People need to be connected and everyone needs information. The right amount and quality of information at the right time gives us unprecedented power. Too much information and digital distraction, however, can keep us from getting important things done. It can keep us from connecting with those around us[i]. What many of us want is Zen-like ‘flow,’ i.e., not too little and not too much connectivity. My colleagues and I called this a state of ‘connective flow’ in our studies[ii] of distributed work teams.
How good are individuals at monitoring and managing connective flow? Increased adoption of smartphone and other connective technologies has brought a subsequent growing concern and interest in the importance of regulating the quantity of interactions for organizational performance, while not undermining individual wellbeing[iii].
In a recently published article in the EuropeanJournal of Information Systems, Kristine Dery of the MIT Sloan School, Judi MacCormick and I compared how smartphones use changed from the height of the ‘CrackBerry’ era, in 2006 (the iPhone arrived in 2007), in the same sample re-interviewed in 2011. Our study was conducted within a large global financial services corporation and interviews took place mainly in Paris and Sydney. Corporations like the one we studied embraced technologies like the BlackBerry, which offered increased connectivity between workers, while the corporate culture often lead to employees suffering from hyper-connectivity and burnout.
Our findings revealed a few major shifts in smartphone usage in the five (5) years between interviews. First, the iPhone had come onto the scene and while the corporation remained on and only supported the BlackBerry device, almost every participant in our study had also purchased an iPhone, which they used for both personal and work purposes. Second, in the first round of interviews, participants expressed a love-hate relationship with the BlackBerry, some secretly wishing it would be lost or stolen, so they could ‘get a break.’
Five years on, our participants were much more comfortable taking work into their own hands, literally. In managing their connections with work in the first round, interviewees spoke of ‘switching it off’ and ‘escaping’ its spell on them. In the second round, they spoke of managing the ‘flow’ of information, turning the flow up or down ‘like a tap,’ as one interviewee described it. And, finally these knowledge workers moderated the flow of media and connections between work and non-work life more seamlessly, with much less stress than they expressed in the earlier phase of our study.
Although the ‘CrackBerry’ days of email obsession may be gone[iv], myriad new work and social media have exponentially exploded in the hands of smartphone users. Other studies of knowledge workers have proven that addictive and dysfunctional behaviors are still commonly associated with mobile technologies.[v] In our study, however, we have found that the use of smartphones is evolving relatively rapidly and that we are more or less adjusting to and making different choices when it comes to these tools that characterize our age.
For those seeking the good life in a digital age, I recommend William Powers’ book, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: …. It sounds dated, but his insights and story telling make an excellent read for anyone who feels there must be more to life than the latest tweet.
A version of this article, titled, 'Finding flow: Smartphone users getting smarter,' appeared in the New Zealand Herald on Tuesday, 13 May 2014.
[i] Turkle, S. (2011) Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books; MacCormick, J., Dery, K., & Kolb, D. G. (2012). Engaged or Just Connected?: Smartphones and Employee Engagement. Organizational Dynamics, 41(3), 194-201.
[ii] Kolb, D. G., Collins, P. D. and Lind, E. A. (2008). Requisite connectivity: Finding flow in a not-so-flat world. Organizatonal Dynamics, 37 (2), 181-189.
[iii] Powers, W. (2010). Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a good life in the digital age. New York: Harper Perennial; Kolb, D. G., & Collins, P. D. (2011). Managing Personal Connectivity: Finding Flow for Regenerative Knowledge Creation. In G. Gorman & D. Pauleen (Eds.), Personal Knowledge Management: Individual, Organizational and Social Perspectives. Surrey, England: Gower, 129-142.
[iv] Dery, K., Kolb, D.G. and MacCormick, J. (forthcoming, 2014). Working with flow: The evolving practice of smartphone technologies. European Journal of Information Systems.
[v] Perlow, L. A. (2012). Sleeping with your smartphone: How to break the 24/7 habit and change the way you work. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing; Mazmanian, M., Orlikowski, W. J., & Yates, J. (2013). The Autonomy Paradox: The Implications of Mobile Email Devices for Knowledge Professionals. Organization Science, 24 (5), 1337-1357; Mazmanian, M. (2013) Avoiding the trap of constant connectivity: When congruent frames allow for heterogeneous practices. Academy of Management Journal, 56 (5), 1225-1250.