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How to Make Communication Technology Work for Positive Social Change

Saybrook University | Monday December 20th, 2010 | 1 Comment

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.

by Chuck Piazza

We live and work in an Information Age, an era of global knowledge sharing and social networking enabled by a variety of information, communication, and collaboration technologies (ICCT).

What do we do about it?

The recent rescue of the Chilean coal miners is a fine example of how modern digital technology aided people from around the world to be informed, share practical wisdom, collaboratively problem solve, and coordinate efforts to deploy innovative solutions. Disparate people from various countries and professions who become aware of the situation and were empathetic to the plight of the miners spontaneously organized themselves into a rescue enterprise. They formed a sociotechnical system that, for a period of time, transcended artificial social and national boundaries to save lives.  Human ingenuity was unleashed for the benefit of others.Utilizing information and collaboration technology, a global dialogue was established so needed knowledge, skills, and resources were identified, located, and deployed. Further, because of the world-wide media coverage, significant attentionhas been drawn to a longstanding critical issues in the coal industry. The challenge now is to act to change working conditions for miners so the safety of their work environments is improved and their lives will not be jeopardized in the future.

Like this rescue situation, contemporary organizations—for profit, nonprofit and governmental—can be understood as dynamic webs of communication, relationships, and interactivity enabled by digital technology.  Being distributed entities comprised of people and technology, they are complex sociotechnical systems where professionals self-organize, communicate, build relationships, make decisions, conduct business, engage in activities, perform tasks, and serve customers without concern of distance or locale.

The Internet, cell phones, laptops, Blackberries, and now iPads are creating workplace environments characterized by 24/7 connectivity and a continuous flow of information.  Instant messaging, Twitter and Facebook enable social networking where ideas and work experiences are readily and routinely shared. Wikis allow company teams to generate new knowledge and dynamically collaborate even though members live on different continents and in different time zones. Adobe Connect and Cisco’s telepresence systems  allow professionals  to meet “person-to-person” in “real time” without physically traveling, thus being more efficient and reducing an organization’s carbon footprint.

While technology holds a promise of a more sustainable and globally networked future, it can also be a threat to such goals. People can become part of an “organizational machine” that never stops. Boundaries between work and personal time can be lost. This can affect the quality of work life and the health of individuals and communities. How can technology be deployed in organizations in a sustainable manner? How can it be utilized so it does not dehumanize workers and impoverish local communities and world societies?

The initial step in answering these questions is to identify a set of principles to guide the design of organizational systems that utilize ICCT. A sociotechnical perspective, understanding people and technology as components of one system, can serve as a fine analytical lens. Foundational principles to this viewpoint are:

1.      The workplace is a domain in which people actively participate in developing their own work environment. Emphasis is placed on utilizing the appropriate work processes and technology that enhance both workers’ performance and their job satisfaction. Attention is paid to the quality of the work experience. (See Sociotechnical Systems Roundtable for more details.)

2.      The contemporary organization is a physical and virtual entity that weaves people and technology into an adaptive system while respecting the dignity, physical health, and psychological well-being of the worker. Promoting work-life balance is also a high priority. Technological applications seek to enhance organizational operations and the quality of the work environment. Rooted in users’ particular work styles and needs, they assist in establishing an empowering work environment that fosters ingenuity and builds a creative interdependence between co-workers, external organizational partners, etc.

3.      Society thoughtfully participates in the design and application of technology, understands its advantages and disadvantages, identifies harmful ramifications, and addresses negative aspects prior to deployment. In this manner society proactively helps to ensure that organizational ICCT is deployed in a healthy manner.

Such a human-centric and sustainable approach to technology applications can aid organizations to utilize ICCT for its highest purpose—the improvement of the human condition and the enhancement of the quality of all life.

Chuck Piazza, PhD is a professor in the Organizational Systems Programs at Saybrook University, and a social philosopher who is concerned with developing socially responsible organizations and sustainable information systems.


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  • http://builtecology.wordpress.com/ Daniela

    From the organizational system point of view, what does it mean to promote a work-life balance? Within the context of organizations I’ve worked for, this is the kind of thing that people say but is hard to adhere to when there are expectations of quick answers, and competition between colleagues. As a freelancer working within a looser organization of vendors and clients that balance can get even harder.

    I spend a lot of time in front of a computer engaging collaboratively with other people, but do not have the internet on my phone, which gives a little breathing room. I like it this way, but have definitely missed some opportunities for not being even more connected. Can balance be systematized too?