It’s in our control: review of Conquering Digital Overload

This book provides guidance to everyone experiencing the “digital overload” that comes from being always on and subject to the increasingly rapid pace of change

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Book review by Terri Griffith of Conquering Digital Overload: Leadership Strategies That Build Engaging Work Cultures, published in 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan

Tags: technology • stress • digital overload • leadership

Conquering Digital Overload: Leadership Strategies That Build Engaging Work Cultures is a twelve-chapter work co-edited by Peter Thomson, Mike Johnson, and J. Michael Devlin.  The sixteen authors of those twelve chapters each take on an aspect of digital overload and suggest possible solutions. These experts are brought together by their membership in the FutureWork Forum, a group that has been meeting for the last twenty years to discuss and work together to provide leadership as we build our futures of work.

The authors tackle digital overload from a wide set of perspectives. They argue that the experience of overload is triggered by a combination of being always connected/always on, and the pace of technological change more broadly.  The authors describe effects felt at all levels, from individual to societal and suggest that, in the workplace, “…most organizations use twenty-first century technology, but with an operational twentieth-century mindset, processes, and organizational structures” (p. 6). They note optimism, however, given more organizations are thinking explicitly about their digital strategies.

I agree with the authors that issues of technology and our lives and work cannot be addressed using a single silver bullet. You need to think about more than just the technology tool or even your organization’s digital strategy. You need to think and design work around all your resources. In the most recent rendition of my own approach, I describe this as “Thinking in 4T” (expanding beyond how we see in 3D):

The Four T’s

  • Target: project and/or task goal;
  • Talent: people working toward – and against
    – the target;
  • Technology: everything from texts to hard automation and robots, to basic bots and machine learning – all the tools you have at your disposal; and
  • Technique: the organizational processes pulling together the work of the talent and technology

To the extent that each chapter hits upon some version of the 4Ts, I’m certain that individuals, managers, and executives will find value as they read.  I do, however, wish I could have found a common definition of digital overload, or if a single definition wasn’t possible, a summary of the different views.  Given my background and biases, I also would have appreciated more clarity that overload is experienced given some particular combination of target, talent, technology, and technique in a particular situation, rather than a certainty.

Human agency in our experienced overload is acknowledged throughout the chapters. For example:

… one of the challenges identified by those we spoke to in the course of researching this book is the tyranny of our default notification settings. Without a proactive approach, we are subject to the notifications and noises determined by the software developers. And it’s not always clear whether they have our best interests at heart!” (p. 49).

And later:

“while the technologists are trying to make IT less interruptive, for me, the answer is not a technological one, but a cultural one. To improve the way we use technology, we must first change the way we perceive it. Frankly, we all need to grow up a bit!” (pp. 147-148)

I take this to mean that whether we are technology designers or a designer of work or organizations, people are at the heart of these designs. We need to acknowledge and be responsible for our designs — and learn to design in a way that doesn’t push us toward digital overload.

A Design-Focused Approach

Doug Engelbart worked on designs that focus on human augmentation rather than the narrower concept of automation.

This more design-focused approach is most clear in the two chapters by Susan Stucky and Jim Ware. I wasn’t surprised by their insights as I’ve been drawn to their work for years and am happy to describe them as friends and colleagues.

In Chapters Six and Twelve they take a focus on mindsets:

“We believe that a new mindset can reduce the stress we are all feeling and suggest new approaches for introducing and applying technology to the way we work” (p. 75)

They note that National Medal of Technology and Turing Award winner Doug Engelbart worked on designs that focus on human augmentation rather than the narrower concept of automation. Key to this focus is a mindset focused on understanding the nature of the work we do, not just the tools we use.

In Chapter Twelve Stucky and Ware turn this mindset focus towards the future of work: “We are on the brink of an AI [artificial intelligence] revolution which will potentially replace many knowledge work jobs.” They continue by noting that we have a window of opportunity to redesign work (and I see this including all of the 4Ts).

