How my working life has taught me that “disconnecting from tech” is the worst advice
I saw the question “what will you do tomorrow?” on a billboard last week. In the advertisement was a picture of a kitchen chef together with a robot.
I think this is a really important question that we all need to ask ourselves. Am I prepared for living and working in a connected world?
The worst advice I see is to “disconnect from tech.” I hear this a lot recently:
“Forget about social media. Reduce your screen time. Digital technologies are distracting. They are killing your privacy. They are a waste of time. They are addictive. They are disturbing a healthy work-life balance.”
The endpoint of this line of thinking is always the same.
“And anyway. This whole digital transformation thing is hugely exaggerated.”
Rejection and denial.
I can understand why many people reach this conclusion. After all, tech companies and cryptocurrencies — to take two high profile examples — appear to have lost a lot of their magic over the past year.
And, of course, I see the “negative aspects” of the digital transformation. But we cannot ignore the “digital change” and keep employing old world ideas, concepts, and models. If we do, we will be left behind.
Instead, what we should be doing is developing new ways of thinking for understanding and benefitting from the different aspects of this complex reality. And then, based on that, we should adopt a new way of working that is better suited to our current circumstances.
At least, this is what I have learned from working, over the last thirty years, in an increasingly connected world.
Before I went to law school in 1995, I served in the Air Force for four years where I witnessed the early stages of the transition from analogue to digital communication technologies. That was from 1988 to 1992.
I learned a lot in the military. About the advantages and disadvantages of discipline, order and hierarchy.
And, like many people, I was slightly lost for a while after leaving. I held several management positions at a fast food chain whilst I figured out what to do with the rest of my life.
After I graduated from law school, I was offered a job as a researcher at my university. I loved law school and happily accepted the position. However, to understand and get a better grip on what was happening in the real world/legal practice, I also took a position as a part-time in-house counsel at a large electronics company in 1998.
The combination of “theory” and “practice” proved to be very successful. In the late 90s and early 2000s, students loved the real-life stories from the corporate world. Being a practitioner also provided a lot of input for my research on the life cycle of companies and corporate culture, and governance.
What immediately struck me was the disconnect between what we were teaching students in law school and what was demanded in practice. The digital transformation (computers, emails, etc.) only widened the gap.
My research resulted in a Ph.D. in corporate law and economics in 2003. I was in the fortunate position to study and analyze the corporate scandals of the early 2000s and the various regulatory responses. I also became fascinated by the venture capital industry with its ups and downs at the turn of the century.
I was appointed a university professor in 2005 and an executive at the multinational in 2008. Along the way, I co-authored a couple of academic books and published more than seventy scholarly articles (mainly on companies, innovation, and finance).
And in my “other job,” I was heavily involved in many corporate divestments and breakups to enable the company’s divisions and businesses to better compete in a networked and digital environment. I helped set up a corporate venture capital fund in an attempt to make the company more agile and responsive to change.
All of these initiatives have undoubtedly contributed to the transformation of our corporate culture from a culture of bureaucracy to one focused on disruptive innovation and entrepreneurship.
But were these initiatives enough to prepare me — or anyone — for tomorrow’s world?
Speaking from my own experience (being educated, trained and working in a traditional corporate world), the answer is “no.” The traditional corporate world, characterized by complicated hierarchical (and political) structures, organizational silos, and legacy processes and procedures, is failing miserably.
The exponential growth of disruptive technology is rapidly changing our world. And here I don’t only refer to social media. Other networked technologies, such as peer-to-peer platforms, the Internet of things, big data, blockchain, robotics, and artificial intelligence, are creating a new technological and decentralized infrastructure that is gradually transforming all aspects of everyday life.
The social effects of these technological developments are deep and profound. A technology-driven millennial culture has re-shaped our conceptions of freedom, responsibility, and happiness. Students are interested in start-ups and sustainable organizations.
The corporate world and the military environment of procedure, discipline and order has become less attractive. The meaning of work, consumption, and leisure are similarly affected. We have moved from a profit-driven to a purpose-driven society.
An innovation economy framed around globally connected technologies has emerged in which platform companies leverage technology to develop new business models that offer a different kind of consumer experience.
The disruptive effects of these developments are felt across all sectors of the economy. For instance, my wife’s restaurant needed a new business model to remain attractive and provide the right culinary experience to the 21st-century guests. New rules of engagement apply to military operations (as explained in General Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams).
The combined effect of these changes has been the creation of a new digital world. It is a fast-changing world that is structured around computer code, fluid identities and rapidly evolving forms of capitalism. Flatter hierarchies, open communication/dialogues, multidisciplinary teams, and the power of communities are the new principles and assumptions on how to become successful and competitive.
So, here I am. I ignored the advice to disconnect. I did the opposite. I started to connect.
I am writing a weekly blog to initiate and engage in dialogues around the opportunities and challenges of the new world. Being connected also offered new opportunities. I serve as an innovation advisor/board member at several organizations/companies that are active in law, venture capital investments, health, and crypto.
I am still a university professor. I help my students prepare for the connected world. I give presentations around the world, sharing insights about how being “digitally” connected is crucial in the new world.
It’s also still a lot of fun to work at the large multinational. Unsurprisingly, the digital world is putting more and more pressure on organizations. It has become very clear that a new type of employee is needed to make sure the organizations remain relevant in the near future.
Looking at the last thirty years of my life, my advice for tomorrow is clear: Embrace connectivity and get connected.
You have to make sure that you are connected and be able to connect and work in smaller and agile teams. You must be able to connect, live and work with smarter and intelligent machines. You must consistently work on and create your own unique story. To me, it’s very clear. The best way to become connected is to embrace the digital world (and I don’t mean simply posting pictures on social media). You have to study new technologies and their applications. You have to become part of a bigger project of creating the world of tomorrow.
And you have to start doing that today.
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