From CIO to Chief Attention Officer
This is a guest blog from Tony Crabbe, business psychologist and author of Busy: How To Thrive in a World of Too Much.
Historically, the world’s knowledge doubled every 100 years. As we entered the 20th century, this accelerated. In fact, Mark Liberman, the renowned linguist, calculated the storage requirements for every word ever spoken by a human at 42 zettabytes. Yet in our digital world of exponential information growth, we will be generating 44 zettabytes every year by 2020! This is 10x more data than 2013.
We are also connected to more people than ever before; geography is no longer a barrier, nor is time, as communication has become asynchronous.
At the same time as being more connected; we are also lonelier, with fewer meaningful relationships at work or home. The scale of change over the last 20 years on fundamental psychological processes is unknown in human history. The ensuing workplace transformation, driven by digital technologies has disrupted the way we think and communicate; and this is both an opportunity and a challenge.
Let’s explore one aspect of our behaviour in a digital workplace: our ability to be productive. The logic, since the Industrial Age, has been that technology which increases our productivity is valuable. This has led to a form of technological determinism: any digital software or device that can help ourselves or our people to do more is a self-evidently good thing; and this push for more has worked. Office workers – thanks to their digital tools – are producing 200x more content than 30 years ago! However, is all this productivity a good thing? Research shows that 58% of all knowledge workers spend less than 30 minutes a day thinking, and 77% of UK workers think they’ve had a productive day if they empty their inbox!
This is problematic for employees and organizations. In a few years, we will see an increasing number of routine ‘productive’ office tasks being performed by machines. In that context, we should pause and ask ‘What is the unique value of humans?’ The World Economic Forum in Davos recently suggested that by 2020, the three most critical capabilities for organizational success will be complex problem solving, creativity and relationship building. All three of these are eroded by technologically-driven productivity and ‘always on’ uber-communication.
At a time when our world is getting more complex, we are creating working environments where our ‘productive’ employees are not thinking; this reduces their employment value; and blocks real insight and innovation in those firms.
This example is illustrative of how a number of major trends are affecting employees and businesses, transforming our workplaces. In the face of these major trends, CIOs would be wise to reimagine their role. As information grows exponentially, and technological progress creates an ever-escalating tempo of opportunity and obsolescence; CIOs can easily find themselves fighting the wrong battle.
As demands from their people to utilise consumer technology at work increase, they can find themselves on the back foot, fighting endlessly for security and integration. However, such a path leads to the view of CIO as curator. I think the opportunities and the consequences of technology are too significant for such a tactical role.
The Nomura Research Institute suggest we have now left the Information Age; because information is now so ubiquitous, it’s a commodity. The same could also be said about technology. So what is valuable? What is of most value, is also what is in shortest supply today: human attention; that of consumers and that of employees. Research in the US found that today, the greatest barrier to technological progress is no longer Moore’s Law etc; it’s the lack of human attention.
The role of CIOs in a digital workplace should be to strategically assess how the technologies they implement or utilize enhance or diminish the capacity for focus, complex thinking, creativity and relationship building in their people. This is the strategic opportunity for CIOs. In fact, since information is a commodity, maybe it would be better to change the title CIO to CAO: Chief Attention Officer.
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