Connections and Communicating



Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

Even when I had both my professor’s office in the psychology department and my dean’s office in the administration building, I always did my hardest work in my office at home. Decades ago, when I was a grad student, I became an Alternative Work Arrangement pioneer because my kids were too young for school and we didn’t have enough money for lots of baby-sitting.  I learned to love working in solitude.

Two things made the arrangement work: the first was desperation and the second was, I belonged. I had a long-term job; in fact, I had two:  one at home, and the other on campus.  I knew what mattered. Priorities were clear.  And the brick and mortar world of town, university, neighborhood and home were bound together and created a powerful sense of community.  Psychologically grounded, I was free to be anywhere.

Increasingly, solid brick and mortar are giving way to continuous travel, electronic “touching,” and relationships created and played out in the 3-D hexagon of the Web. It’s the Web that makes an infinite number of connections possible.  As technology facilitates changing combinations of people and of places and of organizations, how do people gain the security of feeling they belong? It is the psychological sense of belonging that enables people to feel grounded while everything keeps changing. Technology moved from improving productivity to creating infinite combinations.

The Web really is different. User-friendly, it makes new kinds of relationships possible between different people in different jobs in different organizations in different parts of the world in real time.  The winners in the   e-conomy will be those who grasp the advantages as well as the hazards of the Web-based plasticity of organizational structures and boundaries.

Computerization of the workplace started in the 1950s with mainframes, very large machines that were housed in special rooms, and were maintained and used by nerdy people with special skills. Next, there were minicomputers, smaller and less expensive than mainframes but big and costly compared with Personal Computers.  PCs made it possible for many millions of people to have computers at home as well as at work, and ultimately in their laps.  Then the industry linked PCs together using local-area networks (LANs).  That created a larger system of PCs, which became client-server computing, a cost-effective way to significantly increase an organization’s automation.

But the client-server technology had a critical limitation given that even within a single organization, the IT system had evolved over time and used many different kinds of software and operating systems. For the client-server technology to work there had to be common operating systems and software in order for all the computers to be able to communicate with each other. The task of linking computers without a common standard is terribly expensive and complicated. Thus, the number of links within an organization, much less between organizations, was severely limited.

The Internet and the World Wide Web destroyed the limits of the client-server technology because the Internet gives computing open standards and the possibility of an infinite number of connections. With a Web browser, any process or any computer can link to any other. On the Web, silos of data that were unreachable between organizations or between functions – human resources, finance, R&D and manufacturing – can talk with each other, collaborate and create new ways of doing business.

New software can grab information from the Web, easily add data to it, create a virtual office in which people “meet,” and transform data into information. Web-based products allow people to conduct meetings on-line, share documents, view video clips, and chat. The Web makes possible real-time collaboration in very large projects with extremely complicated interactive scheduling.  Many people can now work together, wherever they are.

Whether at work, at home, in a taxi or a hotel room…anyone can connect with any other machine. Tightly connected permanent employees, loosely confederated cross-functional team members, nationally distributed outposts of a franchise, overseas manufacturing plants, acquired businesses, joint ventures, suppliers, customers…The ability to communicate and exchange information in real time and at low cost has made it far more feasible to merge operations and organizations. The result is a huge number of joint ventures, alliances, mergers and acquisitions. Cisco Systems, for example, has successfully used mergers and acquisitions to swiftly acquire marvelous minds and products and to reshape itself and its offerings as the market quickly changed.  Cisco acquired and merged with 51 companies in the years 1994 to 2000.  Twenty-one of those deals occurred in a single year, from March 1999 to March 2000.

The user-friendly Web has made it easy to create new kinds of relationships between different people all over the world. Not many years ago, distance was linear, measured in miles and meters.  The more miles or meters, the greater the limits in terms of what could be imagined.  In the mental geography of the Web, there is neither distance nor time.  When organizations are no longer constrained by distance and time, they can communicate, coordinate and be integrated with any other organizations. The lines between organizations are becoming blurred.

In the traditional rules of business the goal was to squeeze suppliers till they cried, keep customers ignorant so they could be gouged, and maul the competition so they withdrew from the battlefield. Now the Internet makes collaboration a source of profit because coordination reduces redundancy, thus overhead.  Increasingly, suppliers, customers and even competitors are becoming partners…for a while. As business conditions shift rapidly, and as the Internet makes both combining and separating organizations reasonably inexpensive, fast and easy, alliances, partnerships and federations can change almost as fast.  In the pre-Internet days, we knew the rules and knew where we stood. Today, what does “partner” mean? What does “partner” mean in Germany, Mexico, Japan, Brazil or China? Is a competitor trustworthy as a partner?  Who’s a customer, a competitor, a vendor, a partner or an ally?  What’s my role? With whom? For how long?

With new combinations of organizations, the human factors need a lot of attention. People of very different constituencies—national origins, ethnicities, religions—values, perspectives and assumptions about what’s normal—are supposed to collaborate.  IT integrates, monitors, and coordinates systems, but distance, alone, often leads to executives being in charge but not in control.  Simultaneously, employees who are very different from those who are in charge, can wonder if they count, if they belong: Does anyone care that I’m here?

Employees who are far from the seat of power may not identify with headquarters, may not feel a part of the larger organization, may not focus on what those in charge think is most critical, and may not really care very much about the larger organization as a whole.

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