Is technology dramatically reshaping organizations?

Today’s post is adapted from my response to a recent discussion board question in my graduate management class. The questions are included below before my responses. Here’s a brief synopsis of the “point” and “counter-point” arguments:

POINT

In today’s chaotic, uncertain, and high-tech world, there is essentially only one type of design that is going to survive. This is the electronically configured organic organization. 

We are undergoing a second Industrial Revolution and it will change every aspect of people’s lives. The changes the large corporations used to take a decade to implement now occur in one to two years. Companies that are successful will be designed to thrive on change, and the structure of those organizations will have common characteristics.

COUNTER POINT

There is a saying that every generation thinks it has discovered sex. This seems to be the case with technology and how it is going to change the world completely.

Technology will transform the structure of organizations at a much slower rate than many believe. For instance, it is useful to go back and ask if the railroads changed the world. There were definitely changes in how commerce and industry were arranged, but life remained the same, and the way people related to each other remained the same.

1) Do you agree more with the point or counter-point arguments? Why?

I’m pretty solidly in the counterpoint camp here, though 2020 has given me plenty of reason to rethink that position. But I’ll stick with it. The “every generation thinks it discovered sex” saying is very appropriate. It’s difficult to gauge the amount of change human innovation and technological advances have made if you only consider the changes that have occurred in your own lifetime. For many younger Americans – and this is certainly not a criticism – it can be hard to imagine a time before the internet allowed virtually instantaneous communication and information sharing. For the very youngest, it may even be hard to imagine a time that you couldn’t do all of those things on a small handheld device. But tech advances have been happening for centuries, though once electricity and electronics got added to the mix, those advances sped up remarkably. So it’s important to consider that the changes we’re seeing right now are just the next step in a long line of technological advances, and that there are many more to come. Businesses and organizations will need to be ready to adapt as the next “big thing” comes along.

As a side note, I’d like to suggest that while technology makes new possibilities available on a regular basis, most businesses and organizations tend to be rather slow in adopting them. The exception has been this year: I’ve seen more innovation and change, much of it technology-based, in higher education in less than a year than I’d seen in two decades of working at my community college. This was made necessary by the immediate need to move to “remote” and “online” instruction and services, of course, but it does suggest that it’s not really necessary to have task forces and study groups that can take years to formulate plans to implement new technologies. When push comes to shove, we apparently can do it on a much shorter timescale; in 2020, years became months, and months became days. I imagine the memory of how we were able to quickly adapt will influence similar decisions in the future, even after the pandemic ceases to make them time-critical.

2) Do you think organizations will change dramatically by the year 2070 or do you think they will be similar to organizations today? What factors do you think will be most important?

2070 is fifty years from now. I was a child in 1970 but, through the miracle of YouTube, Netflix, and other streaming services that would have been science fiction back then, I can still look back at my childhood and see how the world was. Television – “brought to you in living color on NBC!” – was becoming the dominant social force that it has been since it supplanted radio’s previous role (though it’s worth remembering that most people only had three or four TV channels to choose from); business machines were still mostly mechanical and analog, with room-sized mainframe computers only available to the largest corporations and government; and American society was conflicted by the civil rights movement (which began to gain momentum in the 1960s) and the women’s rights movement (which really grew in the 1970s), the winding down of American involvement in Vietnam and southeast Asia, and the continuing Cold War. And nobody had even heard of Watergate yet. Labor unions were still powerful, with one in three workers belonging to one.

When you compare fifty years ago to today – and factor in the accelerating growth of technology (as quantified by Moore’s Law) – it’s difficult to imagine that organizations could possibly not change in the next fifty years.

3) Do you think the trend toward decentralization and employee empowerment will continue?

This one I’m less certain about. Power is central to human motivation. The ability to control one’s own destiny is often intertwined with the need to control other people, and those with the means to enforce that control will hardly be eager to give it up. So decentralization and “employee empowerment” will continue so long as those ideas serve the other needs of those in power: productivity, profitability, and stability. If by giving employees the sense that they control their own work lives improves the efficiency and success of a business or organization (though the ability to work from home or make more decisions on their own), those trends will be allowed to continue. If it reaches a tipping point where control appears to be weakened, I’d expect a move back to more centralized, supervised work.

Five veterans

Veterans’ Day doesn’t get the same attention as other national holidays. We don’t get a vacation day or have fireworks displays, though we do have the usual sales that accompany – and trivialize – our most somber remembrances.

Veterans’ Day was originally Armistice Day, and it commemorated the signing of the armistice ending World War I between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire on one side, and the Allied Powers (including the U.S.) on the other. The war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. The holiday is often confused with Memorial Day in May; that date honors the memory of those who were killed in wartime, while Veterans’ Day honors all military veterans, alive and deceased.

