Nicholas Carr’s [i]The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison To Google[/i] is a look at two major changes in how business behaved. It is part success story, and part warning, and it does a great job of both. There is a somewhat longer review on my blog, and I wanted to share a couple of points with this forum.
The first fifth of the book is about the process of moving from a world powered largely by muscles or water, and lit only by fire, to industry powered and lit by electrical utilities. No single invention — the electric generator, electric motors, electric lights or power transmission lines — was the key to this second industrial revolution. Rather, it was the construction of [i]systems[/i] of generating, delivering and using electricity that led to a complete transformation of industrial production, and laid the foundation (with Hollerith and Watson) for the next great change: digital computing. The differences in management approach between Thomas Edison and Samual Insull may also be interesting to MT readers.
Computing is in the process of being transformed as well, this time by the interconnectedness of computing systems and the synergies that networks — local, corporate, national, global and finally home — that are generated by combining computing and networking. The effects of this transformation are clearly mixed. One of the most disturbing trends is the discovery that blogs aligned along political viewpoints are making online communities increasingly polarized. The disparate bloggers rarely even read each other’s stuff, and when they do link to each other, it devolves into namecalling.
Part of this polarization is clearly because the nets unite us. On the net, you can find people who agree with you, and work together to enjoy the online community, or organize to change society at large. That’s very powerful, and may lead to a better world. If you’re the only sex-positive non-Christian in the PTA, it can be hard to lobby for change. If you’re one of a few thousand (or maybe few million) on the net, you’re not quite so alone, you can find a community of support, and you have the courage to Do The Right Thing for your daughter and women everywhere.
The danger, of course, is groupthink. That means that forums like Manager Tools need people who can sincerely disagree, and discuss those disagreements cogently and with civility. I'm certain I can do the former, and I hope I can do the latter.
Laptops are the obvious example: Mike and Mark are wrong about laptops in meetings. I recognize that "topless meetings" are currently in vogue, and I think that takes us in the wrong direction.
When I take a laptop to meetings with me, I have access to more information and better tools, and I'm more effective. Having the laptop can provide a distraction, so it requires discipline, from me and from my collaborators. Simply banning laptops may make meetings more efficient, but Manager Tools is supposed to be about effectiveness, not efficiency. I've said before, I believe implants will be common in my daughter's lifetime, so she really will be constantly connected. People who cut themselves off from information access are essentially cutting off part of their brain.
Our goal, as managers, as leaders, and even simply as commentators on modern business practices, should be to identify the best ways to apply tools, and to communicate effective norms for behavior that include technologies. We need better ways to give feedback on laptop abuse. People doodle on pads of paper, rather than paying attention in meetings. That is not an argument for banning pencils. Our focus should be on cognitive behaviors, not the tools we use to manage our behavior.
The electric lightbulb, Carr suggests, started the breakdown of family cohesion. We were no longer huddled around the fire, but instead we were increasingly free of the darkness, and increasingly in separate rooms, with separate interests. The web may be the informational light bulb that breaks apart communities and builds new ones. To be a positive thing, this new tool leading us out of informational darkness must also get us to talk to each other, and get us beyond shouting and namecalling.