The Invisible and Deep Technology that Drives Organisations
by Alan Sieler
Some thoughts on technology
We live in times in which we are confronted everyday, both in our workplaces and homes, with the awesome power and achievements of technology. It is very easy for us to be enamoured and seduced by a myriad of technological developments. Indeed, as an ever-present feature of our lives, increasingly rapid technological development generates a recurrent challenge for dealing with change in our lives.
But what do we mean when we use the expression technology? Typically we may think of the indispensable role of the microchip in our lives, and the opportunities opened in many fields of human endeavour through computerisation. When we think of change and improvement in the workplace, in addition to restructuring and "re-sizing", we often look to the installation and implementation computer technology, for the storage, retrieval, generation and dissemination of information. We also tend to think of technology as something that is visible and tangible, which we can witness in action and/or witness the effects of.
The word technology is associated with "technical" and "technique". These words come from the Greek "techne", which means art, skill, craft, method or system. Technology is about application and putting something into practice - about applying a new way of doing things. Our lives are about getting things done, which range from meeting organisational objectives to ensuring that we have sufficient food in the cupboard and fridge. The essence of organisational life is about getting appropriate things done in efficient and effective ways to maintain and enhance competitive advantage. The avenue for this is technology. In other words, technology is a tool or an instrument we can put to use to accomplish what is important to us. A great appeal of technological developments is that they not only enable us to attain our objectives more efficiently and effectively, they also open up new possibilities for doing things which we had not considered before. In other words, technology creates new worlds.
Our Technological Blindness
One of the interesting aspects of technology is that we can be such frequent users of it that we simply do so without thinking, taking it for granted because of the benefits it brings us. For example, children, teenagers and young adults have not grown up in a world where there was no television. Such a world is incomprehensible to them because their existence has always included television. They have been users of this technology yet somewhat blind to its existence, taking it for granted as an everyday way of life. Television and microwave ovens, and the electricity which powers them, are like water is to the existence of a fish, or air is to human existence. The fish lives in water as an indispensable part of its existence, yet it does not notice the role that water plays until the quality and/or quality of the water does not support it.
So, we humans live in a world where we are surrounded by technology, which we can take for granted, as a fundamental set of tools which enable us to take action to accomplish our objectives. There is however, probably the most fundamental and powerful technology which we are blind to, which has the potential to generate massive benefits, and at the same time the potential to generate enormous suffering. We live in this technology like a fish lives in water. In fact, we humans could not exist without this technology. This most basic and fundamental of all technologies has generated the development of all other technologies, and continues to do so. Yet its power and impact is largely invisible to us. What on earth are we talking about? We invite you to read the following, written by noted author Walter Truett Anderson.
"One of the most amazing developments in the evolution of the human species was the invention of language. It must have taken an enormously long time; it required learning to use certain organs in a new way, for different purposes than those for which they originally had evolved, and it required larger brains with language-processing capability. And with language invented, the human species turned around and reinvented itself - many times over, in fact. People created cultures, created social orders with complicated structures of belief, and created selves. Language ...was the first technology - but like other technologies, not fully understood. People thought it was merely a tool for describing the world, and didn’t know it was a tool for creating it."
So, how does language work as an instrument or tool to bring things about, and what relevance is this to our daily lives, especially bottom line questions of organisational performance, productivity and profit? The short answer is that language occurs in conversations.
The Technology Which Underpins Interdependence
We cannot consider language and conversations as technology without recognising that our successful functioning (i.e., getting things done) is one of interdependence. We rarely, if ever, operate in complete isolation from others. We may go to the supermarket on our own to buy some milk, but the act of purchasing would not be possible without the cooperative efforts of many people - from the person who ensured the cows would produce milk through to the assistant stacking the milk on the refrigerator shelves. Similarly in our workplace settings, the increasingly specialist nature of work means that people have become more reliant on others (both within and external to their organisation) in fulfilling their roles and contributing to the organisation.
