Sunday, August 4, 2013

Engagement and Focus in a Digital World: Need to Retain the Evolutionary Learnings

The growth of civilization is traceable to a single minded pursuit of an avocation, discovery or innovation. From the times of caveman who never relented till the art of making fire was discovered through the times of agriculturists who pursued farming as a life avocation to the times of scientists, technologists, and industrialists  who invented and refined products and processes and finally to the overarching times of administrators and businessman who pursued social and economic progress diligently, there has been one and only one factor that drove success - the relentless and singular pursuit of an objective. While nature, chance and serendipity could have played certain roles in all of these activities, and their successful outcomes, there is no denying that engagement and focus had been the success drivers.

Organizations have been the first instrument of providing institutional framework to single minded pursuit.  As organizations and businesses became complex, strategy became the route for firms to pursue success on many dimensions. Organizations then had to be recast to provide single minded pursuit through appropriate structures and cascades of objectives (“Structure Follows Strategy”: Alfred Chandler). Still, complexity remained to be surmounted effectively.  Management theories, not illogically, began to advocate specialization, focus, core competence and competitive strategy as the key tenets of success, in any avocation or domain. The 20th century concluded thus with an organizational and strategic construct of focus and specialization as the mantra for success in any type of organization; single business or multiple business. The new digital world, however, seeks to upturn all of individual and organizational evolutionary facets, partly for the good and partly disabling in the process.
Connected disruption
Electronics had transformed mechanical, electrical and electro-mechanical devices over the last fifty years. Communication and computing have further diversified personal devices and enhanced mutual connectivity over the last twenty years. But along with the strides in the ability to archive and process terabytes of data and the flexibility to connect and communicate with anyone virtually across the globe, the pursuit of digital efficiency at work and beyond work has become the new single minded pursuit. With the advent of smart phones and tablets over the last five years, devices have become the eternal companions of individuals. The net result of all the digital developments is the opening up of globe with a touch or click.
The ability to communicate in a viral fashion with huge global social communities has brought about a sea change in social living. Facebook posts have reportedly been instrumental in reuniting a family member lost eleven years ago with his family recently. Concerts and music shows are now not averse to audience keeping their cell phones on so that they could snap and send the snippets to global communities. One need not have lifetime guilt of missing an important family wedding as the event can be easily webcast now. Facetime brings generations across miles closer home. For the working executive as well as the home maker, perpetual connectivity through a variety of devices is assured. In short, one can always have instant and perpetual touch with the digital community he or she is part of.   
Much as digitization has led to manifold increases in productivity, it has also become a disruptive force in human life. From birth, a child is exposed to digital power and dominance. As one grows up, the reliance on digital devices increases exponentially. At work and home, the ratio of devices to an individual has increased significantly. It is not uncommon to see individuals possessing multiple electronic devices; televisions and music systems in a house, and  desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones in an office. While technology allows all of these to be seamlessly synchronized, deriving convergence from out of diversity, what is alarming is the influence of digital devices on the human mindset. The influence has indeed been disruptive already.
Portends of change
The way human race conducts itself in the increasingly digital world is set for a profound change. Over the centuries, the human race came to be divided, in common viewpoints, between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ or ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ or even between states and nations. Similarly, organizations came to be divided between ‘profitable’ and ‘unprofitable’ or “specialized and diversified’ or even as national and multinational firms. Today, the human race seems to be set to be divided between ‘engaged’ and ‘distracted’ people and organizations between ‘focused’ and ‘diffused’.  At the heart of this divide lies the way the human brain is getting rewired with access to multiple devices and functionalities. Whether it is advanced countries or emerging markets, it is evident that the ecosystems are digitally geared to disengage individuals and diffuse organizations.
The human brain has the ability to store and process millions of data bytes but is wired to execute sequentially because of the need to coordinate the brain and the parts of the body. If a person is walking, the brain and body are equipped to conduct the activity of walking alone with the best assurance and safety, with brain processing the traffic and road conditions and body walking in a trained fashion with occasional course corrections from the brain. The moment the person starts walking while simultaneously talking on the cell phone or reading a book, the neurological and physical activities become distracted with serious disservice to both the activities and even more fatal disservice to the person’s life itself. The temptation of multi-tasking is probably the biggest bane of the new generation of digital life. However, the impact in terms of adversely rewiring the human brain could cast a shadow for generations to come.
