I was in New Orleans for a treasured aunt’s funeral, sitting in my elderly mother’s kitchen, some 650 miles away from my office. It was 4 a.m. I was connected online via my mother’s land line. (You make do with what’s available.) My company’s CEO was in Switzerland for a big business conference that would be livestreamed over the internet. The plan was for people at the event to livetweet, and I would retweet them. The program would last one hour.
Nothing went according to plan. The people in Switzerland forgot to livetweet. The livestream worked only herky-jerky over the landline. The company was announcing a big initiative, and we had to livetweet it. I felt the panic rising.
Yes, you make do with what’s available.
I pirated the next-door neighbor’s wifi, pulled up the livestream, and began to tweet a meeting 5,000 miles from where I was sitting. No one knew that I wasn’t not in the room in Switzerland. And by following the stream via the meeting’s hashtag, I could periodically retweet photos and what others were recording. I ended up with 45 tweets in an hour. I quickly assembled the tweets into a narrative flow and posted them on the company’s blog.
At 5:25 a.m., I went back to bed to catch a few hours sleep before the funeral.
I worked in communications. My work life was suffused with technology—with my team responsible for the social media channels and web sites of the company I worked for, but also the communications by email, the intranet, required training courses (like safety and business conduct) delivered via desktops computers, participating in virtual town halls, and attending webinars.
It was simultaneously wonderful and terrible.
Today, we have access to people, places and information—enormous mountains of information—that we’ve never had before. I can remember the early days of email and using Mosaic to find things on what we had just starting calling the internet. You didn’t need to be a genius to realize that everything was going to be transformed by what we were looking at on our computer screens. And then we did the company’s first web site – in 1996. We didn’t know where all of this was headed, but we knew it was going in a very different direction than anything we had previously known or experienced.
Here are five ways technology has changed the way I do my work:
First, the substance of the work I do work has been fundamentally changed. I live in the United States, but my work, by definition of the internet, is global. People in India can see what I do online as soon as the person who lives next door. I may be communicating to customers in the United States but everyone will see it.
Second, the speed of my work has changed. We call it internet time. I’ve told people I work with when a crisis erupts, we have anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes to get ahead of it; after that, we will always be playing catching up. And those 60 to 90 minutes are shrinking. This “need for speed” alone creates major tensions in my work place—companies like to give measured, well-thought-out responses achieved by consensus. Many people I work with think a response within three days is moving fast. And it is, in non-internet time.
Third, the people I have to communicate with have changed. Communications people used to talk about “targeted audiences” (a term, by the way, that I’ve always disliked; it turns people into objects). You may still think you have a targeted audience, but when everyone can see what you’re doing, everyone becomes the audience. And they do. And they comment. And if they don’t like it, they will try to interfere with it, or hijack it.
Fourth, I juggle fire and water simultaneously. A typical day finds me first trying to build a fire under people to get a response to something happening. At the same time, I’m trying to put fires out with colleagues who think something must be responded to immediately. You have to do this kind of work for a while to, as the song says, “know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.” It’s not always an intuitive distinction, and what helps is developing a track record of calling things right.
And, finally, the Holy Grail of organizational life—how to measure the impact of communications—has not gotten any easier. Dozens of companies sell management, search, and measuring tools; I like to say “everyone has an algorithm.” But we’re still in the early days of figuring out how to measure and assess; we tend to fall into marketing lingo and online jargon, and talk about impressions, owned impressions, reach, influence, page-views, and site visits. (We all turn our noses up at saying something like “hits.”)
I love what I do, but this kind of work, I hear, burns people out quickly. Including me.
Technology always offers a benefit, and always has a cost. It’s huge fun, and hugely exhausting. Simultaneously wonderful and terrible. But after all, we make do with what’s available.
Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.