Managers and management researchers alike have long believed that information is a primary source of power and that communications processes are ways to maintain control over what happens at organizations (“informal organizations” notwithstanding). As long as the important information at an organization was stored in a central computing system managed by the staff functions of accounting and finance, such information control through communications seemed plausible. Several generations of middle managers were trained to support this kind of management practice.
Modern technology can challenge all that. Through mangers’ conscious choices at many organizations, information technology has changed how people communicate. This has altered, accordingly, the way many organizations are managed. One of the vanguard elements of this challenge was the personal computer. The personal computer broke the firm grip of the organization’s central computer system (and related staff functions) on the flow of information at organizations. One consequence of such decentralization of information was the end of the related firm grip of middle management on corporate communications. This change in organizational power structures became painfully apparent to many middle managers who – when many organizations were being buffeted by global competitive pressures too lost their jobs in corporate restructuring and downsizing. Greater still has been the technological effect of computer networking on organizational communication. The personal computer put greater power on more people’s desks. But those people frequently worked in isolation from other personal computer users. Now however, a whole new array of products – software capabilities known generally as groupware has begun to challenge that practice and has begun to change organizational communication patterns. Instead of managing data, computers are being used, in effect, to manage networks of relationships between people.
Electronic mail (or E-mail) is one kind of new technological capability. E-mail users send messages between each other’s computers. But E-mail is a relatively private communication channel compared to groupware networks, which serve as combinations of bulletin boards and conferences that many managers and employees can tap into at an organization. According to a Fortune report, more than 300 groupware products were on the market in 1993.
At a prominent New York City bank, an executive used a group ware network to solicit questions about rumored layoff. Assured of their anonymity, many message senders responded, enabling the executive to assure people, quickly and widely that the rumors were unfounded.
At MTV networks, a groupware system linking members of the sales force enabled those people to share seemingly isolated tidbits of information about a competitor’s moves. Suddenly it clicked; we figured out their game,” says one network participant. Without such a system, these people would have had more difficulty discerning a pattern in the competitor’s strategy.
A Price Waterhouse staff was able to respond under significant time pressures and win a consulting contract using a groupware system to create a proposal. The proposal was written in one weekend by four executives located in three states. Their computers were linked by a groupware product. Other executives reviewed the proposal in making by joining what a fortune writer called a “dialogue on-screen”.
The organizational challenge posed by groupware should not be underestimated. For one thing, there is still much to be gained by communicating with other people face-to-face. Important nonverbal cues and voice inflections, discussed in this article are “cleansed” if the message is sent electronically another consideration is that information is still power to many people. For groupware to be effective, useful information must be available across a network.
Also, groupware can challenge organizational chains of command. The military is a case in point. At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Fairborn, Ohio, one kind of groupware has this effect according to an officer.
Rank does not really matter when you are on line. An enlisted man could send a message to a colonel. Before this groupware system there wouldn’t have been as easy way for a sergeant to share an idea with a colonel short of making a formal appointment to go see him in his office.
On the other hand, a person’s greater visibility on a groupware network can give him or her previously unavailable opportunity to “stand out”.
Managers move in a world in which many things are technologically possible. There the task is to translate those possibilities into actions that are meaningful to human beings at organizations.