by Jonny Feldman, Head of Help Support and Guidance in IS&T
The rapid and accelerating pace of technology change poses challenges along with the opportunities for staff and students. Jonny Feldman, Head of Help Support and Guidance in IS&T, thinks we can learn from the way we’ve adopted new technology in the past. He looks at how we can use previous patterns of change as a guide for supporting people through the inevitable IT revolutions of the future.
Last year, the Harvard Business Review blogged about the increasing pace of technological change. More recently, I came across the image above which shows a representation of the amount of time it took for different technologies to be adopted: The telephone took 75 years to reach 50 million users; the internet took 4 years to reach the same numbers and for Angry Birds it was 3 days.
Can we use that rapid cycle of technology change to help us get better at handling those changes – by appreciating the patterns and using them to become more fluent digitally?
Here is a mundane example: Recently, I witnessed a long conversation about the logistics of getting a fleet of iPads to a teaching space. ‘Hang on’, I thought, ‘we know how to solve this. In fact, we already do it with laptops’. The structure of the discussion seemed, initially, to miss that we had done this before and the fact that the technology was new need not be something to impede the strategic view. Eventually, there was a group epiphany, a welling up of communal memory that we had been there before and all would be fine.
Another pattern that characterises technology change, especially communication technology, is the drive from authority to govern and manage that technology. Email, Twitter and Facebook generated all manner of governance initiatives – from giving advice about staying safe online to directives about when and how the communications tools may be used. Things have changed since we adopted the phone: Then structural change essentially took place from the top downwards so governing and managing it was much easier. Nowadays, technology adoption is driven by the crowd – especially so with low-cost communications. Authorities (whether governments, organisations, managers – or parents) have to catch up. We have moved a long way since the birth of broadcasting where governments were quick to establish ownership of the airwaves. This stands in stark contrast to their lack of (formal) ownership of the internet (not for want of trying).
At Sheffield Hallam too, we have come a long way in how we offer guidance on new technology use. Now we don’t see it as an afterthought – as perhaps we did during the newsnet and email explosion in the 1990s. These days it is an acknowledged necessary task in the wake of new technology – a considered exploration of the issues which builds on past experience (see our social media guidance, for example).
New mobile technology also offers repeating patterns for support services to learn from. Frequently I am asked ‘what will we use these devices for; how will we know how to use them so we get the most out of them?’ We have been here before too. At some point someone decided a PC should be placed on everyone’s desk and conversation about computer training flourished. We have moved on but in essence that conversation is the same today.
However, the accelerating pace of change, and the shortening cycles of technology, mean we have to be more adept at learning to use new tools. Now we need not just to acquire new skills (important as those are) but an underpinning confidence that these skills can be acquired. The difference is subtle but having that digital confidence helps us accept more easily new models of working, learning – and living.