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The Activity Illusion

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Today we enjoy seemingly unlimited communications opportunities. And yet there are doubts emerging about whether the wealth of communications at our fingertips has been achieved at the cost of some of our more human skills – such as people management.

Has this digital era improved the overall quality of management?  The pace has quickened, the audience has widened, demands for actions have increased, but, in this reactive whirlwind, do we find the time to think and really communicate?

Henry Mintzberg’s headline in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, ‘Managers Are More Connected, But Not For The Better’ introduces his concern for the ‘art and craft’ of management.  As Mintzberg puts it:  “are these tools augmenting our best qualities or our worst?  Each of us, manager or not, can be mesmerized by them, and so let them manage us. Or we can understand their dangers as well as their delights, and so manage them”.

Watching a great movie requires ‘the voluntary suspension of dis-belief’ and, in business or at home, when we say we are surprised, the reality is that we often choose to be surprised.  In much the same way we choose to be distracted. And “with all those electrons flying about, the hyperactivity gets worse, not better”, according to Mintzberg.

Some mourn the passing of telephony or even one-to-one contact – the opportunity for nuanced conversation.  Mintzberg observes, ‘On the telephone, people laugh, interrupt, grunt; in meetings, they nod in agreement or nod off in distraction. Effective managers pick up on such clues.’  He dismisses text as thin, toneless, ‘a poverty of words’.  He fears that with our greater connectedness, the scope we have for an ‘illusion of activity’ could be counter-productive.

Maybe there is still scope, in our digital whirlwinds, for a little more precision – and more well-honed prose to improve communication – and maybe even a wider recognition that in our distractions we create only an illusion of real action.

Leaders in IT set the tone for effective communication.  We can’t turn the clock back – but in becoming digital revolutionaries, we must guard against being blown away by novelty, unlearn valuable lessons or neglect hard won experience.

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