“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” Western Union internal memo, 1876.
I recently stumbled upon an interesting info graphic titled Future Work Skills 2020 published by the Institute For The Future. The Institute predicts six drivers or disruptive shifts that will reshape the workplace landscape. The six drivers are extreme longevity, rise of smart machines and systems, a globally connected world, a computational world, super structured organizations and, finally, new media ecology. The last three drivers are of keen interest. A computational world foresees that massive increase in sensors and processing power makes the world a programmable system. Super structured organizations assume that social technologies will drive new forms of production and value creation. New media ecology predicts that new communication tools will require new media literacies beyond text. The info graphic then aligns each of the drivers into key skills that will be needed in the future work force. Those last three drivers of interest morph into one key skill: Cognitive Load Management.
Why should this interest anyone today? In this highly connected world full of multiple distractions from various media such as smart phones, computers and digital television, it is becoming increasingly difficult to spend an hour concentrating on your work without a distracting beep from an incoming Whatsapp message, intrusive ping from an incoming email, or blinking light on your smart phone screen indicating a Facebook, Instagram or Twitter update. All these incoming distractions are like proverbial onions. You click on it only to discover another layer of data or action that needs to be peeled. You click on that data or take on that action and it reveals yet another layer of data or action that requires attention. An hour or two later and you’ve been sucked into a vortex of activity that had nothing to do with what you had been attending to before you succumbed to that seductive distraction. And your desk is still piled high with work. These distractions simply help to create a cognitive overload for the desk situated professional.
In cognitive psychology, cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory. A colleague recently shared with me how his South African based client decided to deal with what was equivalent to an organizational cognitive overload. The organization, a financial intermediary, declared Wednesday as a no –Internet day. The email servers automatically send a standard auto-reply message that politely encourages the sender to pick up the phone and call the person they are trying to email. The message is subtle: Email is a lazy way to communicate, and going back to good old fashioned human interaction once in a while may remind one of why they are a member of a flesh and blood race. During that Wednesday, Internet is blocked for the entire organization for the entire day so there is no possibility of surfing the Internet while pretending to be busy at work. [Obviously the exception is the customer call center] The result is that employee productivity shot through the roof on Wednesdays and it is now a permanent fixture in the organizational calendar. The future world predicts that the world around us will be more interconnected leading to a higher demand for real time customer driven solutions. Our electronic gadgets at home such as fridges will be connected to our vegetable and grocery suppliers for automatic restocking, our transportation solutions be they private or public will be connected to our phones for real time traffic updates and preferred route advice, and so on. Our world will be impossible without the Internet. Our world will be driven by data. Our world as we know it, will be easier to navigate but harder to remain present and fully immersed in the moment as there will be multiple incoming data salvos in the daily battle for limited brain space. It will be as difficult to shut down office Internet as it will be to shut down an oxygen machine on a life support patient in the ICU. And therefore cognitive load management has been identified as a key skill for the 2020 workforce. Sounds easy? Have you ever seen a slow moving vehicle in front of you on a road that has minimal traffic? I now take bets with anyone who is in the car with me that if we overtake the vehicle, we will find it being driven by a middle aged male driver actively talking on a hand held mobile device. I’ve concluded, in a most non-judgmental and non-feminist manner, that middle-aged men cannot drive and hold a phone simultaneously. It is, quite simply, a cognitive train smash. Middle aged male readers, try not to get your knickers in a twist on this anecdotal finding, rather you should ask yourselves your relevance in the next 20 years in the work place. And this is for no other reason that the extreme longevity driver described above will keep workers in the work place longer and the possibility of multiple generations struggling to build cohesiveness in the same workplace will be a notable challenge. Add the fact that the generations in school today are for the most part computer savvy by the time they are ten years old and will have adapted to cognitive load management like a duck takes to water. When Western Union predicted the shortcomings of the telephone as a means to communicate in 1876, they could never, ever have predicted what that instrument would evolve into a century and a half later. It makes me start to ask: what disruptive technologies are we dismissing with a snort of ignorant derision today? Perhaps the local taxi drivers fighting Uber might be better placed to answer that.