Monday, December 17, 2012

Business Attacks the Community (again)

Since I am no longer part of the corporate world, I feel I can read accounts of the debate over BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) practices with some degree of detachment. In that context I was particular interested in "The hidden danger to companies with BYOD," the latest post by James Kendrick to his Mobile News blog on ZDNet. Whether or not it was his intention to do so, Kendrick framed the debate over BYOD as a question of values. On the one hand the great asset of BYOD is that it tends to increase the productivity of the individual worker. However, the "hidden danger" he has in mind is that the price of that increased productivity is a decrease of any sense of the workplace as a "community of practice," a principle that emerged from studies of workplace anthropology that identified situations in which social interactions within the workplace could solve challenging problems beyond the grasp of any one individual.

Those studies provided a trove of anecdotal evidence that would be repeated with great frequency back in the days when everyone was drinking the "knowledge sharing" Kool-Aid. The problem was nor that the evidence was specious but that most businesses were looking for some kind of magic bullet that would provide them with both individual productivity and increased knowledge sharing, not realizing that, in their own bean-counting mentality, the time spent sharing knowledge was time not spent on individual productivity. The fact is that, in the prevailing social context of work, because job security has become a think of the past, every individual must constantly under the gun over whether or not (s)he will be able to keep her/his job; and, at the end of the day, all this is going to matter is whatever metric of productivity prevails every time that worker is evaluated.

I would further suggest that the deterioration of any strong sense of community in the workplace entails the side effect of similar deterioration in the world at large. This is what Robert Putnam called the "bowling alone" phenomenon. The fact is that the deterioration has only progressed further since Putman's article about this phenomenon first appeared in 1995; and these days it seems as if we are only aware of a sense of community when the members of that community gather in the wake of a major disaster, whether it is a hurricane like Katrina or Sandy or the latest instance of a mass shooting. Perhaps, if we recognized that the lone gunman responsible for such killing is the reductio ad absurdum of individual productivity, we might finally make a serious commitment to reversing that trend that, last night, President Barack Obama declared cannot be allowed to continue.

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