In his books Competitive Advantage Through People and The Human Equation, Jeffrey Pfeffer, a long time observer of organisational behaviour, stresses the importance of recognising the interdependent nature of organisational functioning, and the importance of investing in people as a means to ensuring that the nature of interdependence supports the accomplishment of organisational objectives. The $64 question is - "How?" and this is where looking to language and conversations as technology is indispensable.
We take action with tools to bring about something different; i.e., bring a certain reality into being. For example, a carpenter uses tools which enable him or her to shape wood and thus create something that did not exist before. Language and conversations are the same - they are the key way in which we shape the world and bring things about. When we think of organisations as being about getting things done so that they can maintain their competitive advantage, language and conversations are indispensable.
The fundamental medium of human interaction is conversation. It is through conversations that we get things done and, of course, conversations involve us in using language (which is both spoken and unspoken). We see two interrelated aspects of language as the means (tools) by which we get things done through conversations - listening and speaking.
Making Our Listening Visible
Listening is an integral feature of the technology of language and conversations. Listening is not a passive process. Our listening consists of the conversations we carry on with ourselves inside our heads, many of which are invisible to us. To listen is to form an interpretation of the events and circumstances (including people) in which we find ourselves in. We speak from our own listening and we speak to the listening (interpretations) of others. Listening is a continually active process by which we make sense of what is going on in our world. We have interpretations which precede and shape what we become aware of, and thus direct how we will respond and take action.
Humans are a walking set of interpretations, and when we observe situations, we do not passively come to an interpretation, we actually impose our interpretations on to that situation. A central part of this continuous process of meaning-making consists of the standards we operate from, judging the positiveness or negativeness of what is occurring from our standards. But we rarely observe the standards we are operating from and how we can utilise this awareness to develop more constructive conversations with others. Furthermore, not only do we not observe the interpretations we live in and how they impact on the way we interact with others, we also tend to treat our interpretations as being factual or, worse still, as the truth. (We see the truth as something that is universally known to all of humankind and is not open to question.)
We claim that listening is probably the crucial factor in communication, which drives our interactions with each other, and has an extraordinary invisible power which can work against us and how effective we are in the workplace. The pivotal role of listening points to what we regard as a key question to be recurrently asked in organisational settings - "Do our conversations produce waste or do they produce value?" This is not to say that every conversation over coffee or lunch has to be about a work related task. Sometimes the extended conversation can build better relationships, enhance understanding and trust, and create a better mood between people, thus creating a much more positive context for the generation of cooperative behaviour which is indispensable in our workplaces.
Speaking As An Instrument For Getting Things Done
Let’s turn now to speaking. How is speaking a tool? We suggest that we might be better served by thinking of speaking as a tool kit. In other words, speaking consists of a set of tools which we can apply in a variety of situations, depending on which tool we think will best suit the circumstance.
We want to outline some fundamental ways about how we make the world happen through our speaking. We are used to thinking that language describes how things are, and thus it plays a passive role in relation to reality; i.e., there is reality and we use language to describe it. This view of language has permeated our thinking for more than 2000 years. But for two millennia we have been blind to the power of language to create reality - to make things happen. We have always used language (speaking and listening) to get things done, but we have not seen it as technology which we can learn to utilise.
In seeing language as a tool kit, it is essential to see speaking is an active process which either assists or hinders things getting done. Superficially we can grasp that speaking is an active process, because we open our mouths and utter things. However, the uttering is not the active process we want to point to. It is what happens within the uttering that is absolutely crucial to seeing language as a tool, and conversation as a technology. When we utter something, words are spoken; within the words are an invisible set of actions, which have the potential to produce something different.
When we open the tool kit of language and have a look we find a set of 6 basic linguistic actions. These have been called "speech acts". Across all cultures, regardless of the mother tongue spoken and "level" of sophistication and economic development, a universal set of linguistic actions have been observed to occur in human conversations. We can let these actions run us, or we can learn to use them with mastery, for the benefit of ourselves, others and our organisations (as well as our family life).
