In the 21st century I think we are all acutely aware of the significance of communication. It is all around us, in so many forms: face to face (both verbal and non-verbal or our body language), written, in various forms in the media; and digital, just to name a few. Therapists talk about the need for it in all relationships. Managers talk about the need for it in and amongst their teams. Parents and teachers urge their children and students, respectively, to trust them enough to feel free to do it. Thousands of people go to training every day on how to communicate better. In the world of work we talk about learning ‘soft skills for improved communication’ in order to get ahead. At TomorrowToday we often talk about the fact that we are living in a connection economy; and that our ability to build relationships with people will increasingly become a differentiator for us and our organisation, so we urge people to learn new ways of communicating. We talk about finding adaptable and flexible ways to communicate with others in the face of increasing diversity. We remind leaders they will have to learn to communicate differently because of a changed work force and work place. Billions of emails (lots of them spam) get sent everyday, alongside probably trillions of instant messages.We live in an age saturated by information and we are obsessed with finding ways in which to communicate differently, more effectively, more efficiently, with more empathy and productively. In fact, we are even asked to communicate more inventively and creatively too.
A friend of mine was telling me the other day that he had been on a conference call, whilst driving home from work in Johannesburg (SA), with three other people. One was in Washington (USA), one was in New York (USA) and one was in London (UK). This is the amazing part about using technology for communication; and the aspect of our ability to communicate that has (and will continue) to change everything in our professional and personal lives. Not only were all four participants on the conference call all thousands of miles away from one another, but the conversation was happening for my friend from a moving car!
This got me thinking. What impact does technology, in the context of communication, have on every facet of our lives? The answer is: a HUGE impact. The second question is: is this the first time this has happened to society? And the answer is, no. The last question is: HOW does communication; and the tools we have to govern the way we do it, affect the make-up of our society; and ultimately, the make-up of organisations in the new world of work? And then one has to wonder how the changing face of oranisational structure affects organisational culture, which will have already been affected by changes in social value systems, which would largely have been changed because of technology and the new modes of communication it offers. So, I began to contemplate the significance of communication in designing the fabric of our social structures through out history.
I started with the hunter-gatherer economy; and I wondered if they had any mode of communication apart from verbal and non-verbal face to face communication. Communication played a significant and fundamental part in their survival. Whether their communication was simply hand gestures, conversations, story-telling, displays of how to do things through observation for learning, or ritualistic communication, the point is, that people in hunter-gatherer societies remained close-knit communities. This was largely influenced by a need to stay close to one another because the only way they could communicate with one another was face to face. They were not even writing things down. Populations were small (especially relative to today) and communities were nomadic. So their communication methods played a large role in the way in which their society and social interactions were set up.
During the agricultural economy there were very significant changes in communication, which would also radically change society. Like all social and economic eras this time had many faces, but latterly this society was very class-based, with a huge distinction between the rich (landowners) and poor surfs. But in approximately 1440 something would change society as it was then as significantly as the Internet has changed society in the 20th century. That something was the invention of the printing press. Now, written documents could essentially be mass-produced in an assembly line-style way, as apposed to having to be hand-written by a learned few. Like all things (like the Internet in the last 30 years) the printing press took some time to evolve in to it’s final state. At first it’s existence did not directly affect the masses, but certainly by the time of the Renaissance is had significantly impacted communication methods in Europe. The production of books had grown like wild fire. Suddenly information could be distributed to the masses, democratising knowledge, and to a large extent secularising information and education. The Reformation threatened the power of the church and political authorities, because ordinary people’s literacy levels improved, which paved the way to the rise of a middle class. Increased cultural awareness of cultural difference gave way to nationalism and the utilisation of European vernacular languages, which meant Latin would lose it’s wide-spread use. Perhaps this era sewed the seeds for the knowledge-base society we live-in today.
The next major change in society is known as the industrial era or economy. In his book ‘The Meaning of the 21st Century‘, James Martin talks about the Industrial Revolution and the 21st century revolution as balancing one another. Because the ‘Industrial Revolution started the extraordinary events of the last 250 years and the 21st century revolution will gain control of those events so that they don’t destroy us’. I would argue therefore that the world we know today started evolving 250 years ago; and that the two major defining moments for communication and social structure were the Industrial Revolution and the Second World War. Both these events evoked huge progression in the communication space; and this, along with the extraordinary inventions of the 19th and early 20th century (like the telephone, for example) would pave the way towards the next significant age, known as the information era or economy.
The information age is so called because it coincides with the rise of the computer, which was the primary vehicle through which information would be distributed. During; and just after, the War there was a boom in the invention of communication devices as tools developed for the military were released for public use. Besides the telephone, there was now telegrams, the telex, typewriters and radios. Before long the television and fax machines would also play a role in changing the fabric of society. This was the beginning of globalisation, the multi-national corporation, proper education for all and mass production of consumer goods. This would radically change people’s lives both personally and professionally.
We know live in a connection economy and one can see how our society (and organisational structure) has evolved out of the information era. In a world of instant messaging, social media, mobile phones, iPads, Google and YouTube, for example, we have never had so much access to communication. We now have family members and close friends who live on the other side of the world, but with whom we can communicate within seconds whenever we need to. We have also never had so much access to free and available information, which I believe is one of the biggest influences on shifting organisational structure. Now more than ever, people inside businesses need to know. Because a) we are used to multiple methods of communication and b) we can communicate 24/7 with anyone in the world. This shift from hierarchical organisational structures, where only the top echelons knew what was going on, into organisations being a lot more egalitarian and collaborative is happening and must happen, but it is also the most significant thing that has happened because of the way we communicate differently in the new world of work.
It is profound to think of how our methods of communication can affect our gender, generational and cultural value systems also, and we see this in how these three pillars of society are broadly reshaping institutions, both family and organisations.