile email devices for knowledge professionals. Organization Science, 24(5), 1337-1357.
Orlikowski, W. J., & Scott, S. V. (2008). Sociomateriality: Challenging the separation of technology, work and organization. The Academy of Management Annals, 2(1), 433-474.
Sergeva, A., Huysman, M., van den Hooff, B., & Soekijad, M. (2017). Through the eyes of others: How onlookers shape the use of mobile technology at work. MIS Quarterly, 41(4), 1153-1178.
Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.
Wilson, J. M., O'Leary, M. B., Metiu, A., & Jett, Q. R. (2008). Percieved proximity in virtual work: Explaining the paradox of far-but-close. Organization Studies, 29(7), 979-1002.

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