Many of our military conflicts prior to the 1980s were fought largely with conscripted soldiers. While there were volunteers and regular officers, the bulk of America’s fighting force was made up of (mostly) men who had been required to register with their local draft boards, called into service, and sent off to training and perhaps the front lines. The sacrifice of all of our military men and women is laudable; no one gets rich by joining any branch of the military, and the individual risks plus the stress on family members and friends, is significant. But to have had no choice in the matter puts the service of draftees on another level. Their lives were interrupted by no choice of their own, and none of the wars or conflicts America has been part of could have been waged without them.

As Veteran’s Day 2020 draws to a close, I’d like to tell you about five military veterans from my family. The first is my dad, Jim Kephart. Dad was a student at Michigan State College in 1950-51 when the Korean Conflict started. For a time it seemed like college students would be exempted from military service, but that soon changed, and Dad realized that he could either wait to be drafted into the Army and have no choice in the matter, or go voluntarily and maybe have some control over what happened to him. He chose the Air Force, which had recently become independent from the Army in 1947 after World War II. He was sent to Texas for basic training, and when his abilities as a clerk became apparent, he found himself working in the base office. Although Texas was hotter than Dad was used to, being a Michigan boy, he would have been willing to stay there for the duration, handling the behind-the-scenes administration that any large organization requires, but one day an officer asked him if he’d signed up to go to the United Kingdom. Dad had seen the posting for a clerk position on a bulletin board, but, having no particular interest in going to England, had ignored it. The officer told him that there was going to be a large group leaving the base for Korea in the next week, and if Dad didn’t want to be in that group, he should volunteer for Europe duty.

Being a smart man, he did. He spent the next three and half years at Royal Air Force West Drayton as part of the 3911th Air Base group of the U.S. Air Force. West Drayton was a non-flying base that provided air traffic control services to military aircraft throughout the U.K. and France. Dad ran a logistics office, keeping supplies moving to where they needed to go to support NATO and U.N. troops in Europe and in Korea.

Some people (including Dad himself) refer to that as “flying a desk” in the Air Force, but it takes tens of thousands of support staff to run a war, and each of them had to put their other lives on hold to serve their country. While my father wasn’t on the front lines or flying the fighter jets, he was a military man at the beginning of the Cold War, when missteps by either side, diplomatically or militarily, could have resulted in global disaster. I’m proud of his service and thank him for it.

Three other veterans are my great-uncles on my mom’s side of the family, Elmer, Eldon, and Arvid Hansen. Elmer was born in 1920, Eldon in 1922, and Arvid in 1924. They all registered for Selective Service in 1942 and were all called up within eight months of each other. Elmer was with an infantry unit in California in January, 1944, according to the article below from The State Journal in Lansing, Michigan. Eldon was serving with a quartermaster unit in Iceland, and Arvid was with the Great Lakes Hospital Corps in Illinois. Elmer eventually saw service in the Pacific and Arvid in Europe. I didn’t know Eldon, as he died in 1969 when I was only six, but I remember Elmer and Arvid well. Elmer was more reserved while Arvid was more outgoing and funny, but the one thing they shared was a reluctance to discuss their wartime experiences. Only Elmer came close to talking about it with me one day just few years before he died in 2011; he told me he had seen people do “terrible things” to each other in the Pacific islands and that his fervent hope was that someday we’d figure out a way to stop doing that anymore. Arvid, who died in 2014, never talked about it at all; it was the one thing you could bring up that would stop him from joking and laughing, so you learned to stop asking. My great-grandparents were a three Blue Star family, like many families during World War II, and while all three of their sons returned home, none of them were quite the same young men they’d been when they left.

Captain William Davis Everitt

The last veteran is my wife’s great-great-great-grandfather, William Davis Everitt. While his service pre-dates Armistice Day, his service was another example of the type of sacrifice America’s soldiers have made throughout our history. Living in Scott County in southeastern Indiana at the start of the Civil War, he helped muster a company of volunteers that became Company “I” of the 81st Regiment of Indiana Volunteers. Everitt was first a lieutenant for the company and soon became its commander, gaining the rank of captain which gave him his nickname for the remainder of his life: “Cap.” He fought with the 81st for three years, from July of 1862 through the end of the war in 1865, seeing action from Kentucky to Georgia. He wrote a touching series of letters to his wife and young children which have been preserved through the years. I’ll be doing a series on those letters over the next few months. But he also had to put his life as a farmer on hold for something bigger than himself, and his family had to take on those burdens while he was gone.

While it would certainly be better if we could figure out a way to stop having wars, they have been a nearly constant backdrop to American history since our fight for independence nearly 250 years ago. It’s our veterans – both those who gave their lives and those who came back, forever changed, who we honor today. I don’t think it’s incompatible to both be against war, as I am, and also in favor of giving our military veterans the respect they deserve.

To Elmer, Eldon, Arvid, “Cap,” and my dad… thank you.

Three leadership traits that can set you apart

A great leader needs many positive traits. Common traits that are mentioned include assertiveness, high energy, sociability, openness to new experiences, self-confidence, and self-discipline. I can’t disagree with any of those. I suggest these three, though, because, in my experience, they’re as rare as hen’s teeth. Finding someone who has all three (along with a healthy portion of the others mentioned above) would produce someone I’d want to work for.

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