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Parkin Space: Xcus me, i hv smthg 2 say


The other day I was running a session at a client company. Five minutes after the scheduled start time the first few participants wandered in. Twenty minutes later everyone was there. Admittedly, it was not a “training course” but a facilitated workshop to define competitive strategies, so people did not feel they were missing vital content. In fact I was told that this was normal punctuality for internal meetings.

But the fact that everyone was there physically did not mean they were there mentally. Mobile phones vibrated constantly. Blackberries were consulted obsessively. People left the room to take calls. Thumbs punched out SMS messages compulsively. Much of the communication was task-related, with people seeking input from clients and colleagues or remotely accessing data on their desktops; much of it had nothing to do with the task at hand. Yet the work got done, everyone contributed effectively, and the result was better than any had hoped for.

This apparent lack of focus is not a unique phenomenon, nor is it a recent development. But it has become more and more pervasive over the past few years. There was a time when I would ban mobile phones from training sessions. Then I simply banned their ringing out loud. I realise that we are living in a radically different communication paradigm to that of a few years ago. We are now able to multitask in a way that was simply not done in the 1980s. Back then, most people did not have the skills or the tools to “parallel process” productively, and if they did, it was something done in the privacy of your own office. Politeness was our way of denying that we were unable to do many things at once without chaos, or apparent rudeness, ensuing. It’s interesting how digital deftness has corroded punctuality and redefined attentiveness, by changing our sense of time, place, and focus.

Our perceptions of what is "normal" behaviour are determined by the habits of our most familiar peer groups. Over the years I have done a lot of work in various Latin American and Asian countries, South Africa, and most of Europe. In a business meeting context, the sensitivity to punctuality and attentiveness is always less cultural than contextual, and within that context you cannot make sweeping statements about national cultural attitudes or behaviours because corporate culture plays a major role in guiding those attitudes. There are a couple of companies that I have worked with in Mexico and Brazil where I am always the last to arrive at a meeting that I am running. Conversely, there are companies in the US and UK where I have given up expecting more than half of the participants to be punctual, and where participants come and go at will (physically or mentally) throughout the meeting. Our concept of appropriate ground rules for behaviour in a training session is being changed, not by e-learning, but by a growing culture of constructive disruption.

The MTV generation was a society of sound-bite/video-bite junkies, who couldn't focus for more than 15 seconds on anything without needing a distraction. A visual image wouldn't keep our attention unless it moved dramatically, constantly. The post-MTV perpetually-looping CNN mode of communication produced some people who not only have a limited attention span, but who assume that there is no beginning or end, and believe they can always catch up no matter where they start or how often they get distracted.

That fractured attention span seems to be getting even more fragmented with the advent of SMS and other remote communication technologies. The latest generation of company recruits thinks and behaves in non-linear random-access modes. This Internet generation, the “digital natives” born into a world where personal computers were already pervasive, is a society of text-bite junkies. Text is making a comeback, fleshed out by a resurgence in cryptic iconography. Instant messaging, SMS, chat-room style communication, ticker-style news highlights on TV. All of it is text, but not as Shakespeare knew it. Text has a new Morse code that evolves and mutates daily. If u hve smthg 2 say, it takes 2 long to cre8 a pic. Or it did before camera phones came along. J LOL.

Is Internet culture overwhelming organisational culture? The digital divide (if we think of it in terms of those who have embraced connectedness versus those who just get by) is just getting wider. True, "smart mobs" can coalesce and disperse with split second precision. But these are funky folks on the fringe, not mainstream people. What may become more pervasive, particularly as mobile phones become smarter and Wi-Fi becomes ubiquitous, is a blurring of the line that separates "presence" from "absence". Perhaps technology will be used to inflict punctuality and attentiveness. Or, more likely, the technology will make these concepts unnecessary, outmoded, and counter-productive.

* To read more of Godfrey's thoughts go to Parkin Space.


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