Technology as empowerment?

By Almuth McDowall (a.mcdowall@bbk.ac.uk), March 2016:

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This morning, rather by accident, I stumbled upon an article by Chris Argyris, written in 1998. Empowerment, the “emperor’s new clothes” he called it[1]. It sounds as fresh and relevant as it did near 20 years ago. It sets out basic, but lucid principles about commitment in organisations. When this is ‘external’, someone else is calling the shots, but you might not really have bought into what needs to be done. If it’s ‘internal’, you are in the driving seat, and more likely to make a difference. Argyris provides thought-provoking anecdotes including his work with West German enterprises who were left rather dismayed and baffled by what they saw as a lack of drive and initiative on part of East German employees after the German reunification. Being German myself, and of a generation who grew up with a divided Germany this rang so true. I remember my father trying to persuade our East German friends to get the wheels in motion to get their property back under unification laws. Whilst they liked the idea, they lacked the get up and go to do so. In the end, he virtually did it for them, and ‘yes,’ they did get take re-possession of their family house, a huge townhouse, back in the end. Likewise, my father pulled strings left, right and centre, to obtain a coveted banking apprenticeship for their daughter. Somehow or other though, these actions on behalf of our friends cast a strange shadow over our families’ friendship, as we also found their lack of proactivity hard to understand.

So why I am a writing about empowerment when this blog is about the always on culture?

Well, a number of organisations are putting in place strategies to limit and regulate how employees are using technology and in particular email use. Volkswagen in Germany was one of the first organisations to do so[2], and many others are following suit. In France of course, labour agreements require staff in certain sectors to switch off their work phones after 6pm, although this has not been an outright ban as widely reported![3]

But similar developments are afoot in the UK. For instance, Wieden and Kenndy London are not only limiting their core hours, but staff have also been summoned to stop sending or reading work emails after 7pm, and call an early weekend on Friday afternoon[4].

Surely I should applaud this, as an occupational psychologist, whose ethos is to put the welfare of individuals first? Yes, and no! Yes, because I think we need to start managing technology before it starts managing us. No, because there is a wealth of literature on stress and stress management which tells us that any solutions work better if people have control, choice and a say in what they do, rather than have solutions imposed on them. Which makes me question – what evidence is that clocking off at 7pm is the right solution? Why not 6pm? Or 7.30? What’s the evidence, is the question any organisation should ask. When asking about the evidence, they should also look no further than their own employees, consult them and get them to co-create whatever the right solution is for their context, rather than copying what someone else does.

The next logical step should be to think about evaluation – how would you know that whatever you are doing is actually making a difference? Ask your people if the solution is making a difference to them, whether it’s enhancing their work and productivity. Lastly, I am also with Argyris that we all need to go one step further. What are the tangible business outcomes? Are people producing better quality work? Do customers notice? These are always difficult question to answer, as it’s not easy to link business outcomes to how we manage our people, and how they manage their technology.

This is the evidence we need however, if we really want to empower people, and proactively manage technology, rather than let technology manage us.


[1] https://hbr.org/1998/05/empowerment-the-emperors-new-clothes

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16314901

[3] http://www.fastcompany.com/3028945/work-smart/france-just-made-it-illegal-to-answer-work-emails-after-6pm

[4] http://www.brandrepublic.com/article/1386913/wieden-kennedy-trials-limits-working-hours?utm_medium=EMAIL&utm_campaign=eNews%20Bulletin&utm_source=20160310&utm_content=www_brandrepublic_com_art_4#story5

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