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Coping with the Dark Side of Technology

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Everyone is familiar with the benefits of technology. It enables us to communicate and collaborate instantly, from anywhere, and at any time; we can tap powerful resources with astonishing ease. But exponentially-growing digital technology also brings challenges, uncertainty, and pressures. I spoke with John Hagel, co-chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, about what he calls the dark side of technology.

Hagel found that the return on assets for public U.S. companies has collapsed by 75 percent since 1965. The average age of the S&P 500 has gone from 61 years in 1960 to just 16 years today. The problem is that the digital technology components including computing, storage, and bandwidth aren't stabilizing. Companies are running faster, yet falling farther behind.

Here's Hagel’s advice for surviving, and even thriving, in the midst of these technologically disruptive times:

1. Practice the power of pull. We're transitioning from a world of push, including outbound email marketing and advertising, to a world of pull; accessing people, information, and resources when and where we need them. The classic example of a powerful pull platform is Google search.

2. Focus on the long- and very-short-term. The more successful a company is, the more it stays with the tactics that brought it success. In an ever-changing world, executives need to fight the tendency to shorten time horizons and instead take a longer-term perspective of where the world is headed.

Hagel advises looking out 10 to 15 years to gain a high-level view of what the market will look like and the implications. Without this, companies can easily be distracted by the short term and often spread their resources too quickly and too broadly in a reactive mode.

Equally important is to flip it around and focus on the very short term--six to 12 months, not the typical one to five years. Ask yourself: What are the two or three activities that will have the greatest potential to accelerate my progress toward the larger goal?

3. Adopt scalable learning. The way to gain the highest level of efficiency is with scalable learning. In a rapidly changing world, the faster everyone can learn at scale, the better. To do this, businesses need to focus on broader ecosystems, connecting and learning from third parties rather than trying to do it all themselves. As Bill Joy once said, “No matter how many smart people you have in your organization, there are a lot more smart people outside.”

4. Tap into the power of corporate narratives. There is an important distinction between stories and narratives; the latter provide a powerful means of engagement at an emotional level. On the other hand, stories tend to be self-contained and revolve around the storyteller or those people, rather than the listener. A narrative may not yet have a resolution. The resolution hinges on you, and the choices you make will determine the outcome.

5. Scale at the edge. Since central politics can get in the way of transforming the enterprise, the best way to drive change is by going out to an edge, which can scale and ultimately grow into a new business core. This allows change agents to demonstrate innovative approaches to the business and pull people and resources from the core to the edge.

6. Ask the right questions. Power comes less from the existing answers and more from the questions you ask. The old world hub-and-spoke design with the leader at the center is being replaced with mesh networks where people directly interconnect to address important questions. Don’t accept perfect answers to the wrong questions.

7. Earn trust to access knowledge. Trust is essential for building relationships and achieving goals. Companies and individuals willing to express vulnerability by admitting they don’t always have the answer can build trust. This is the polar opposite of the older notion of building a personal brand, where we present all of our strengths and accomplishments in the most compelling way and hide any weaknesses for fear of undermining the brand.

Trust and authenticity are especially important for acquiring the tacit knowledge that people carry in their heads, the most valuable form of knowledge. “If I trust you, I will make an effort to frame the tacit knowledge I have,” says Hagel. We often have trouble articulating this type of knowledge, which is accessible only in the context of trust-based relationships.

Watch the full interview with John Hagel.

IMAGE: Carolyn Marks Blackwood
Last updated: Mar 18, 2014

VALA AFSHAR | Columnist

An award-winning inventor of social technologies and customer services operations, Afshar is the Chief Marketing Officer for Extreme Networks, and author of "The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence."

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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