The tool of requesting — this is the tool of securing the cooperation of others. This action is at the heart of the effective functioning of organisations, and is essentially about getting people to do things for us. This is not about being sneaky or manipulative. The interdependent and cooperative nature of our lives means that we rely on others to do things for us. Most of the time they are so busy in their own lives they do not "mind read" or know for sure what we want. The bottom line is that we cannot get nearly as many things done, and live the life we want, without the assistance of others. The ability to ask for assistance and be clear and precise in our asking is a fundamental life skill. This is what we call making an effective request. How do we know it is effective? Because we get exactly what we asked for in the time frame we wanted it to occur. Far too many of us do not even ask for the assistance we crave, living in the assessment that we may be ridiculed or rejected if we ask, and treating this assessment as if it is the truth. Or perhaps we do ask, but we are vague and sloppy in our manner of asking, making all sorts of unwarranted assumptions, and we do not get what we want. Ironically, this confirms that we should not have asked in the first place and we have done a wonderful job of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Two key things worth noting in the action of making requests are (i) we are perfectly legitimate in making the request and (ii) those we ask are legitimate in accepting our request, declining it, or better still, negotiating something different with us so that we both get what we want.
The tool of offering — this is the action of offering to do things for others, without being asked. One philosopher suggested that humans are fundamentally characterised by care — we want to be taken care of and we want to take care of others. (We invite you to observe how many advertisements have the word "care" in them.) We take care of others by responding to their requests, and also by offering to do things for them. We may see that they need assistance, or that something isn’t going well in their life, or that there is a gap and something important is missing for them. We offer to step forward and do something for them or on their behalf, as a cooperative gesture. Of course, we do not always do this as "good Samaritans", as we sometimes create a context of gaining a return favour. However, this does not have to be sinister and can be an integral part of establishing a long term cooperative relationship in which there is trust, and a deep unspoken reliance which can be valuable in times of crisis, and an indispensable feature of productive work. It is interesting to note that someone does not remain employed, if they are not seen as an offer. Being seen as an offer means being seen as a possibility for others - being able to do things which are important to them and which they cannot do. Similarly with an organisation - it remains in business as long as it is seen as an offer in the listening of the marketplace; i.e., its products and/or service are assessed to fulfil people’s important needs and concerns.
The tool of promising — cooperative behaviour hinges around this action, and it is the action of committing ourselves to doing things. This action operations in conjunction with the two previous actions. When someone asks us to do something for them, and we say that we will, we commit ourself to a course of action to meet their request. This is the action of making a promise, and a crucial part of anticipating future realities is based on the acceptance of a request. When we offer to do something for someone else, and they accept our offer, we commit ourself to do what we have offered, and thus have made a promise. The making and managing of commitments is at the heart of organisational performance and productivity. Trust, which is the glue holding relationships together, is always at stake in our promises to each other. Also at stake is our identity. The organisation which listens to its customers and manages its commitments impeccably positions itself to develop market loyalty. Employees who manage their commitments gain a reputation for being competent and reliable, which does them no harm when there is a possibility for promotion. Making and managing commitments is at the heart of our social, economic and political fabric, for they are the generators of assessments of trust and mistrust. When mistrust abounds in organisations, performance and productivity suffer enormously.
