Using technology with intention

Who is in the room - flickr - Latente 囧

There is a great quote by Sir James Matthew Barrie, the Scottish journalist and author. In 1896 he wrote “The printing press is either the greatest blessing or the greatest curse of modern times, one sometimes forgets which.”

From a modern perspective it is easy to see the blessings of the printing press in regard to the dissemination of information and enabling mass education and literacy. 100 years later it is difficult to understand the printing press as a curse (though we might accuse the Internet, or email or such a thing) but given its use in the mass production of propaganda material in both world wars there are clearly times that it has been used for contrary purposes.

Ultimately the difference between whether a tool is used well or used poorly is intention. Often we rush towards the outcome without realising the the outcome is the result of a process. For digital technology the basis of intention is the right combination of task, environment and app (an app is really just a digital tool).

So to be effective with technology we first need to be able to break down objectives and activities into tasks. This allows us to identify which of those tasks are informational in nature and best suited to digital technology. Secondly a task could be undertaken in a number of different environments and the choice of environment can have a material impact on our effectiveness in that task. There are two key choices when it comes to environment, the first is the physical location, the second is the platform. Take for instance the task of annotating a report for an upcoming meeting, the choice of location might include our desk, at a cafe, on the train, at the breakfast table or reclining on the couch. Our choice of platform might include our laptop/desktop, our tablet, our smartphone or on paper.

The third domain of intention is application. This is the tool that we choose to complete the task. In an analogue or paper based world we an extremely limited set of tools at our disposal. We might have a set of different coloured highlighters, our favourite fountain pen or a set of post-it notes in a range of fashionable colours but none of this is likely to make a substantive impact on your overall effectiveness. Fundamentally this is because the underlying technology, paper, is a poor medium for finding, sharing and repurposing the information that we create during the annotation process. In a digital environment we could have a multitude of apps and the choice of app can have a substantial impact on overall effectiveness. Apps can differ in a number of different ways and choosing an appropriate app is in itself an important skill.

This is not a choice that we have always had and therefore it is not a decision that we are used to making. For a long time our digital tools have been dictated to us and for the most part tied to a particular location, our desk. In fact for much of the time since the industrial revolution we have been going to a location called ‘work’ because that is where the technology was. Even when weaving looms gave way to typing pools and subsequently to personal computers linked on a Local Area Network (LAN) we have continued to go to the place where technology is located.

It is only with the growth of powerful mobile technology, ubiquitous network connections over wifi and cellular networks and the growing cloud computing infrastructure that our notion of work is changing. In the 21st century going to work is no longer about the destination but rather it is now about the activity. Ultimately, intention is about activating the choices that we have to improve performance rather than blindly continuing to do the things we have always done.

Photo credit: Latente via flickr

Is the pen really mightier than the keyboard?

There is an interesting debate currently going on amongst academics and other big thinkers across the internet about the effectiveness of our digital tools in adding understanding and recollection. So given that the internet allows us all to have our say, regardless of our level of expertise, I thought I would add my two cents to the conversation before we all get distracted by a new cat meme.

The debate seems to have started with some research out of the US suggesting that paper and pens were a superior form of notetaking than keyboards. The research titled The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking argues that people who take notes using pen and paper remember more and show a greater understanding of the subject matter than people who take notes on a laptop. It hypothesized that the ability to capture information faster on a keyboard led to greater verbatim note taking and as a result students had to exert less cognitive load in building understanding and connections between content. It was something the authors called ‘desirable difficulty’…which just might be my new favourite phrase to drop into conversations.

So in response Clive Thompson, journalist for Wired Magazine and author of Smarter Than You Think (which just might be my new favourite book title to drop into conversations) wrote a piece on Medium titled The Joy of Typing: How racing along at 60 words a minute can unlock your mind. Clive doesn’t question the science of the aforementioned research but rather suggests that although the ability to type fast might provide a negative outcome when it comes to capturing information it is a positive when it comes to producing it. Clive refers to what academics call ‘transcription fluency’, how quickly and fluidly you can get down the things in your head. To back this up Clive points to research that suggested not only are typed essays generally of a higher standard than hand written ones but that the fastest typists created better essays that slower ones.

So it seems that on one hand we shouldn’t be using keyboards for note taking but we still need top quality keyboard skills for content creation.

