I have always been fascinated by information and by the pursuit of knowledge. I can’t get enough of it. I just love to discover things, learn new skills, dream up ideas and figure out ways to reach out, communicate with and help people. I must confess though before I get too far into this subject, I would not consider my reason for getting into the world of Information Technology to be very noble. Actually… I am a pretty lazy guy. Back before I worked in this field, while I was in college, I worked as a Social Work assistant. My job was to interview patients, find out some of their healthcare goals and start to document their plans. The Healthcare facility I worked at had very little computer technology, nothing to manage patients. All medical records were documented and recorded manually.
This was very repetitive and tedious work. Needless to say, while I loved to get to know and work with the patients, I hated the tedious copying and re-copying of information from 1 form to another in each patient’s medical record. I had already started to become familiar with computers and computer technology so I thought, if I could just get the leadership of that organization to buy into the idea that by entering basic patient information into a database, we could print that information on multiple required forms, reducing manual time and increasing time with the patience. We could even process more patience that way in less time. It seemed pretty straightforward to me…and eventually the Healthcare Administrator of the organization accepted the idea and gave me the opportunity to implement my first real information system…and it all started because I was too lazy paperwork.
Needless to say, I have learned over the years to focus my laziness on bigger ideas than the reduction of paperwork and other personal tasks I want to avoid. Nevertheless, I did learn some valuable lessons through those early experiences in my I.T. career. In healthcare informatics, I learned what it meant to be entrusted to protect and provide accurate information and quality technology. If we messed up on a data record, it could mean assigning the wrong doctor with the wrong patient for surgery or assigning the wrong diagnosis with the wrong patient. We managed and had access to some of the most detailed and private healthcare information a person can have. We were trusted not at access and/or disclose that information unless it was absolutely necessary for the structured care of that individual, no exceptions, and we did everything possible to leverage our technical skills and resources to promote the wellness and health of everyone who trusted our facility, in many cases, with their lives.
Over the years, I have expanded my thinking on this subject. I have observed that the wrong information in the right hands could hurt thousands of people. I also reasoned that the right information in the wrong hands could kill millions. For by same scope and measure that technology can help us improve the quality of life on our planet, it can also be used to destroy life on our planet. I don’t think that I am saying anything new when I say that over the years I have discovered that information and knowledge can be powerful and that technology can be an intense accelerant and multiplier in terms of the exponential absorption, application and ultimate impact that information and knowledge can have on society. In simple terms it can dramatically facilitate our efforts to do good…or like a friend of mine likes to say…if your gonna sin technology can really help you sin faster.
It is precisely that potential positive or negative “impact” that the combination of Information and Technology is already having on Society that compels me to explore the relationship between Technology and Sociology. I don’t know about you, but in our weak moments of never ending support and all night implementations, my colleagues and I have often joked that all of the systems we support and all of the solutions we provide would be perfect if it wasn’t for the users. Of course, we know that everything we do to leverage information and technology is for the purpose of helping people. With that in mind, I guess I follow the notion that the field of Information Technology is and always has been a social industry… While this concept may have been limited by technical boundaries over the years, it is my personal opinion that all technology is social technology.
That is to say…for better or worse…all human based scientific initiatives that leverage methods and materials to achieve a goal…in one way or another…has an effect on society…The more we leverage these scientific methods and materials, or technology…if you will… the greater the impact…and the greater the potential. Looking at the positive side of this potential…for me, the exciting aspect of technology today is not that we invented or discovered something new in the Facebooks, Twitters, “Instagrams”, “Flickrs” and “Wikipedias” of the world.
While they are innovative and influential, many of these popular platforms and activities will change in the years to come. The exciting part for me is the concept that a global network, endless stores of knowledge, vast ideas and solutions and an ever-growing assortment of tools, software and channels of media distribution have converged to offer humanity endless opportunities to connect, collaborate, communicate, build, grow and invent. Amazingly, all of this is not reserved for the scientist, the expert, the professional and the CEO. Now everyone can participate. Everyone can have a voice. To borrow a concept articulated much more eloquently by many in our world today. Perhaps more than any other time in the history of human kind, an individual’s potential to lead, create change and movement in society will be based more on their ability to influence and less on their position. With all of this momentum, I am not concerned that technology will stop advancing at exponential rates.
