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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).
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.
© Newfield Institute
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