So, here’s my opinion…

Firstly, I would suggest that none of the above research is terribly surprising. Paper and pens have been our preferred ‘memory augmentation’ device for centuries and following a minimum of 10 years of formal schooling in Western countries it is perhaps expected that we have developed some fairly effective systems around ‘paper technology’. Similarly, the keyboard and word processing programs we use on our laptops have evolved from typewriters, a technology primarily aimed at formal content production but probably rarely used in the lecture theatre for note taking.

But so far we have only compared a 1980’s technology (keyboard/laptop) with an 1890’s one (mass produced pens and papers). When we look at the technology of the 21st century technology we are seeing new opportunities that bring the benefits of both these technologies together.

One of the advantages of touch enabled devices such as the iPad is the ease of non-linear note taking. Using apps such as the awesome iThoughts, you can tap into the advantages of digital (faster data capture and the ability to search, share and repurpose your notes) with the advantages of paper, the ability to capture information in non-linear ways and make connections between disparate bits of information. In fact there is significant amounts of research on mind-mapping and the benefits in terms of both information recall and building understanding (for a fairly thorough summary check out Mind Mapping: Scientific Research and Studies by Think Buzan.

This seems to be the classic and/or debate. When we get access to new technology we often see the decision as one of substitution, we get to have the flexibility of paper or the efficiency of a keyboard. But when we start engaging with technology more deeply we see that that we could have both. Our mindset shifts from one of substitution to one of augmentation and we look for ways to augment the flexibility of paper with the efficiency of a keyboard (for more on this you should check out the SAMR model showing the benefits of new technology in a teaching environment).

Personally I think that the worst thing we can do is assume that we already have it right, that there are no more opportunities for improvement. Rather than protect the ways that we currently work (which is often done out of fear or to justify why we haven’t changed) we should be always actively seeking to to improve on the status quo. And when the status quo for students and knowledge workers is a 150 year old technology then it would seem that the improvement opportunities could be quite significant.

Photo credit: Tools of the trade by Damien Pollet via flickr

What is Digital Intelligence?

As work becomes increasingly dominated by technology we need new ways of thinking to continue to be effective. Our ability to acquire and apply new knowledge and skill is what we call intelligence. In the process driven world of the industrial age this was dominated by concepts of logic, more recently we have identified other forms of intelligence such as Emotional Intelligence which are incredibly important in high human contact environments. As we enter an age of work that is increasingly conducted using digital tools we are going to need a new type of intelligence, Digital Intelligence, if we are to continue to be effective.

A simple definition of Digital intelligence is “the ability to acquire and apply new knowledge and skills related to digital technologies”. It is more than the ability to use digital tools, but rather the know why, know what, know how and know when of digital technology to improve effectiveness and outcomes. Digital Intelligence is fundamentally about our relationship with technology, just as Emotional Intelligence is about our relationship with others. Digital Intelligence is not about the use of digital tools at the exclusion of human ability but rather it is about the relative strengths of both people and technology and playing to those strengths.

Over the last few years access to digital tools has exploded. We have Facebook, Twitter and other social tools to connect and share with our friends, we have cloud backup services such as Dropbox and Evernote for making our information available everywhere and we have new tools such as tablets that allow flexibility in how and where we operate from. As we interact with all these different digital tools we are building our Digital Intelligence.

The only problem is, we are not building our Digital Intelligence intentionally, and as a result we are not doing it very effectively either. A prime example is our relationship with the oldest of digital tools, email. When I ask executive teams who thinks they are effective with email less than 5% would put up their hand. When you ask the same group who has ever had training to develop their email skills less than 5% would put up their hands again (and its not always the same hands).

We chance across new tools rather than seeking them out, we learn basic skills by playing rather than advanced skills through learning, we copy what our friends are doing rather than asking whether this is the best time and place to be using a particular tool. And we also have a fascination with what is shiny and new rather than what is effective. When something shiny and new is also effective then this is a bonus…but rarely our intent. As the role of digital technology continues to grow in business we need to grow our Digital Intelligence along with it.

What do you think of the idea of Digital Intelligence and have you done anything recently to develop yours? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Photo credit: CPOA via flickr

What does it do for me?

CeBit Australia
Today I went to the CeBit Conference in Sydney. Whilst browsing the many exhibitors I came across a startup software developer spruiking their customer relationship management (CRM) solution. There are heaps of CRM solutions out there in the marketplace so I decided to stop and ask what makes this CRM special.

