Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Economist warns of Hyper-connectivity

A recent column in the Economist (Schumpeter, 10 March 2012), entitled, 'Slaves to the smartphone: The horrors of hyperconnectivity--and how to restore a degree of freedom,' lists the advantages that smartphones have brought to working professionals, but also laments the problems that hyper-connectivity brings, as summarized in this quote:

"Hyperconnectivity exaggerates some of the most destabilising trends in the modern workplace: the decline of certainty (as organisations abandon bureaucracy in favour of adhocracy), the rise of global supply chains and the general cult of flexibility." 

The 'cult of flexibility' is a great term capturing the phenomena of employees who practice impression management by being the latest person to send emails at night and/or the attention-seeking manager who expects others to drop what their doing on short notice when they fire out an impromptu email.

The author suggests that individuals need to take responsibility for disconnecting (agency), but that resistance will be futile unless organizations also curb the cult of flexibility and unreasonable demands on our time.  

Darl Kolb

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Blogging into the Darkness

Blogging into the Darkness
There is a New Yorker cartoon that shows a dog sitting at the family dinner table and the dog says, ‘I used to have a blog, but I think I’ll go back to barking randomly into the darkness.’
After a lot of consideration and the odd encouraging remark from my students and friends in the social media industry, I have decided to resume this blog. So here we go.
To avoid sounding like random barking into the darkness (if I wanted to do that, I would use Twitter), I have an idea of what I want to do here, which I will share with you, just so you know...
You see, the emerging field of connectivity studies in organizations only has a hand full of researchers and a few graduate students at the moment. It’s a pretty small field (or sub-field). And, this blog is aimed at those folks—most of whom I know, but others whom I look forward to meeting on-line or otherwise—who share an interest in the social and technical aspects of ‘connectivity.’

Definition:  I define ‘connectivity’ as ‘the mechanisms, processes, systems and relationships that link individuals and collectives (e.g. groups, organizations, 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.’ (Kolb, 2008, p. 128)
The other user group for this blog is the growing number of MBA, graduate research and undergraduate students who have somewhat wisely and somewhat foolishly decided to write an essay on a topic like ‘contemporary media and its impact on work-life balance,’ or ‘smartphones as work-extending technologies’ or ‘productivity increases related to ubiquitous networks’ or ‘continuous computing: costs and benefits.’ And, now that you’ve chosen those inspiring, ambitious topics, you’ve realized that once you get past the popular media (which I am not knocking, it’s just that your fussy professors still insist on ‘academic sources’), there is virtually no general theory on the hyper-mediated world we live in.

A cup of theory
So, this is a place you can stop by for ‘a cup of theory’* when you need it. A few definitions and scholarly references will bolster your paper and hopefully give you a few new insights on such a cool and compelling topic. (By the way: Good choice!)
Posts will not normally be this long, I promise, but after 5+ years, a bit of catch-up is in order. First, it is fitting that I am re-launching this blog in Lyon, France. In 2001, fresh from my first sabbatical in Europe, I presented ‘A Research Agenda for Connectivity and Distance’ at the European Group for Organization Studies (EGOS) here in Lyon. I told my peers at the time that I would give this work 10 years and see how it goes. Well, 10 years on, I am still as psyched about the topic as ever, as connectivity is becoming increasingly critical to our day-to-day life. I am back in Lyon, on sabbatical again and looking out from our apartment looking across the Saone River toward the old town, on a beautiful spring day. It is a good place to re-start blogging, or to bark into the darkness.

Here is what I have done since the 2006 posting:

My colleagues and I have published 3 theory papers and a few empirical papers, with more under way. I will describe the theoretical papers briefly, with references and links to the full papers. You will note that the ideas contained in the papers were on-line in this blog before they were published, which is another good reason (besides desperation) to check this blog out from time to time.

The Metaphor of Connectivity
This article articulates four (4) original reasons why the ‘metaphor’ of connectivity (defined by Agwin and Vaara and others in a previous Special Edition of the same journal) has relevance for organizations. Specifically, those attributes are:
‘Latent potentiality,’ meaning we use connections when we need them, but not all the time. We can draw upon networks, for example, when we want to have lunch or need a job. Networks may remain dormant for years, but are nonetheless potent when we need them.
‘Temporal intermittency’ means that connections come and go. Despite our sense of being ‘constantly connected,’ we are not. If nothing else, we humans and/or our friends and colleagues around the world have to sleep sometime. And, connections often fail. Cell coverage breaks up. Technology simply does not always work. In sum, there are inherent social and technical ‘gaps’ over time.
‘Actor agency’ means that when it comes to connectivity, we have choices. The debate around human ‘free will,’ which is called ‘agency’ in sociological terms, has gone on forever, and centers around the question of how much ‘structure’ (systems, norms, etc.) determines our behavior and how much we act on our own free will. If your cell phone rings, whether you feel social pressure to answer it (it could be your mother) or not answer it (you could be sitting in class) is a moment of connective choice.
‘Unknowable pervasiveness’ highlights the (sometimes scary) reality that we cannot know all the connections we have at any given point in time. In fact, the more connected we are, the more we are at risk. That is why cyber security and risk are becoming serious issues for individuals, organizations and nations. This is not to say ‘be afraid,’ but rather to remind us that increasing connectivity will lead to what Perrow calls ‘normal accidents.’
More importantly, theory-wise, this article borrows the notion of ‘duality’ from sociology and applies it to connectivity, wherein ‘connects’ and ‘disconnects’ are identified on multiple dimensions (technical, geo-spatial, interpersonal, group, organizational, networks, economic, cultural, political and philosophical). The duality concept is important because it says that, despite growing connectivity on all of these dimensions, there are enduring disconnects, which means connectivity is constantly in flux, i.e., in this ‘duality’ of connects and disconnects.

Requisite Connectivity
This is the concept I was writing about in my blog in 2006. I won’t say more about it now, but here is the published definition, with the full citation for the published paper below.
‘Requisite connectivity is the state of having robust and reliable communication and/or transportation media/modes, with operable alternative work-around options, so that contact may be initiated or maintained at the rate, richness and intensity that we desire for a given task or social outcome.’ (Kolb, Collins and Lind, 2008, p.182).
Requisite connectivity underpins our empirical research, which I will describe later. I don't have to tell you that the concepts of ‘hypo-connectivity’ and ‘hyper-connectivity’ are showing up more and more in the media and I will certainly be discussing those issues more in the future.

A very short, reasonably complete, and relatively recent summary of the state-of-the-art
If you want the most recent state-of-play of the connectivity field, see our recent Research Note in Organization Studies. It rectifies some confusion in the literature about ‘constant connectivity,’ but more importantly this article suggests that while asking questions about media choice--which is, of course, still relevant--the more important questions to ask are not ‘which’ media to use, but ‘how much’ connectivity do we need for a given purpose or task. If you are a research student, this is where to begin your quest.

Have fun!

Darl Kolb
24 March 2012
Lyon, France

*My dear departed PhD supervisor at the ILR School at Cornell, Larry Williams, used to tell Craig Lundberg from the Hotel School to ‘stop by anytime for a cup of theory.’