Ecclesiastes 4:4 records Solomon as saying, “all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor.” I don’t see envy driven competition lessening in our future, especially in the technology field. Think about the progress made in the past 20 years alone. As I mentioned previously, when I first started working in I.T., organizations barely started relying on computers to run day-to-day operations. Organizations that did leverage computers on a large scale could count on supporting huge computer data centers. Most of this was used primarily for corporate functions like Finances or H.R. Direct access to information was limited to a few highly trained pros. On the consumer side of things…concepts like chat, browsing, bbs…were all reserved for enthusiasts and dare is say geeks. Now, what used to take up an entire room can be virtualized into a much smaller space. At Willow, servers that used to take almost 3 racks can now fit into 4 blades using virtualization. Now, most if not all staff need, and have direct access to information.
In Fact, I was in a meeting recently where we were discussing a campaign at Willow Creek we call Celebration of Hope. During this campaign, 1000s of volunteers live on beans, rice and tap water in a spirit of prayer and fasting for those who go hungry every day. 1000s of volunteers also come together to pack food for people in need. One of the key leaders of this initiative asked a group of us to brainstorm some ways we could make our Celebration of Hope campaign more meaningful. Half jokingly, I tossed out the idea that we should stop using technology for a day. I was surprised by the discussion. One person in our group later told me that in order for us to do something like “turning off our technology for a day.” The church would have to pay the staff to have a day off. Now, I have a great deal of respect for this person and it is not my intention to start a debate as to whether they have the right perspective or not. It is just very interesting to me how the perception and reliance on technology for daily life has changed.
On the consumer side today…concepts that used to be reserved for geeks is normal for almost any 7 seven year old. It was once thought of as novel and even strange when a technology enthusiast would connect on-line with someone from around the world, Now it is considered pretty normal when a seven year old races down a snowy hill against a kid from another state on Club Penguin or a 14 year old plays Call of Duty 4 live online with friends from school on his XBox or a high school girl connects with her friends by texting them on her phone. If we don’t blow ourselves up in the process, with all the technical advancements we have achieved so far…I’m confident that we’ll continue to make exponential progress in technology as we move into the future. If futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil is correct, by 2030 we will be living in a world of nanobots and the computer power that you hold in your hand today will be the size of a red blood cell. Healthcare, Business, Education and the world as we know will be completely different from the world we know today.
With all this amazing ability we currently have to connect communicate and participate as a global community, with all of this potential we have at the individual level to influence the world around us, Are we ready for the responsibility? Are we willing to make the most of it to really make a difference? Are Leaders ready to embrace, support and even provide leadership and innovation in this ever changing technology landscape?
Do most organizations, including the church in our world today have a true understanding of the risks and opportunities that are before us in our connected world? It has been interesting for me to watch organizations struggle through the process of figuring out the right terms and values to place on these new innovations in technology… On one hand we have the classic corporate point of view. The extreme side of this paradigm views terms like social technology as a threat to their organizations. On the other hand there are the rebels, who view the technologies that take advantage of our connected world as a sort of deliverance… a way to break out of what they may see as the stifling control of hierarchical management. Most of us are somewhere in between these points of view.
Where ever you may find yourself in this continuum, I think it is obvious…at least…by now…I hope that it is obvious to all of us who work in the real world, that technology is firmly in the hands of the consumer and that information and knowledge has greater potential to be socially and globally common than ever before. Furthermore, it is my observation that organizations are just beginning to understand how the realities of our connected world are impacting our society. I don’t care if we call it Web 1.0, Web 2.0, Personalization, democratization, Social Media, Social Technology, Wikinomics, whatever. The truth is that information; knowledge, connectedness, community and the pursuit of growth and movement toward something better and bigger than ourselves, at all levels, for better or worse, have been part of the human experience since creation.
The reality is that technology has made access to and participation in information, knowledge, connectedness, community and the pursuit of growth and movement toward something better and bigger than ourselves potentially accessible to all, even in our present age. With all of this in mind I want to challenge leaders not to abandon the good practices we have developed over the years for managing secure and reliable quality information and technology…but to expand our thinking into the realm of sociology.
It seems to me that society is rapidly gaining expertise as “technologists” in their everyday lives…Technology leaders and professionals would do well to move a few steps toward becoming sociologists in their professional lives. Information and technology has become so intertwined into society that, I believe, those working in the field of technology and in this case organizational leadership as a whole, must move beyond platforms and preferences and focus on the simple basics that create social change and movement in our world.