Technology at Work: A Love-Hate Relationship
I’m in New Orleans for a treasured aunt’s funeral, sitting in my 88-year-old mother’s kitchen, some 650 miles away from my office. It’s four in the morning. I’m connected online via my mother’s landline. We make do with what’s available. My company’s CEO is in Switzerland for a big business conference that will be livestreamed over the internet. The plan is for people at the event to livetweet, and I will retweet them. The program will last one hour.
Nothing goes according to plan. The people in Switzerland forget to livetweet. The livestream will work only herky-jerky over the landline. The company is announcing a big initiative, and we have to livetweet it. I feel the panic rising.
Yes, we make do with what’s available. I pirate the next-door neighbor’s wifi, pull up the livestream, and begin to tweet a meeting 5,000 miles from where I’m sitting. No one knows that I’m not in the room in Switzerland. And by following the stream via the meeting’s hashtag, I can periodically retweet photos and what others are recording. I end up with 45 tweets in an hour. I quickly assemble the tweets into a narrative flow and post them on the company’s blog.
At 5:25 a.m., I go back to bed to catch a few hours sleep before the funeral.
I work in corporate communications. My work life is suffused with technology—my team is not only responsible for the social media channels and web sites of the company I work for but also the communications by email, the intranet, required training courses (like safety and business conduct) delivered via desktop computers, participating in virtual town halls, and attending webinars.
It’s simultaneously wonderful and terrible.
Today, we have access to people, places and information—enormous mountains of information—that we’ve never had before. I can remember the early days of email and using Mosaic to find things on what we had just started calling the Internet. You didn’t need to be a genius to realize that everything was going to be transformed by what we were looking at on our computer screens. And then we did the company’s first website—in 1996. We didn’t know where all of this was headed, but we knew it was going in a very different direction than anything we had previously known or experienced.
Here are five ways technology has changed the way I do my work:
First, the substance of the work I do work has fundamentally changed. I live in the United States, but my work, by definition of the Internet, is global. People in India can see what I do online as soon as the person who lives next door. I may be communicating to customers in the United States, but everyone will see it.
Second, the speed of my work has changed. We call it Internet time. I’ve told people I work with that when a crisis erupts, we have anywhere from sixty to ninety minutes to get ahead of it; after that, we will always be playing catch-up. And those sixty to ninety minutes are shrinking. This “need for speed” alone creates major tensions in my work place—companies like to give measured, well-thought-out responses achieved by consensus. Many people I work with think a response within three days is moving fast. And it is, in non-Internet time.
Third, the people I have to communicate with have changed. Communications people used to talk about “targeted audiences” (a term, by the way, that I’ve always disliked; it turns people into objects). You may still think you have a targeted audience, but when everyone can see what you’re doing, everyone becomes the audience. And they do see. And they comment. And if they don’t like it, they will try to interfere with it, or hijack it.
Fourth, I juggle fire and water simultaneously. A typical day finds me first trying to build a fire under people to get a response to something happening. At the same time, I’m trying to put fires out with colleagues who think something must be responded to immediately. You have to do this kind of work for a while to, as the song says, “know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.” It’s not always an intuitive distinction, and what helps is developing a track record of calling things right.
And, finally, the Holy Grail of organizational life—how to measure the impact of communications—has not gotten any easier. Dozens of companies sell management, search, and measuring tools; I like to say “everyone has an algorithm.” But we’re still in the early days of figuring out how to measure and assess; we tend to fall into marketing lingo and online jargon and talk about impressions, owned impressions, reach, influence, page-views, and site visits. (We all turn our noses up at saying something like “hits.”)
I love what I do, but this kind of work, I hear, burns people out quickly. Including me.
Technology always offers a benefit and always has a cost. It’s huge fun and hugely exhausting. Simultaneously wonderful and terrible. But after all, we make do with what’s available.