By Jim Euchner, VP of Global Innovation, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., RTM Editor-in-Chief
Where do you live? By this, I mean where do you spend your time?
I realized recently that many of the people who coexist with me in my physical world actually live in different places. I spend much of my workday in web conferences. Many teams in my organization communicate among themselves using WhatsApp—they live chunks of their work lives in WhatsApp. I connect with my wife face to face or by phone. One of my sons doesn’t answer his phone; he only texts. Another lives his social life within his multiplayer online video games; the game space is where he connects with friends to get together in physical space.
Where you live affects how you think. When Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the message,” he made a distinction between the content expressed via a medium and the message of the medium—the pattern of thought it engendered over time. In his early days as a teacher, McLuhan had noticed that there was a difference between the way he thought and the way his students thought—a generation gap he famously attributed to the effects of the then-new medium of television. His students had lived large chunks of their lives in the context of television, and he had not. It changed the way they thought.
As in everything else, the pace of change in communication media is picking up. New communication practices and tools are cascading into the workplace. Many of these new media started in the personal world and migrated into the business world. Texting with friends became texting with colleagues and then texting with supervisors, or using WhatsApp to connect teams. Twitter in our personal lives became Yammer in our business lives.
The content expressed in these media has not changed much—the issues of interest to us in management now are largely the same as they were decades ago—but the media change how things are said and (in subtle ways) the meaning conveyed. Because these new media afford it, sharing of content is generally more immediate and frequent, less linear and hierarchical; the content occurs in bursts, not according to reporting schedules, and the more casual, immediate context means that it’s often less formal and breezier in tone and—another new affordance of these tools—more likely to engage multiple media. The individual messages have shorter half-lives—they quickly become buried in message streams and news feeds—and yet have a persistence to them.
What are the implications of these media for the ways we manage people in traditional R&D and innovation labs?
I began trying to answer this question while watching my teenaged son play his video games. He lived much of his life in those games during high school. This was a great frustration to me and my wife because it seemed like such a waste of time. (Why not read a good book?) But his friends lived there, as well. They met in the video chat room the same way I used to meet people at the mall or at a meeting of a school club. In the environment of the video game, my son and his friends met, talked, formed teams, plotted and executed game strategies, had arguments, discussed politics, and sometimes made plans to meet in the real world—not so far from what I did at the mall.
I wonder how these habits—this medium—will shape my son’s life, and those of his friends. Are the video games of today harbingers of the work environment of tomorrow? Will game environments, for example, supplant video conferencing? Will they become workplaces for agile software development teams, or even physical product design teams? Are the skills my son is learning in that world—skills in planning, team formation, goal setting, collaboration, reputation building, and celebration of success—the skills he will need to be successful as a leader in the future? If we could live in a virtual space that gave us access to the people and information we needed to do our work together with the high touch of a video game, would we choose that world?
I also wonder whether we are ready for the changes in the workplace these new media may bring.
Shifts in the ways communication is happening in the workplace are already occurring, of course. The only people who call me on the phone these days are my boss and cold calling vendors. Much of my work happens via email and in video conferences; my staff uses text messaging to set up calls with me or give brief updates. Innovation teams in my company increasingly manage their interactions and share daily progress updates through WhatsApp. I am not (generally) privileged to be part of those groups. Partly, that’s because I have demurred—my presence in those groups (and my learned communication style) would likely overlay an older set of practices on an emerging one, and could inadvertently stifle the exchange.
Repotting the plant—transplanting communication media from our personal lives to business contexts—can be difficult. The new technologies must find their way in a cultural context that in some ways conflicts with them. Yammer in many companies, for example, has become more a PR bulletin board than a work tool; people are not comfortable leveraging its interactive potential in the work environment because the new messages might be judged by old standards. The tools also raise questions about security and the sharing of intellectual property. They shift, in meaningful ways, how work is managed and communicated, and the practices they engender can run counter to existing norms. Unfortunately, the biggest barriers may be the invisible ones—the unstated assumptions about how to think through a problem that depend on where you “live.”
In the end, the media won’t be constrained or contained, especially as digital natives enter the workforce and bring their tools with them. The first step is to recognize the dilemma: these tools will enter the workplace, precisely because they help their users work more effectively, and they will create conflict with existing practices and policies. But there is a layer beyond this. They will also create new work practices and foster new ways of thinking. As managers, we will need to figure out how to understand these new ways of working and thinking and communicate across the gap—across the various messages of all the new media—even as different media dominate work lives in different parts of the organization. It’s an exciting challenge!
To reference this article:
Euchner, J. (2017). “Where Do You Live?” Research-Technology Management, Vol. 60, No. 2 (March-April), pp. 9-10.