Guest Column

Technology is changing how we work, and maybe who we are

July 19, 2013
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There is no doubt that technological evolution has transformed how we do work. We have become all-day networks, able to act or respond immediately to many different situations. An executive who used to wait days to make a decision can now collect data from a cloud, crunch numbers on a smartphone, and solicit the opinions of his most knowledgeable experts via software applications that allow organizations to survey organizations in hours.

Recent studies are arriving at an emerging consensus that technology not only has changed how we do things, but actually how we focus and even think. Technology drives a lot of information all at once. The younger generations are adapting to this informational deluge in two ways.

First, attention spans have grown much shorter as more information now needs to be absorbed and processed in faster timeframes. Studies conclude those good at keeping pace with technology-driven information actually become much better at “switching” from one topic to the next in rapid-fire succession. This may look like multi-tasking at work, but it is actually moving from one thing to the next so fast it appears to be happening simultaneously.

Second, physiological studies are discovering exposure to technology very early in childhood leads to developing different parts of the brain … so there is an actual physiological difference in brain structures between those growing up with technology and those of us who adapted to it later in our lives.

Perhaps, more alarmingly, young children are forming a much more intimate relationship with technology than ever before and beginning to blur the distinction between where they (as human beings) end and where technology begins. 

An experiment that asks fifth-graders to draw pictures of how they would feel if their technology devices were taken away from them is quite startling. This experiment is run every five years. The previous group had drawn pictures of rainy days, dying flowers, etc., indicating a feeling of sadness in the absence of their devices. The most recent group of fifth-graders drew dismembered figures, destroyed houses, etc., indicating they are now identifying with these devices — emotionally, anyway — as being an actual part of themselves … just as integral to their self-image as an arm or a leg.

So what does all this mean for business? It is one thing to say technology has changed — and will continue to change — the way work gets done. That seems somehow manageable for us. We can implement technology in measured and considered ways into our workplaces and for our work forces — that seems somehow controllable. 

It is quite another thing to say technology is changing who we are. That seems scary and very hard to understand. We are no longer talking about a controllable use of technology but a new type of talent that thinks very differently than we do — whose brains are physically different from ours — that already has technology embedded within their identity. It seems too futuristic, like alien cyborg creatures that are half human and half computer chip.

So what do we do? The first thing that makes sense is to better understand what this new human thinks and acts like and begin asking ourselves some fundamental questions. How does this different generation of talent integrate their brains so closely with technological devices? Can we anticipate which forms and models of work will become obsolete in light of this new type of talent? How will we keep this new type of talent engaged — what types of technology will make them feel comfortable at work? 

We need to begin to think of technology not as tools to get work done but as fundamental components of the human experience whether at work or not — like food, water and oxygen. It’s a lot to think about. Maybe we need to recruit this new type of talent that can absorb and process vast quantities of information faster than most of us can to help us solve the challenges ahead.

Michael Haid is executive vice president of talent management and global strategic workforce consulting for Right Management, Great Lakes Region.

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