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For better or worse, technology erodes boundary between personal and professional life

Oct 20, 2016

The Next Idea

If you listen to the World Economic Forum, we are now in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The WEF calls this “a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.” Just as mass production launched an era of large-scale centralized organizations at the turn of the 20th century, the Internet and smartphones in the 21st century are ushering in new forms of collaboration — and conflict.

Technologies are replacing the fundamental missions of organizations. They are moving from scale — creating something once and distributing it everywhere — to scope, creating an infinite variety of offerings. Everything from your made-to-order sneakers to the medications you take for your unique ailments are being mass customized. That is, companies are using integrated technologies and supply chains, along with complex information from diverse sources, a.k.a. Big Data, to create a product or service just for you, just in time.

Given that access to these types of data is easy, and the price of the technology used to process them is plummeting, we are now seeing diseconomies of scale. This means that being a large, resource-rich enterprise can actually be a liability. For example, you no longer need to rent an expensive studio or produce a CD to make a hit recording. You can do it on your phone and stream it on the internet. Done.

Trading scale for scope has altered our sense of boundaries in this new world, and these changes are often contradictory. For example, we can now communicate in real time across the world via the web, translation apps and low-cost gadgets. This has enabled peer-to-peer social networking where there is less need for large-scale institutions like corporations and universities to produce new knowledge or services. This not only democratizes the workplace, it changes where and how we work.

But the softening of boundaries also makes it easier to segment and isolate small groups of people with radical views.  This doesn’t just happen at the fringes where extremists are enrolled and co-opted. Consider the rhetoric around the upcoming elections. What ends up happening is that we have increasingly less in common with the larger community because we have less contact with it. Both democracy and capitalism demand that we constructively engage the opposition. But how do we do that if we rarely encounter the people around us in a meaningful way?

Before the new world of work, there was a boundary between our professional and personal lives. That boundary is gone. While we can choose to turn off our technology, there is no turning back from the new expectation that we are available anytime, anywhere. Whether we are rich or poor or somewhere in between, we have fewer choices regarding what needs to be done and when. Both the physician and the day laborer are always on-call. The option of personal time and space is now largely reserved for the powerful, reclusive and disenfranchised.

A final aspect of the new world of work is how it fundamentally shifts the concept of time itself. The past and the future are now subsumed in the present where everything is available now. The rhythms of reflection and deep thought run contrary to the speed of work. Some experts now suggest that our accelerated sense of time and timing is creating an epidemic of attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorders. Making sense of the world requires more than just an infographic. It requires real time.

Of course, there are many more aspects to the new world of work beyond technology, boundary busting and time shifting. We can speculate about these because they are already here. But there’s still much about the new world of work we can’t know yet. All we can really do is to continue to make it up as we go along. Maybe the real revolution is making time to make sense of it all.

Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of business administration at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.

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