Transforming Technology: A Leading Role for Women
Women managers' mindsets make them natural leaders to take up the charge
Nearly every day, we receive messages in organizations and our personal lives that the world is chaotic and separated by nationality and culture. Yet, in an ambitious worldwide 2004-05 research initiative called "The World at Work," my colleague Dr. Barbara Trautlein and I found the opposite. We discovered more similarity than difference across geography, industry and gender based on interviews with multinational managers on five continents and spanning the organizational Value Chain.
We also reached a key conclusion about "technology" in organizations: It's time to rethink technology's role, boldly asking: "Does technology have a new role to play in a critical 21st century challenge - building connections, collaboration and consensus in ways that it hasn't before?" Moreover, should women managers take the lead, spurring dialogues that would make this possible?
Technology Looms Large in Managers' Minds
We didn't begin "The World at Work" research with a focus on technology, per se. But we were struck by how often the subject of technology arose when we asked:
- What has changed most in organizations during your career?
- What are the most and least successful change projects you have been involved in - and why?
- What still needs to change; in other words, what would the ideal organization of the future look and feel like to you?
Changed? - People First, Technology Second
What did our interviewees report has changed most in organizations? Around the world and across industries, they spoke first and foremost about changes in how people are treated, including increased expectations placed upon them, diminished loyalty, and work-life balance issues. References to changes in the human experience outnumbered all mentions of "mechanics", including structure, systems, technology and results. But technology ranked a clear Number Two in terms of impact. More than half of all managers, including 57 percent of men and 41 percent of women described technology changes as those that have been most pervasive during their careers.
Notably, they had mixed feelings about the impact. About 22.5 percent described technology in positive terms. But 26.4 percent of responses were negative, 39 percent mixed, and 12.1 percent neutral. Paradoxical examples peppered the comments.
For instance, managers reported having more flexibility thanks to new systems, networks and information management tools. Yet, each IT change that results in downsizing and cost-cutting seems to have reinforced fears that organization leaders want to make people obsolete. Managers saw the potential of technology for integrating a diverse, multicultural organization in a global world, but they also lamented technology's negative effects on relationships. In the words of one manager: "It's compromised our organization."
Yearning - Not More Process or Technology
Just as provocative, managers rarely mentioned the potential value of technology in the future of organizations. Instead, they vocalized desires for organizations to more actively "put people first." Nearly 92 percent of managers suggested that the best organizations will focus on the human factor by empowering, enabling, and adopting more people-friendly strategies despite increased pressure on the bottom line. Less than 10 percent of managers envisioned technology as a key organizational driver in the future.
Managers who mentioned technology saw it primarily as a work facilitator, with a caveat that there is still a lot of room for technology to be used more intelligently. Explained one manager, "One of the consistent problems is mistaking technology as a leading component of the change process. In fact, it's usually the people side and leadership that is the big challenge."
Opportunities for Technology
These findings raise an interesting question: "Is 'technology' simply yesterday's news in organizations?" The simple answer is, "No." However, it does seem that managers no longer necessarily view technology as the "end" nor as the best means to a desired end. These results beg for a new and creative ways to leverage technology in the 21st century with the goal of more directly serving a "people focus" in organizations.
Indeed, we propose that organizations are on the cusp of a significant shift in technology expectations. It's now assumed that technology professionals must have the technical know-how to help organizations reduce costs and be more efficient. The emerging opportunity is to shift priorities toward technology projects that can be true catalysts toward excellence in human performance and connection.
Certainly, this is no easy task.
Re-visioning technology's role calls for elbow grease from executives, managers and technology professionals to engage people and gain commitment. It means a concerted step back, reflection and decisions about which technologies fit in such a new era. This is especially true in multinationals that must foster good decisions across vast expanses, cultures and ever-shifting structures.
Women Can Take a Leading Role
It follows that there are new conversations to be had on the subject of enlightened uses of technology. And we suggest that women managers, in particular, can play a leadership role by sparking and then fueling the discussions.
Consistent with other research and the experience of many organizations, "The World at Work" interviews with multinational managers confirmed that women managers are actively interested in organizations being more collaborative, communicative and consensus-building. While both men and women managers saw the ideal future organization as more "people-focused", there was still a gap between genders.
In the language used and examples of successful change given, women focused more often on the need for actions and tools that establish rapport and support connections between individuals, teams, companies, nationalities and cultures. Men were more likely to focus on physical changes to an organization - levers such as restructuring, realignment, and technology rollouts to achieve greater efficiency and customer responsiveness. Said another way, women placed more importance on the "transformational" (relationship) aspects of organizations and men emphasized the "transactional" (tasks).
So, what is there to do?
For organizations, the challenge is to make room for dialogues on more meaningful uses of technology in an era when people development and people connections must be tantamount. Conversation is the grease in the organizational wheels of change. And, as indicated by their mindsets in "The World at Work" research, women managers' mindsets make them natural leaders to take up the charge.
About the Author: