How to stop gadgets getting the upper hand

Being available all the time isn't necessarily an advantage for managers, says Paul Glen

After World War II, the vacuum cleaner began its meteoric rise as an American household appliance. It was sold as an amazing labour-saving device to liberate women from the dreary chore of rug beating.

For years afterwards, it was assumed that vacuum cleaners did just what we expected: saved labour. But more recently, scholars have reinterpreted their true effects. It seems that rather than saving time for other pursuits, vacuum cleaners merely raised the standards for home cleanliness. Women didn’t spend less time on household chores; they were just expected to tolerate less dust than before.

As I watch the march of personal communications technology, I imagine scholars 50 years from now coming to similar conclusions. We may not be getting exactly what we expect when we adopt these appliances, especially as tools of management. I’m not saying these things are useless, but that we don’t really appreciate what’s happening.

Let’s think about it for a moment. First, there were pagers which allowed us to contact people we were trying to reach. They were fairly quick, but gave little information, and responding was problematic. Then cellphones made it possible to reach someone directly. More immediacy, more information, two-way, but only voice. Then came email. More information, more types of information, asynchronous delivery and storage, but no mobile delivery. BlackBerries offer the advantage of asynchronous communication with the immediacy and mobility that email doesn’t have. Different types of information with storage. And don’t get me started on instant messaging. Progress. Yeah, right.

We buy these things based on the idea that more communication is better. We live in a round-the-clock, hyper-competitive, global business environment. And, of course, most of us in IT management are technology people, so we like to leverage (read “play with”) the new tools of the managerial trade to meet these competitive pressures.

So, as with vacuum cleaners, we incorporate them into our daily routines and before long, they become seemingly indispensable. Managerial style adapts to the communications devices available, just as cleanliness standards adapted to housework tools. Now we can be in the loop anytime, anywhere, and because we can we must.

But is this progress? I’m not so sure. Should managers be available all the time and in any place? Is this good for managers? Their staff? The organisation they work for?

It strikes me that these tools are encouraging a cyclical co-dependence. Managers, in a well-meaning attempt to be responsive and available to their staff, start using a tool. Then staff start to use it, expecting the boss to be there whenever they need information, decisions, protection or comfort. And the more immediately and regularly the boss responds the more they come to rely on that availability.

Bosses both love and loathe this sort of arrangement. On the positive side, they feel needed but, on the negative side, they begin to recognise the burden of having staff that delegate even the most mundane details back up to the boss. Having set up the expectation, they’re already in the trap. So the more they’re available the more they must be so.

It’s important to reflect carefully on using these powerful new tools of management. Train yourself and your staff to recognise the boundaries of your roles to ensure that the tools serve you, and not the other way around. Otherwise, you’ll end up vacuuming up everyone else’s work and ignoring your own.

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