Monday, May 5, 2008

Gina Neff: Work and Power

Note: I have resolved to: (1) make my posts shorter so they stop eating my life, and (2) swerve, with a deft flick of the steering wheel, from my former outline of stuff that I was going to cover, to concentrating on my "Technology as Social Intervention: Discuss" topic, where I hope to learn more and rant less. It's all the same basic subject, though, so you may not even notice the difference.

That said, I went out a few weeks ago and interviewed Gina Neff, who is faculty at the UW Department of Communication. Gina is very taken with the concept of "work and power," and I wanted to ask her: what's the connection between the two? How do organizational structures dictate how power gets allocated to its members? And what happens to those power structures-- or to the communication dynamics of the org as a whole-- when you introduce new problem-solving technologies? If you are also geeky enough to find these topics interesting, you will find some of Gina's answers to those questions in the following few blog entries.

Information, Power and Tools

Gina has been studying these type of questions for years, and she has seen organizations' implicit power structures change radically with the addition of new technological tools, "magnifying existing power disparities," she says, "or breaking them down." The power-holders in an org may try to restrict how a tool is distributed or employed, or might even rally against it, if it seems like it has the potential to redistribute the power to make things happen. Alternatively (as in the following example), it might level the playing field, causing an initial chaos that leads to large changes to the org's workflows and the way its members define their own roles.

Gina is currently undertaking a study about the adoption of building information modeling tools in the construction industry. She explains:

Historically, contractors (the folks who build the buildings) and architects have lived on opposite sides of the organizational divide. They spoke different languages and had different goal sets; they communicated via blueprints. This mutual organizational isolation allowed each group a lot of control over their spheres, but frequently made collaboration a painful, contentious mess. Each group guards its information and works at cross-purposes to the other, with miscommunications leading to mutual stereotyping, which itself helps reinforce the divide.
Gina is studying a transition that's taking place right now, before her eyes as she studies it: Today, builders and architects are beginning to share their visions via 3-D computer graphic tools and databases that represent the building being built. In other words, these groups are adopting a communications- and design- based technological innovation, and it is creating dramatic changes in the way they work together. The stereotypes are being put to the test as the groups are forced into proximity with one another, and each silo's private language is being opened up to the other. As Gina describes: "Their entire communications infrastructure has been channeled into different visual symbols, and is hardwired through different network pathways." Each group is also, in the process, losing some of the autonomy that came with that defended isolation.

Heterophily: Difference and Group Intelligence

It's not far-fetched to imagine that switching the wiring in an organization's communication structure could lead to huge changes. Cultures large and small, since the civilization of man, have kept themselves alive by employing one or another form of isolation: a mountain range, a separate language, secrecy, stereotyping, a forbidding initiation rite; Jews, for example, have kept Jewish culture alive, despite the diaspora, with the aid of lengthy and complex conversion processes, services conducted entirely in Hebrew, and dietary restrictions that can help limit who Jews eat with. If you move a culture's boundary devices, you change the way the culture lives. Build a highway, raise children bilingual, install a phone system, the internet: suddenly you find cultures blending, changing, and questioning the way they do things.

The contractors and architects in the system Gina is studying have historically been heterophilious. "Heterophily" is an amusingly polysyallabic term for "different in a way that makes communication between them hard." The words heterophily and homophily describe two ends of a spectrum: on the one side, you have two groups (or individuals) who are different to the point where they can't communicate at all (an American economist and a Bolivian witch woman); on the other side, you have groups who are so similar that communication between them is easy, but totally uninteresting (an American economist and an American economist ;) ). They have nothing to say to one another that they don't already know.

Want More of This Stuff? Check out:

And four "easily accessible" books Gina suggests everyone read:

... Gina recommends all of the above except, technically, the following blog entry. :)

Image pulled from here.

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