The Virtue of Virtual

879 views Published on 5th April 2011

From the US Government to Swiss bank Julius Baer, the lessons of Wikileaks have left many a leader shuddering at the prospect of their secrets being exposed to the world.

If the string of indiscretions finding their way onto the internet has taught us anything, it’s that relegating digital communication culture to the corner of the company where the techies twitch and the marketers mumble is no longer an option. If it doesn’t form an integral part of any organisation, then that organisation is at risk. The corner has become the corner stone.

Tom Olson, Director of U.S. Issues & Crisis Practice called it “the new reality of ‘involuntary transparency’."  And one better learn to be a visionary in this space.

For leaders in the workplace, that means self upgrading; it means understanding what new cultural practices are being driven by these technologies, how these affect transparency and ethical practice, how they change the nature of the work environment and those that operate in it, as well as the huge opportunities they also bring.

We all know that digitization of information and communication has given rise to changes in culture, changes in how people communicate and how they work. We now live in a super connected networked village. Business leaders need to take a strategic approach to all digital communication and everything it brings: more mobility, social networking, marketing possibilities, business-client engagement, and improved organisational intelligence. And this strategy has to acknowledge that the future will be more digitised.

This year, according to the Telkom Trends IN Africa 2010 report released by World Wide Worx and Database 360, there will be an Internet Revolution in South Africa. South African Internet users are now nearing the 6 million mark with most of them accessing the net through their phones. The First National Bank Mobility 2011 research project found that 39% urban and 27% rural South Africans browse the Internet on their phones, and with the rise of the Smartphone and mobile email there is a suggestion that the workforce is becoming more nomadic.

The implications for this are that the structures are changing and work no longer only takes place at work, in fact it can take place anywhere anytime. A report can be typed at a local coffee shop, or creative ideas can be generated while taking walks in the mountains and immediately be sent via a cell phone to a team that could be spread around the world. The benefits to business and innovation are obvious.

Social networking applications for instance can be used within the new operational environment to monitor projects, improve collaboration, enhance communication and increase productivity. Unrestricted access to the Internet can give office bound employees a sense of freedom leading to increased productivity and creativity and greater transparency and better communication channels can give customers more satisfaction leading to a greater sense of loyalty.

However it is not a free for all. Leaders need to be switched on to make sure that they understand the implications of what technology can do. To simply and thoughtlessly adopt technology is to create a fools paradise. If there is no harmony between the technology and those that use it and the work at hand, there could be trouble.

On one hand, increased access to information makes it easier for disgruntled employees to harm their employer.

One in five of all UK corporate data loss incidents reported in the first half of 2010 was caused by employees, according to a recent survey by KPMG reported in Information Age magazine. The professional services provider’s Data Loss Barometer report found that the frequency of such ‘malicious insider’ incidents has increased from 4% in 2007 to 21% in 2010. It is now the single largest cause of data loss, the study says.

Burn out is another dangerous by-product of the digital age. There are concerns about the affect of too much mobile usage on sleep patterns and attention span and the distractive characteristics of communication technology – Facebook at work, not to mention email apnoea and information overload. These affect productivity. What’s the point of running a super connected super charged organisation that suffers from a drowsy technology overdose? Business leaders need to take a sober approach to these innovations as some lesser considered issues start to take the foreground.

Marshal McLuhan, in his famous book Understanding Media: The extension of man, argued that there comes a point where the extension leads to an amputation. And so as communication is extended by digital technology, we should not allow it to ‘amputate’ our tongues or our ability to interact face to face. And as the technology extends the workplace and workforce we should not allow it to distract us from ourselves and our goals, nor allow it to make us obsolete.

Thorstein Vebler, the great technological determinist, believes technology is a force basically out of our control but the right leaders, those that endeavour to find calm in the chaos and work at harmonising the new environment as it rapidly changes, internally as well as externally, can harness it rather than be swept along by it.

If companies want to avoid Julian Assange’s “reputational tax” while at the same time creating more empowered, motivated employees and customers, they must recognise that digital communications technology is a powerful, cultural, strategic element in the game now.

By Dave Duarte

The author is Programme Director and Lecturer at UCT Graduate School of Business; his latest Executive Education programme, Nomadic Leadership, focuses on digital media and leadership. He is based in South Africa but regularly teaches internationally.


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