As with many things, it’s easier to get things going in a good direction at the beginning, before inertia or costly reworks come into play. We are at the very early stages of our work with AI. Stucky and Ware argue that now is the time to ramp up our work and technology design efforts and to shift our mindsets to focus on evolving designs and systems that augment human capabilities rather than automate and replace them.

I’ve touched on just the tip of the iceberg of the ideas presented in Conquering Digital Overload. Each of the twelve chapters, with different authors, provides its own perspective. Rather than second-guess the author team, I offer these chapter descriptions from Chapter One: Introduction: Digitalization and Why Leaders Need to Take It Seriously:

Chapter 2, we take a close look at the people issues. All too often in a machine-led world, the people are the last things we think about. This chapter sets out to address how we get people back to the center of the engagement equation.

Chapter 3 explains why this Digital Age is a business issue. Most importantly it asks why leaders have done such a lousy job keeping people on their agendas.

The next two chapters focus on the causes of Digital Overload.

Chapter 4 examines what impact having, or NOT having an effective corporate culture has on how well you navigate the digital rapids that flow through all our organizations.

Chapter 5 lays out the technology issues and why we are still struggling with it.

We then move on to solutions starting with Chapter 6 that points a spotlight on the experiences of us humans in the workplace and our struggle to make sense of the digital world around us.

Into Chapter 7, it’s all about how to build a more effective workplace and the rules for doing that and this flows directly into Chapter 8 where we discuss creating a viable, engaging environment that people want to be and work in.

Chapter 9 asks what governments, companies, and individuals can do to mitigate and possibly leverage Digital Overload.

Chapter 10 is focused on developing effective coping strategies to deal successfully with the digital age, which leads us directly onto Chapter 11 where we discuss how technology can provide the solution we are all seeking

Finally, we move from today’s solutions to look further into the future. In Chapter 12 we close down with the provocative thought about whether we are going to see what many have called ‘the death of work.’1

As in any book with many authors, these chapters offer value more as punchy short stories rather than like a novel. The chapters are consistent in their design, with helpful introductory summaries and closing “Key Learnings for Leaders.”

The chapters are consistent in their design, with helpful introductory summaries and closing “Key Learnings for Leaders.

Conclusion

In conclusion, with my focus on finding ways to mix (and remix) the 4T’s of Target, Talent, Technology, and Technique, I hope we work toward an approach for design and problem solving rather than trying to “set rules for human behaviour when it comes to how and when to use digital technology” (p. 6).

The very real risk is that a project can successfully deliver the wrong workplace outcomes.

I think the design and problem-solving approach is supported by the chapters and perhaps the rules are best taken as possible examples. Every time I read a section where children or education were mentioned, I gave a mental round of applause. We have a chance to help children and others through education.

Maybe the shorthand is Thinking in 4T, or some other idea that fits as a public service announcement — borrowing from p. 50: “How can we take back control? How can we change this culture we have unwittingly created?

The answer I draw from Conquering Digital Overload: Leadership Strategies That Build Engaging Work Cultures is that we must use education and personal discipline to shift our mindsets to those focused on how we design and adapt our work and tools. We have control. We just have to use it. W&P

References

The Plugged-In Manager: Get in Tune with Your People, Technology, and Organization to Thrive (Jossey Bass, 2011).

First published in W&P Journal Issue 10:  August 2018, pp 17-20


About the Author

Terri Griffith, PhD, is Associate Dean and Professor of Management & Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business. She follows organizational trends and the leaders who bring them to life in her award-winning book, The Plugged-In Manager: Get in Tune with Your People, Technology, and Organization to Thrive; via her blog, Technology and Organizations; and with freelance work published in The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, MIT’s Sloan Management Review, and other journals.

 

w         www.terrigriffith.com

e          t@terrigriffith.com

l           https://www.linkedin.com/in/terrigriffith

Blog:    Technology and Organizations (https://terrigriffith.com/blog/).

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