The Changing Nature of Work
Weinberger discussed the concept of hyperlinked thinking, which I found very interesting. I was a very early computer and Internet adopter, but I hadn’t thought of work in exactly these terms before. I liked his discussion on how years ago, documents and writing were limited to squeezing things onto a piece of paper. Authors and publishers had limited space, so had to decide what the reader already knew and write accordingly. Hyperlinked writing does away with this need, as a single document can have multiple links that the reader can choose to bypass or click on. If I, as a reader, am not very familiar with the topic, I can click on every hyperlink in the document so I can get more of a broad exposure to the topic. If people are already very familiar with all of the ideas and terminology, they can just read the article itself without expanding any of the hyperlinked documents. At the risk of using too many hyperlinks, I will make it a point in this blog to include a variety of links to web sites to show examples of some that people may choose to click on or not to click on.
I have noticed that the nature of work has also changed due to this hyperlinked thinking and the web. When I worked at United States Strategic Command, I frequently had to brief a General on issues and get permission to launch an asset (airplane or ship/boat) on a particular mission. I noticed that it was no longer good enough just to give the General some background information and my recommendations on what to do. He often would ask for a lot of very detailed information, as he knew that I had access to this through the Web. If I picture a person in my shoes 30-40 years ago, the General would have known the information was not available and would have to make a decision without it. But now, the General knows that we, as the U.S. military, have a breadth of information at our disposal. As an example, I can access up-to-date intelligence reports and comb through the website and information repository of the Combatant Command called U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), which is responsible for the Middle East area of responsibility. I can get all of the pertinent details that the General is looking for, and through email, instant messaging, or a phone call, I can actually talk to an expert halfway across the country or world.
Work has also changed because we are always connected. In the military and my most recent civilian jobs (including teaching), it cannot be as easily done without the web. In the military, our scheduling process is web based, our training is web based, as just a few examples. Prior to a deployment, we are overwhelmed with information. We access websites to tell us the weather forecast, notices from Air Traffic Control centers, reports that show runway and airfield conditions of bases and civilian airports around the world, as well as to decide upon our route of flight. Our systems are so interconnected with each other that if the Internet went down, we would have a tough time.
About 5 years ago, as I was getting qualified in a new aircraft, the final item I needed to accomplish was to take an online test. As I was deploying in about three days, I went to the testing office to take the test. Unfortunately the site was down. The test administrator looked at me and said there is nothing he could do. I explained that I was deploying and there was nobody else that could take my place and that I needed to take the test. I asked him if he had a copy of the test printed out that I could take and he could manually score it. He shrugged his shoulders and said he did not. Luckily I had a few days to spare. I came back the next day and the test was still not accessible. By the end of the day, the site was working again and I took the test. But the leadership lesson in this case is that the person in charge should have made sure that there was a backup method in place, especially since this was a critical deployment item. I think it is important for a leader to recognize when there is a single point of failure. In many situations today, I believe the Internet is a single point of failure. This makes me worry a bit when I think that cyber hackers can bring much of our work to a halt. I feel that leadership should consider having backup and manual processes in place if there are any mission critical activities that could be disrupted.
Husband’s concept of wirearchy brings to light that more and more work is being accomplished online. Collaboration is becoming increasingly important. Besides the typical strictly defined collaboration, there are also informal methods in place. I learned this back in 1995 when I became a part-time Air National Guardsman and had a full-time job as an I.T. manager. I was used to a strict hierarchically defined structure in the Air Force. I wouldn’t dare go directly to the Wing Commander with a problem, complaint or even a suggestion on how to improve efficiency. I would first bring it up to my supervisor, and if the supervisor thought it was worthy, it would start making its way up the chain. This ensured that only the best ideas make it up all the way to the top of the chain. Unfortunately this is also a system where good ideas can die. If anybody up the chain decided that it wasn’t a good idea, it would wilt on the vine at that moment, never to be seen again. In the I.T. company I worked for, I noticed that lines of communication were blurred. My employees had no problem going directly to my boss or to his boss with ideas and information. At first I found this very uncomfortable, but eventually got used to it. If my boss was an expert in something that I wasn’t as familiar with, perhaps it made sense to go to him directly instead of to me. Although I see the merits of this, I have to admit that I sometimes still struggle with that concept, as I feel that I should be in the loop as a supervisor. What I’ve tried to do since then is to make sure my employees know that I am very approachable and that they should keep me in the loop on those types of things as well, in case my boss has questions for me. That seems to solve the issue, while not stifling communication and ideas.