Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Denali - on 'peak experiences'

Thirty years ago I stood on the summit of Denali (Mt. McKinley) at 20,320 ft, the highest peak in North America.  Surveying the magnificent Alaska Range in the midnight glow of Arctic summer (at -40 degrees F; with windchill at -100 F) was and remains one of the highlights of my life.  From landing on the glacier to flying back to Talkeetna took 16 days.  During that time we were completely out of contact with the world below.

A few years later, during a 20-day trip down the Grand Canyon, we were similarly out of touch, which was a natural part of the adventure.  Indeed, working as a wilderness instructor and guide for 10 years in the 1980s, we routinely said good-bye to friends and loved ones as we worked 20 to 28-day courses in the backcountry of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Texas.  These were some of the 'peak experiences' in my life.

Yesterday, I participated in a round table discussion with Nik and Ruby Roy Dholakia, both of the University of Rhode Island.  Both are doing groundbreaking work on the future of marketing, in particular 'consumption.'  Among other ideas, Nik and colleagues argue that social media are shifting the nature of our life experiences, like my summit experience on Denali and running the Grand Canyon.

If we think of a continuum of 'mundane,' 'special' and 'peak' experiences, we have all seen how social media are used to make the mundane 'special,' i.e., posting photos of food, checking in at routine coffee breaks, etc.

Conversely, bringing others along virtually on 'peak' experiences risks making those experiences less rarified, less extraordinary than the isolated triumph of standing on top of the world (literally or metaphorically) on your own or with your climbing partner.  Posting or texting from the summit of Denali--as a friend of mine did a few years ago--is still no doubt 'special,' but it is somewhat less extreme than being there knowing that it would be several days before my wife even knew if I had survived the summit push and descent, let alone see my summit selfie.

Modern day adventurers will no doubt counter that documenting expeditions has a long history (including coincidently the Kolb brothers with Powell in the Grand Canyon) and that sharing an experience immediately and widely on social media heightens the experience, rather than contributing to its deterioration or demotion on the Mundane-Special-Peak scale.

Making the mundane special is mostly harmless.  It brings a farcical and humorous dimension to social media (for example, a web site devoted to photos of people taking photos of food).  On the other hand, social media's fascination with the mundane may have more serious existential consequences.

Meanwhile, existentialists should rightfully be concerned if, as my colleagues suggest, intensive life-defining 'peak' experiences are somehow reduced in their impact as we rush to document rather than simply experience our moments of personal triumph.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

What is connectivity?

Returning from Rotterdam (sitting in Heathrow), where I had the pleasure of being a co-convenor of a European Group for Organization Studies (EGOS) Symposium sub-theme on 'Connectivity and Mobility' with Marleen Huysman leader of the KIN2 Group at VU University of Amsterdam and Kristine Dery, who recently joined MIT's Center for Information Systems Research, I am reflecting on the 'state of connectivity' (as opposed to my usual preoccupation with 'states of connectivity').

From an academic perspective, have we reached a point where we can consider connectivity a field of research?  Certainly, a substantial proportion of papers we saw at the Symposium focused on mobile technologies, work-life balance or 'new ways of work' and organisational control of such and drew upon constructs of 'connectivity.'  

Connectivity studies address the central organising theme of our time, namely increasingly ubiquitous and pervasive connectivity, with its attending promise, problems and opportunities for all levels and dimensions of individuals, organisations and society at large.

In particular, leading and raising star academics, like Paul Leonardi and Melissa Mazmanian, use the term in recent influential publications, which are already being heavily cited.  Since citations are the primary currency of scholarship, it is reasonable to suggest that connectivity is emerging as a legitimate field of research.

Coming back to the question of what 'connectivity' is, I have previously offered a comprehensive definition, as follows:

‘Connectivity is defined here 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, including shared histories, travel, trade, migration, culture, politics and other social activities.’ (Source: Kolb, D. G. (2008). Exploring the metaphor of connectivity: Attributes, dimensions and duality. Organization Studies, 29, 1, 127-144; direct quote found on p.128)

I remain pretty happy with this broad and inclusive definition.  In fact, the term is used to describe all manner of connections, from the most technical to most social/humanistic/philosophical.  I have not seen a reference to God as connectivity or connectivity as god, but it is only a matter of time.

Connectivity as Metaphor: Attributes, Dimensions and Duality

In that same 2008 Organization Studies article, I referred to connectivity as a 'metaphor.'  This is because, at that time, it could not be considered a 'theory' or a 'field,' but rather it was a way of seeing something, i.e., the social world, through a lens used in another context, in this case, the technical (e.g., electronics) world--where the term came from (although the term also appears in neuroscience and I am not sure which used it first).

Attributes: Exploring the metaphor, I suggested that one might think of connectivity as ‘... a constantly changing set of connective links, some of which have never been used (latent potential), many of which are reliant on individuals (actor agency), which come and go (temporal intermittency) and some whose reach cannot be fully understood or predicted (unknowable pervasiveness).’ (Kolb, 2008, p.140)

Dimensions: I went on to show how connectivity occurs on multiple dimensions, including: geo-physical, technical, interpersonal, group, organisational, networks, economic, cultural, political, philosophical

Duality: Finally, drawing on adaptive structuration theory, I suggested that connectivity is characterised by ‘connects’ and ‘disconnects,’ which exist as a ‘duality,’ i.e., they are distinct, but interrelated phenomena.

So that is connectivity as metaphor.  What about theory?  There are several theoretical frameworks of connectivity, including our model of 'requisite connectivity' (Kolb, Collins and Lind, 2008), 'connective flow' (ibid; Dery, Kolb and MacCormick, 2014) and Paul Leonardi and colleagues' work on the 'connectivity paradox.'  Based on what we are seeing from emerging researchers, there are bound to be new and exciting theoretical developments coming to the field soon. 

Of course, I am mostly involved with the organisational theory, communication and information systems communities, but others are also employing the term. 

Here is my new bold claim. When you consider the machine-to-machine connections that characterize the Internet of things, the deep concerns about our brains on screens, the isolation of being 'alone together,' and the growing philosophical pursuit of the 'good life' in a social-meets-digital age, I believe it is safe to say, we have truly entered the Age of Connectivity.

To put it another way, at this point in history, connectivity isn't everything, but it's almost everything.