Easy living, changing genetics
People who are aware of the course of evolution understand that the several ways in which the human race conducts itself have solidified through compulsions of preservation first and actualizations of achievements. This involved exposing and training all of human faculties from motor skills and sensory acuities to emotional connects and intellectual capabilities. The devices that the current generation is addicted to are designed to make life easier to this generation of human race which has mercifully acquired the skills and acuities the hard way. To the extent that the very same devices are being deployed for use by the just-born and just-growing generation, the new array of digital devices carry a huge risk of rewiring the human brain to the detriment of intrinsic faculties honed over generations of tough living and consistent learning.
Let us review a few examples. When a baby or a child listens to lullabies, stories and songs  rendered by alien voices and people through electronic media rather than through the mother’s voice, the emotional connectivity between the mother and the child, which used to be the bedrock of wellbeing and assurance is permanently eroded. When the child is encouraged to play with a robotic pup than a real pug, the million ways in which a devoted companion will respond to care and love will never be embedded in the child. When students, in schools and colleges or employees, in offices and factories, are asked to browse their lessons from computer tutorials, not only the teacher-taught relationship vanishes but also the learning processes of spontaneous questions and contextual explanations become scarce. When people at work or at home communicate through devices rather than looks and words, that true communication is all about personal feel is never understood. The list can go on, but clearly if the device-influenced lifestyles snowball as happening now it is likely that the future generations will be rewired to be intrinsically less self-sufficient. New generations may then most likely require a new set of digital devices that help them get their skills and acuities back!    
What applies to individuals applies to organizations as well. From the long lost direct emotional connectivity to the end-customer in the marketplace to the replacement of human thought processes by heuristic algorithms and computer simulations, the ‘brain’ of a typical organization is replaced by a ‘CPU’ geared to generate and process metrics than appreciate the drivers and implications of the metrics. Increasingly, organizations are compelled to operate in all of the product-market spaces; even the mighty Apple which made maximal impact through minimal products is no longer an exception. Despite the concepts of vertical specialization and horizontal collaboration, organizations are more diffused and dispersed than ever. The power of computing, connection and collaboration provided by the digital technologies have made the organizations lose their customized survival and growth skills that were imbibed the hard way through competitive learning processes. 
Human and organizational implications
The need for regaining the balance in the new digital world is clear; individuals need to be engaged to be effective and successful. Organizations need to be focused to be competitive and profitable. Individuals who continue to demonstrate a continuous high performance learning ability and firms which continue to thrive or rejuvenate themselves in the digital world validate the several hypotheses of this blog post. In the interests of larger social and economic good, however, engagement and focus need to be more universal phenomena.  
In respect of individuals, the fundamentals of genetically primed and neurologically wired learning methodologies that have provided skills and acuities to successive generations must be insulated from the onslaught of digital devices. The mother to a baby, the parents to a child, the teacher to a student, the boss to a subordinate and the mentor to a disciple are essential instruments of human learning which provide the needed emotional connectivity, ethical guidance, creative learning, practical knowledge and leadership evolution to a human being. In a similar manner, exposure to ethereal nature, endurance under physical work and empowerment with mental acumen are essential to develop a well-rounded personality. As an individual grows, he or she needs to be singularly engaged with the fundamental task at hand than dabbling in multiple activities.
In respect of organizations, the fundamentals of competitively learnt and institutionally embedded management methodologies that have provided competencies and adaptabilities to successive corporations must be reinforced with a prudent combination of human ingenuity and technological perfection. Organizational strategy and structure must remain the prime vehicles for firms to pursue diverse businesses and multiple priorities equally successfully. Firms would increasingly need to be diversified but cannot afford to be diffused. Firms also need to be focused but cannot afford to remain narrowly specialized. The optimal balance at the enterprise level is achieved when firms develop organizational structures that bring operational simplicity and focus to address business complexity and diversity. Focused organizational structures, within the ambit of a product-market agglomeration coupled with singularly engaged human talent, within the ambit of a competency-specialty network would ensure competitive success.   
Posted by Dr CB Rao on August 4, 2013


1 comment:

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