One of the most shocking moments of my early career was realizing the level of discomfort most of my fellow employees felt when dealing with issues of technology. On the outside, I made the (unfortunate) assumption that government was full of code breakers, supercomputers sending men to the moon, and software that could track anyone, anywhere. I suppose those tasty bits of tech may exist somewhere, but the most advanced piece of hardware that anyone in my agency has is their Blackberry (already two or three generations out of date). It’s fair to say I was shocked and appalled at the number of people in government who just don’t get the role technology is going to play over the coming decades.
We’re in the leading edge of that future now. Utilities like Facebook and Twitter may have a toy-like simplicity – I’ve heard my own leaders dismiss them as “for the kids” and nothing more than a drain on productivity – but as more traffic is driven to the web, as electronic communication in its many forms continues its rise, the fact is that this is going to largely be the way people communicate in the future. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you received an actual letter from someone under 40?
The age of instant communication and access to the sum total of all human knowledge is going to level the bureaucracy, whether the bureaucracy accepts it or not. It’s happening already – those with a little bit of savvy are using basic tools like Dropbox, Google Chat, or SharePoint to circumvent the cumbersome “authorized” communications channels that stovepipe information to “collaborate in a matrixed environment.” Instead of sending a request for information up the chain-of-command and waiting for the answer to come back down from on high, we’re reaching out directly to the person with the information we need. That person may sit a few desks away or not even be on the same continent. The beauty of the age is that location doesn’t matter. The future is going to look like the cloud, not like a hierarchical org chart.
There’s more information stored electronically than we could ever hope to archive in the biggest file room. Electrons and knowing how to use them are what’s going to be left when we as an organization realize that the old forms are no longer viable. Information has always been power. Managing and controlling the flow of electronic information is going to be the “institutional knowledge” of our time. I don’t think command-and-control model of management will ever go away, this is government after all, but we few, we happy few who know how to make the electrons hum are going to be the voices of power behind that throne… if only because the king doesn’t know how to turn on his computer.
Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.