The developer then proceeded to give me the run down on how they had done all the development in Australia, what coding language they had used, how they were going to develop a non-native app in gibberish, gibberish, gibberish…

[tweetthis]We care to know what technology can do for us and what makes it special for us.[/tweetthis]

Call me selfish but this wasn’t the answer I was looking for. To be honest I didn’t care what made his CRM special to him, I wanted to know how it would be special for ME. I didn’t care what it did, I only cared about what it would do for ME.

This is actually a really common problem for people who work in IT departments. The focus too much on what the technology does for them and not enough on what it does that their user actually cares about.

And how do you find out what your user cares about? Well, you have to start a conversation and ask them.

Our survival depends on how we respond

Sydney Hobart 2004

From both an individual and organisational perspective our ability to respond effectively to our environment defines our future relevance and ultimately our survival. When talking about responsiveness I often use the story of the 2004 Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. The race stands out as one of the most challenging on record and only half of the fleet making it to the finish line. The difference between the boats that finished and the boats that didn’t was largely about how they responded to the difficult conditions and there is a great lesson somewhere in here for how businesses need to start thinking about digital technology.

There are four defining characteristics of responsiveness: awareness, intention, function and action. When it comes to awareness it is well excepted that the conditions will be variable. As a result, most boats in the race have invested heavily in awareness. Technology has allowed navigators to track changes to wind, wave and other weather conditions in near real time.

The second characteristic of the successful boats was having the right intention. The intention of some skippers was overwhelmingly about winning the race. This included two of the pre-race favourites, Skandia and Konica Minolta, both of which failed to finish because of structural damage to their vessels. For others winning was secondary to the safety of their vessel and crew, I was lucky enough to be on one of these boats instead.

The third characteristic of successful boats was function. This is about having the right gear and maintaining it in the right condition. The boat I was sailing on was built by a commercial boat builder as his personal boat. As a result it’s hull was nearly twice as thick as other boats of a similar size. We may have sacrificed some speed but we had the right boat for unexpected conditions.

The final characteristic of the successful boats was action. The experience and ability of the crew to act in accordance with the skippers intention and within the functionality of the boat. Our crew consisted of young and old, experienced and novices.We had three ex-professional fishermen aboard and the oldest woman to ever compete in the Sydney Hobart (Norma turned 80 days before the race). The watches were structured so that there was always an experienced crew member available to mentor and support the novice ones.

So what does this got to do with digital technology in business? Firstly, many organisations are unaware of the exponential impact of technology in business. The operating environment is changing fast and many organisations are not aware. Many still operate under a false mantra of stability and have invested little in understanding the opportunities and challenges of digital technologies.

[tweetthis]Our survival depends on how well we harness digital tools to weather difficulties.[/tweetthis]

Secondly, most don’t realise that in business there is no winning or losing, just survival, and survival ultimately means working to your conditions. We are operating in a knowledge and information economy and our future relevance is going to mean engaging our organisations in digital tools sooner rather than later.

Thirdly, we need to equip our people with the right tools. We need to be looking how we can digitise our information and knowledge flows so that our people can find the right information wherever and whenever they need it. We need to be investing in mobile and we need to be investing in cloud.

Finally we need to make sure that our people are guided and trained to act. They need to know the digital imperative and have the skills to act appropriately. We also need to identify the digital masters and digital leaders in our organisations and provide them with the resources to train and guide others. And we need to do these things as if our organisations survival depended on it. Because ultimately it does.

Technology could make you worth less but not worthless

Pony Express

The rapid rate of information technology deployment is one of the great transformations of the 21st century. Throughout history technology are deployed to do repetitive and information based tasks. When this happens the human skills associated with those tasks get rapidly devalued. They become worth less.

A great example of this is the impact that the telegraph had on the Pony Express. One the telegraph was hooked up the Pony Express went out of business in four days. This meant that the once highly sought after skill of horsemanship was now worth less. They weren’t worthless but the laws of supply and demand meant that Pony Express riders were no longer worth the 1o times premium that they earned over the standard non-skilled wage.

[tweetthis url=””]Human skills that are deployed to technology become devalued. Focus on skills that retain their value.[/tweetthis]

As a new breed of technologies are deployed to do everything from manager our customer relationships, complete our expense reports, and compile our client proposals we need to think about which of our skills are going to maintain their value in the 21st century. Skills such as working the fax machine, letter writing, and long division are already largely gone. Soon to follow might be filing, typing, searching for information and information analysis.