The tool of declaring — many people will have a familiarity with this action through the sport of cricket, when the captain declares the innings closed. The essence of this tool is authority. Different roles provide people with the authority to speak about what will happen, and the act of speaking brings a different context and a new reality into being. An excellent current example is the controversy surrounding the public expression of one word in a national context - "sorry" (which is a declaration of sorrow and regret about the past). Other examples of roles are: judges, juries, celebrants and sports umpires and referees. The person only has the authority through the role - take them out of the role and they are not listened to with authority (eg, politicians who lose office). Various organisational roles carry authority with them. One of the key competences in leadership is how to use the tool of declaring to gain cooperation in order to lift performance and productivity. Declarations can be used in a "heavy handed" manner, in which personnel are obliged to follow different practices which they do not agree with. However, the consequences for declining morale could be disastrous in the long run. The judicious and prudent use of authority, often underpinned by astute listening and consultation, can make declarations a potent tool for reinventing the organisation. By listening to the concerns of the marketplace, shareholders and the entire range of organisational personnel, leaders can know there will be sufficient backing for what they declare will happen. This especially includes generating a more constructive organisational direction, and in securing the cooperation of others to bring this about.
The tool of asserting — this is not to be confused with "being assertive". This is the tool about being clear between what is and isn’t factual. The most pertinent facts for organisations centre around income and costs (eg, monthly production and sales figures), as well as market share. Why are facts important? They provide a definite sense of what is and is not real. This provides a sense of certainty and a solid reference point from which to make decisions. We take the existence and establishment of facts for granted, and in doing so miss that a crucial aspect of language is the technology for creating reality. This is can be expressed in the question of "What is it that makes something a fact?" One of the interesting things about facts is that they are not established by an individual, but by agreement amongst people. A fact does not exist independently of the people who decide it will be so. This means that what was once accepted as a fact (eg, that the sun revolves around the earth) may shift if there is no longer agreement about how the fact was arrived at. Different ways of gathering data may produce different facts. For organisations, some key issues around facts are: (i) "How are they arrived at?" and (ii) "How useful are they for positioning the organisation in an increasingly turbulent and uncertain marketplace?" Developing the capacity to question what is conventionally accepted as usefully factual is a key capacity of leaders.
The tool of assessing — this is the tool of formulating and expressing our opinions and judgements (i.e., our assessments). We express how things are for us, which includes our feelings and attitudes. What we are doing here is speaking our interpretations. One way in which we grossly misuse this tool is that we do not bother to substantiate our assessments. We become very careless and speak our opinions with very little or any factual basis and rigorous thinking to support them. One of the huge traps we so readily fall into in language is treating our interpretations as facts (or even the truth). We assess this to be a source of huge waste in organisations. How is this so? We have opinions about many things, especially about ourselves and others. Some of these opinions work to foster relationships and our interdependent functioning. However, they can also work against this. For example, if we have formed a negative opinion of someone, based on a few observations we have made and also what we have heard from others, we can end up characterising someone as "that type of person" and we do not go beyond seeing the person in that way. We become fixed in our interpretation, living it as a fact. This then closes down some ways we can interact with that person which could be to both the benefit of the organisation and ourselves. Without knowing it, we do not accept them being different to us, and have become prejudiced and excluded this person as a possibility for more productive ways of working together. Humans are "assessment making machines", but we are blind to how the tool of making assessments can work against us in generating more constructive conversations as a means to developing more productive relationships.
These six actions are in the basic conversational tool kit of all humans. As a species, once we began to speak we have always had this kit. Unfortunately, not many of us have been told that we have this kit, let alone how to use it. We are unlikely to take skilful and effective action with tools we do not observe. However, once we have the distinctions we can begin to observe how these aspects of language are as much a part of being human, and working together, as the air we breathe. All of us have the capability to learn how to operate this conversational technology, and like most techniques and practices, we do not learn be skilful users of the technology overnight. It requires a commitment to want to engage in repetitive practice so that it becomes second nature, able to be used transparently, and with great dexterity, in everyday settings.
The intentional use of these tools of language offer us the potential to get things done in ways we have not been previously able.They offer the possibility for not only a better performing and more productive workplace, but also for a workplace in which we can find more meaning and fulfilment in what we do. Once the invisible becomes visible no longer do we unwittingly let the technology of conversations run our lives, but rather we can learn to utilise the technology for the benefit of ourselves and others.