Tales of a Retribalized Corporate Knowledge Worker in the Egalitarian Information AgeDecember 9th, 2011 at 16:34
Quite the long title, I know! But that is essentially who I am these days when I put on my “day job” hat as a “Business Process Consultant” for a major health insurance company. The work world that I plunge myself into is totally transformed from just a generation ago by the ubiquitous electronic media which (to use media philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s analogy), is the “water we swim in”.
In his extensive 1969 interview in Playboy Magazine, McLuhan said…
The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems… are immersing us in a world-pool of information movement and are thus enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves as well as with one another. But the instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences.
McLuhan called this transformation “retribalization”.
In my mom and dad’s generation the norm of professional “knowledge work” in the U.S. was to have a hierarchy of “bosses” who actively directed your activities within “siloed” groups and departments. Your coworker peers were typically white males of northern European ancestry, with women supporting professional work as secretaries. Most collaboration with those coworkers was done face to face and most written communication was done (by secretaries) using a typewriter to produce written memos & other documents that flowed from person to person in a time frame of days or even weeks. Diagrams, charts and other visual documents were painstakingly built by graphic specialists well in advance of presentations.
But the work world I plunge myself into these days is nothing like that.
Yes upper and middle managers still launch projects, but they do so by assigning a project manager who then assembles a team of analysts, solution designers, and SMEs (subject matter experts) from multiple groups and departments. The project manager generally does not so much direct as facilitate the work of the team, which follows an egalitarian process of informal consensus to decide on the path forward for project completion. Depending on the nature of the project and the skill or experience of the various team members, it could be an analyst, a solution designer or a SME that emerges as the project “lead”. There are generally no secretaries involved, every project team member is responsible for their own coffee and written communications.
That communication and the necessary collaboration is done in my work place more often than not through electronic media rather than face to face. The communication tools include telephone, email and instant messaging, with phone and Internet conferencing allowing collaboration across the country. Internet conferencing tools let important project documents be reviewed and even created or updated online during the session. In this electronic work environment there is really little difference between working in an office or from home.
Having been in this milieu for a number of years now, I have developed a specialty in facilitating such conference calls and “web meetings”. With my phone headset (hooked to either my work phone or my cell when I’m working from home) allowing me to talk and listen while leaving my hands free to use my laptop computer to update a document online real-time that is perhaps the main objective of the virtual session. When everyone else in the meeting or work session is similarly participating in front of their various computers and/or from their various phones (rather than being in some sort of meeting room on a speaker phone) there is a certain intimate egalitarian presence of all the voices in this audio space. There are no visible “power suits” in this acoustic-only environment.
Such a collaboration can even operate at several communication levels at the same time. Documents can be distributed real-time during the session as needed. Other people with an important bit of information who are not able to attend this session because they are in another virtual one can be “pinged” (instant messaged), be queried for and provide that needed information. Using instant messaging, meeting participants can even have one on one “side bars” (like passing notes in the classroom but undetectable) while the group discussion is happening over the phone.
When I facilitate these sort of sessions, I tend to actively keep the conversation on the agenda, breaking in as needed when I think it is getting off topic, long-winded, or certain session participants have not been heard from on a particular item of discussion. I jokingly call this “Samurai Facilitator”, and even meeting participants that may be one or two levels up the “food chain” (org chart) from me get the same treatment including admonitions to keep on topic and speak concisely. In this sort of circumstance good facilitation is like a Quaker meeting, bringing out the varied wisdom of all the group members and helping move the group to a more complete and expeditious consensus.
Given my cell phone and its very discrete headset, I have participated in work meetings while riding the train, the bus, or walking from one place to another, though usually in those instances not as the facilitator. I’ve even done a couple meetings while riding my bicycle to or from work. Given that I can work from anywhere with a cell tower and wi-fi in range, I have mostly full control of my schedule to be in the office or “remote” as I choose.
Then when I’m not in meetings, I’m generally either building some kind of presentation or other documentation or sending, reading or replying to emails. Using email effectively, I have learned to gather information from and provide information to other people without having to actually meet with them, either in person or virtually. This is very useful because, with key people generally being booked in so many meetings, it is often impossible to find time on their calendars. Email exchanges with well crafted comments and questions can be a completely “asynchronous conversation” that achieves the same information exchange as a meeting, phone call or work session.
I detail all this to make the point that perhaps 90% of the work I do is done completely through electronic media with no physical proximity at all. Something that would be inconceivable to the work world of my parents generation!
The interviewer in 1969 introduced the ideas of the “metaphysician of media” as follows…
McLuhan contends that all media — in and of themselves and regardless of the messages they communicate — exert a compelling influence on man and society. Prehistoric, or tribal, man existed in a harmonious balance of the senses, perceiving the world equally through hearing, smell, touch, sight and taste. But technological innovations are extensions of human abilities and senses that alter this sensory balance — an alteration that, in turn, inexorably reshapes the society that created the technology.
I am no longer swimming in the communication technology waters of the industrial age. For better or worse, I’ve become a Retribalized Corporate Knowledge Worker in the Egalitarian Information Age.