Conversely the skills where technology will take a long time to replace, such as creative thinking and relationship building, are likely to maintain their value over the medium to long term.

What are your 21st century skills and what are you doing to ensure that you focus on the tasks that are worth more not worth less?

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Don’t outsource IT. Insource digital innovation

Outsource IT, insource digital innovation

For many SMEs IT services has become a commodity purchase, ripe for outsourcing and cost reduction. But while there might be a few dollars to be saved in outsourced IT the real value proposition is in insourcing digital innovation.

For many organisations IT is considered a non-core activity. We value it based on price, uptime, security and timely support. Although these are valid drivers of value, they ignore the big picture. Technology is one of the key drivers of change in the business environment. IT, or more broadly, digital services are increasingly important source of innovation and revenue growth (a recent McKinsey research report suggests that 1 in 5 CEOs expect revenue from digital to increase by more than 30 percent in three years’ time).

[tweetthis]IT can drive value through innovating business processes to improve productivity.[/tweetthis]

To tap into this potential we need to start thinking differently about our IT partners. We need to stop looking for a substitute service provider (where value is driven by cost) and instead look for ways that technology could drive value through augmented or modifed business processes (where value is driven by productivity and improved decision making).

The fast pace of technological change and limited IT budgets means most SMEs cannot afford a full time digital innovation resource. To access emerging value opportunities (such as cloud and mobile technologies) SMEs will increasingly need to partner with external suppliers with the requisite expertise.

But to do so many SMEs will need to dramatically rethink the role of technology in their business and will also need to trust external providers to deliver the expertise they choose not to maintain in-house. Ultimately, whether they are looking at technology as a cost or an opportunity they will probably get exactly what we are looking for.

Cyborgs at work part 3: How do we get there?

This is the third part of a three part series on cyborgs in the workplace. If you haven’t read Cyborgs At Work Part 1: Are you for real? and Cyborgs at Work Part 2: The Technology, I suggest you start there.

Cyborgs in the workplace might seem like a distant reality but personally I don’t think we are far off a significant tipping point when it comes to personal technology. It seems that many individuals and organisations are already investing heavily in mobile technology, primarily in smart phones but increasingly in tablet computers such as iPads and Android tablets.

From the work I have done with organisations it seems that much of this investment in mobile technology is being undertaken without a clear objective and no real understanding of what the technology makes possible. As a result there are many examples of stalled iPad pilot programs and a general frustration amongst users as to how to get value out of the devices they have.

Like many new technologies, including the current debate in Australia about the NBN, it is not always clear what benefits will deliver. But this is a small hurdle and with a bit of training, support and time users will identify amazing opportunities to apply mobile technology in unique and valuable ways. I think this will be the tipping point. Just like the problem gambler who’s addiction starts with one big win, I think that when users experience their first big boost to productivity and effectiveness they will immediately start looking for their next ‘hit’.

Unlike other competitive activities, such as elite sport, there are no rules against performance enhancing technologies in business. Once mobile technology moves from the early adopters to the early majority there will be a massive pent up demand that will drive us towards a more seamless integration between people and technology. In a couple of years, as users search out the next big boost to personal effectiveness, wearable technology such as Google Glass will become more common work place. And once you have seen your colleagues walking around with something like Google Glasses on their face most wearable tech will become acceptable.

Given that we already live in a society that is obsessed by its mobile devices this future might seem like a scary prospect. My feeling is we are currently too caught up in the novelty of technology but as we find more and more practical applications for it we will start to see it more as a tool than a toy. As someone who uses mobile technology in my business every day I can vouch for the fact that I rarely want to use it in my down time. In fact I am far more conscious of work-life balance and other quality of life issues than I ever have been previously.

For most, this new world of work is just around the corner, and for some, it is already here. The only question left is ‘what type of technology you will be using when the cyborgs come for your job’?


Photo Credit: XPRIZE Foundation via Flickr

Cyborgs at work part 2: The technology

This is a follow up to Cyborgs at work part 1: Are you for real? If you haven’t read it already you might want to start there first.

So if we are going to see cyborgs in the workplace, what are the technologies that are going to provide a competitive advantage in the future workplace?

