Peering at the new world of IT work

Here’s a dog-that-didn’t-bark situation: As part of a frenzy of end-of-year poll-taking and interviewing, I asked hundreds of executives around the country what they would do if they suddenly found themselves the boss, going from being the CIO to being the CEO, or from being an IT director to being the CIO. I received some very interesting responses, but even more interesting was this: The vast majority had never asked themselves this question. They had not pictured themselves becoming the boss. What does this tell us about the new IT workplace?

I looked at the implications of this finding through four lenses: transformational, generational, situational and operational.

? The transformational lens. Is the traditional concept of hierarchy outdated? It’s not an outr thought. Thomas W. Malone of MIT has said something similar in his book The Future of Work . A key premise of coordination theory, he explains, holds that increasingly powerful, portable and affordable information technologies are taking us “across a threshold into a place where dramatically more decentralized ways of organizing work become at once possible and desirable.” Evidence abounds that technology is reshaping contemporary culture and work.

? The generational lens. Today’s high school students are digital natives. They seem to be developing a “connect and contribute” mental model of success that could flatten hierarchies and make moot the question of who the boss is. At the same time, digital tools hold great meaning for these millennials. Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in an August interview with The Wall Street Journal, “I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” This suggests that we are on the cusp of a generation that lets the tools tell them where they should go.

? The situational lens. At what is possibly a pivotal moment in history, America is a nation hypersensitized to any indication of national decline. Any malfunction — whether one as dire as a catastrophic oil spill or as nonthreatening as a broken shoelace — is viewed as a sign of our sad, slow slide into the abyss. According to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 65% of Americans believe the nation is now in decline. Seen in this sinister light, the failure of so many to even contemplate upward career mobility could be a reflection of a widely shared perception that it is unachievable. Is the American dream dead for these people? Are they so estranged from the purposes and mission of the enterprise that they just don’t care what happens at the level above them? Jonathan Franzen’s currently best-selling novel Freedom portrays American middle-class life as filled with unhappy and spiritually stunted people. Have we regressed to the Mad Men milieu of the late 1950s, with external bravado masking internal angst?

? The operational lens. The view is more optimistic through this one, with all of us capable of being the empowered CEO of our own destiny. With a smartphone and an Internet connection, there is nothing we cannot know. Yes, there remain swaths of humanity still stuck in the pre-digital world. And yes, in IT there seems to be a disproportionate percentage of bad bosses. But technology gives one the power to act. The digital tools at your disposal are the pens with which you can write the next chapter of your career adventure.

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