My first job in high school was at a medical clinic in which my mother was a partner. I worked as a file clerk in the records room in the back of the administrative office. The clinic acquired their first personal computer when I was about 14 years old. It was an IBM 5100 or 5110 with a green monochromatic screen and a 5.1 floppy drive. The machine was purchased for insurance billing; a mandate by the Wasusau Insurance Company, to whom we had a direct connection for daily data dumps. A loud, cumbersome dot-matrix printer spewed trails of transactions recorded by the 55 year old admin who begrudgingly logged each day’s insurance events.
Initially ‘Ellen’ was the only person trained on the system. She was flown to dozens of training sessions out-of-state and tutored by on-site consultants, highly skilled in dealing with admins as resistant as this one. ‘Ellen’ liked things the way they’d always been. Change was nothing she was interested in. The learning curve was too intimidating and the investment of ramp-up time was more than anyone had in mind. Still, in spite of Ellen’s resistance, the system was necessary and soon the clinic was processing all insurance billing online. I know, because I was trained as a back-up billing admin and enjoyed my first exposure to a PC or ‘personal’ computer.
As we continued to enhance our various processes with this new technology we were consistently met with push-back and criticism. We were testing the patience of an established staff, most of whom had been working in these positions for 10 or more years. While the clinic was thriving from improved cash flow, more accurate reporting, direct connectivity to insurance providers, shared resources, appropriate process redundancies and better access to information, the human resources were feeling threatened and uncertain. Change is hard. Accepting that these PC’s were meant to enhance communication and process — that they were there to enable the staff to improve their performance — they were powerful IN ADDITION to the staff, not INSTEAD OF the staff–well, that was an all-too-difficult prospect. In fact, the thing that seemed to calm everyone down was the idea that the technology was, essentially, useless without the human interaction. This was a totally new way of thinking. It required a dramatic paradigm shift. And that took a great deal of time, education, patience and persuasion. But gradually it began to happen.
We all know how the story goes, personal computers went on to take over the world. The little slice of change I witnessed was just a fraction of the change that was taking place across the globe. That paradigm shift was a global journey. The thing is, the shift isn’t over. We’re still on that journey and we continue to run into obstacles that prevent us from taking full advantage of the power of technology.
The real power of technology is in access to information and conversation. If technology is used appropriately the power is in the removal of layers that stand in the way of progress. One of the most compelling books to come out of the dot com revolution was The Cluetrain Manifesto – a tome that made an argument for the new conversations enabled by ‘internetworked communities’. Among the Manifesto’s most challenging points – “The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.” Mass media talks at us. This medium enables the conversation. We become a part of the medium. It creates connections. The manifesto suggested that “In both internetworked markets and among intranetworked employees, people are speaking to each other in a powerful new way.” And it goes on to say, “These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.” We made many mistakes as we blew up that dot-bomb bubble, but most of the mistakes came out of overvaluing the commerce and undervaluing the connections. Now, as we scrap our way out of the lingering residue, we’re trying to make sense of what works. Therein lies the ongoing struggle with the paradigm shift. We’ve recoiled in fear. And, in some ways, we’re back where we started. We’re resistant, threatened, intimidated. And our fears are continually confirmed by the errant viruses spread by inexperienced users and unprotected operating systems. Unfortunately, most often our response to the fear is to compromise the conversation, rather than to empower people through education, training, experience and exposure, to become a part of the on-going solution, and, as such, pioneers for the continued paradigm shift.
We look at corporate culture as this large, unweildy organism that must be controlled. All the while we expect energy and creativitiy to come out of culture to fuel good work and good ideas. I recently read an article that made the claim that four out of five workers cannot do their jobs properly when they cannot access their email. That’s how ingrained and necessary that one method for communication has become. Just ten years ago email wasn’t at all a part of how we worked, thought or communicated. And, based on my experience, it was only 20 years ago that people were completely resistant to personal computers in the work place. So what do we do? Stop here? Continue to fear the viruses and the inexperienced users and keep things locked down as they are, maintaining a functional, but mediocre, status quo? How will corporate culture be influenced by technology over the next ten years? How will we continue on the path toward that paradigm shift? I think the answer can only be — evolve or die. Evolution, in the age of technology, looks like education, exposure and experience.
People respond to what we do in the web world in one of two ways, with excitement and curiosity or fear and confusion. I’m not exaggerating, it’s true. Inevitably their eyes light up and they’re intrigued by technology or their eyes widen and they say something like ‘I don’t get that at all!’ or ‘That stuff is so foreign to me.’ I often say that my job is to demystify technology — to make it accessible and make people at least want to be conversant around it. I think that is our responsibility across the board. The technology is going to continue to enhance and enable us to work better by allowing us to communicate better. That’s, after all, what we do. We make websites and web systems and applications that facilitate some kind of communication. Sales channel communication. Marketing communication. The list is long. It really is what we do. These technologies are going to make their way, more and more, to the desktop as technology becomes more and more seamless. You’re seeing it happen right now — with cell phones and PDA’s, and browser based applications. We’re banking online and syncing up our phones and we’re wireless and on-the-go. One can only conclude that in order to compete in this networked marketplace we must understand the networks. The only way to understand the networks is to have access and to be educated. Understanding comes out of participation.
Someone said to me today, “Computers don’t inhibit human interaction, they allow it, in that they are just one more way for humans to connect.” Again, it isn’t about using computers to interact INSTEAD OF talking to one another, it’s about using computers IN ADDITION TO talking to one another. It’s about more conversation and connections. In order to continue toward progress we need to embrace this thinking, in spite of our fears. In order to be technology-forward we must educate our people and infuse our cultures with connections and possibility. We must eliminate fear through exposure and options. We must evangelize. Because, after all, those souls that aren’t saved will be left behind.
I ran into “Ellen” on a visit to my hometown just a few summers ago. She was recently retired and planning a winter in Florida. We sat for a few moments and chatted about her career after my mother had closed her clinic and moved away. I was delighted to learn that “Ellen” had stayed in healthcare for another 18 years, but her path had shifted a bit after she left the old clinic. It seems “Ellen” had spent her last working years in this ‘new’ space, Information Technology, teaching people like she’d been (all those years ago) how to embrace and get the full value from their PC’s and those mysterious connections. There was my paradigm shift, right there.
And the journey continues.