Personal computing devices

I think that perhaps the most important technology will be our ‘personal computing device’. Although this sounds remarkably like a personal computer or PC, the best example of this currently is a tablet or smartphone. The primary purpose of these devices is to provide

  • A platform for supporting our work tasks
  • Digital storage to augment our memory
  • Connectivity to online resources
  • Digital communication channels

Although tablets and smartphones are considered intuitive relative to our current desktop operating systems, they will be crude compared to what we will see in the future. Services such as Google Now are  starting to take a more predictive approach to delivering the information that we need when we need it. This will become more commonplace and greatly increase the usefulness of these types of devices.

Heads up displays

The next important technology will be heads up displays that allow us to receive information in more natural ways. Currently to access  information through our personal computing devices we need to get it out of our pocket or bag, enter a pin, open the relevant app, and search for relevant information. Although this is a vast improvement over conventional PCs, it still requires a very intentional decision to be made before we access information. Technologies such as Google Glass will go a long way to removing this barrier and I have no doubt that future technologies will include the ability for this type of information to be projected directly into your thoughts.

New input interfaces

Whereas personal computing devices and heads up displays are already with us, wearable technologies that deal effectively with information capture are still a little way off. Currently the best method we have for information capture, for almost any computing device, is the keyboard. Although there is a move towards voice recognition as an alternative the lack of multitasking ability with voice (ie holding a conversation and taking notes at the same time) means that this will probably not become a keyboard replacement.

Instead we are going to see more gesture based interfaces emerging (such as the Leap Motion controller) and this will ultimately give way to thought controlled interfaces. Some thought controlled interfaces have already been commercialised but the current generation of the technology is difficult to use and cumbersome to wear. In the pipeline are devices no bigger than a 10c coin that will read our thoughts and send them over Bluetooth to be deciphered by our personal computing devices and then projected back to our heads up display.

In addition to these general technologies there will be a number of more specific technologies to enhance our ability in specific tasks or roles. These might include powered exoskeletons to both enhance and protect construction workers or Watson like artificial intelligence systems to help doctors diagnose and treat cancer patients.

Much of the technology required to create cyborg office workers is already in existence. Although this technology will continue to improve over time I believe there is little apart from social norms to stop this occurring right now.

In the final chapter on cyborgs in the workplace we will look at how this future might play out and what might be different in a cyborg friendly workplace.

Cyborgs At Work Part 1: Are you for real?

For many cyborgism is the realm of science-fiction. It’s Arnie as the Terminator or reruns of the Six Million Dollar Man. In reality cyborgs are already amongst us and soon there is a very good chance that they will be interviewing for your job.

OK, the above paragraph may be a little alarmist but it is not entirely untrue. Firstly the cyborgs ARE amongst us. Do you know someone with a cochlear implant or a pacemaker? They are a cyborg, a person whose abilities have been enhanced by technology. Although neither of these technologies would offer a distinct advantage if they were interviewing for your job there is a new wave of human centric technologies that certainly are.

Before we go further, it is worth clarifying the definition of cyborgism. Personally I don’t see that cyborgism requires technology to be built into our bodies. Personally I think that this is a very crude form of cyborgism that will fail to get a lot of traction (except in quality of life situations as above). In the words of Ben Hammersley at the recent Wired for Wonder conference  ‘When computing power doubles every two years, no one is going to want last year’s plug embedded in their heads’.

Instead I think cyborgism in the near future will consist mainly of technology that more seamlessly integrates with our bodies such as wearable computing. Taking this broader view of cyborgism it is arguable that we have had cyborgs in the workplace for as long as we care to remember. Individuals have used calculators to improve their maths, pens and papers to augment their memories and mobile phones to enhance their communication. In each case I would argue that these technologies, although basic, have allowed a new generation of office worker to out-compete the last one.

In each of the examples above the office worker uses a ‘personal-scale technology’ ie one that is easily worn or carried upon the person. Up until recently changes in personal scale technology have been relatively slow but this is now changing quite dramatically. The exponential growth in computing power has lead to smaller and smaller devices. The result of this is that most office workers now carry around with them enough computing power to put a man on the moon, and this is just in their smartphone.

Cyborgism is not on possible, I would argue that in the new world of work it is highly desirable. Although there are very few (if any) jobs that can be undertaken in a completely digital environment there is a greater proportion of every job that is now conducted online. This means the more seamlessly we can integrate the activities we undertake in the physical world with the information available in the digital world the more effective we can be at work.

Stay Tuned for Cyborgs at Work Part 2: The technology