I had a very enjoyable chat last night with the post-grad class at UNM I wrote about yesterday. Over the course of two and a half hours of very engaging give and take, one thing became clear. Everyone in the conversation admitted that many of the fundamental tools we use to to communicate and collaborate are broken. When the conversation turned to how we go about fixing them, things got interesting.
One of the participants asked me why I chose e-mail, meetings, and PowerPoint as examples of how work has broken for so many people in my More Space essay.
"Because they are almost universal," I said. "Universal in the sense that all knowledge workers I encounter have to use them and universal in the sense that, to one degree or another, all three have become increasingly dysfunctional for most of them."
A couple of diagnostic questions later, they agreed that things were not as good as they could be. We had a good laugh about how vehement Edward Tufte has become these past few years about PowerPoint - labeling it the great Satan of corporate communications. Tufte is a brilliant man and I learn a lot from everything he writes. But I maintain that he's put too much blame on the tool itself when the root cause of the broken communications he rails against is the culture that promotes or passively permits ineffective use.
E-mail, I argued, is broken in much the same way. I asked them if they had ever received actual training in how to use e-mail or been involved in organizations where e-mail practices were clearly defined and communicated. All shook their heads. I followed up with a question about whether these same organizations had articulated and codified how an effective meeting should be run. Same reaction.
Having reached consensus on the broken-ness of things, we began discussing the far more interesting issue of how to go about fixing things. While the ensuing conversation was deeply influenced by peculiarities of business in New Mexico, we were able to get to a more archetypal level of debate about the relative merits of top-down versus grassroots approaches to precipitating change. My position is that the most meaningful and lasting changes in individual and group behavior begin at the individual and small group level. Top-down, command-and-control change initiatives fail - frequently and often quite spectacularly. Anyone who's survived one of these change-by-proclamation efforts knows what I mean.
We talked about fomenting change in small and large organizations, dealing with business politics and empire-builders, and how scaling change from a grassroots beginning presents some unique challenges. And we got into generational issues. All of the participants in last night's conversation are in their late forties or early fifties. We began our travels in the world of work in a different time. The challenges and opportunities for those entering the workforce today are decidedly different than those we faced. Knowledge workers in their twenties and thirties embrace and use technology in a decidedly different fashion than most of our generation.
All in all, it was a great opportunity to consider the changing world of work and how we, as entrepreneurs and business leaders, will embrace these changes. While we agreed to disagree on certain closely held beliefs, we did agree that the one thing none of us could afford to do was ignore these changes.