Multi-tasking toward mediocrity? – Canadian Government Executive

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Change ManagementDigital Governance with Jeffrey Roy
May 7, 2012

Multi-tasking toward mediocrity?

A strange paradox has emerged in the quest for Gov 2.0. On the one hand, more flexible organizational models that facilitate collaboration are said to be desirable and even necessary. To be innovative and citizen-centric, public servants must thus become adept at various skills and roles to focus on better and often more integrated outcomes. In such an environment, accordingly, multi-tasking is good.

Conversely, a steady stream of commentaries and a widening body of research over the past decade underscore the perils of multi-tasking for both individuals and organizations. The root of the matter is twofold: first, the ability to focus effectively on any specific task; and second, the freedom to think in a reflective and concentrated manner rather than skimming the surface of an endless deluge of emails and web links. On both points, multi-tasking may well be bad.

The first issue speaks to an important managerial challenge as governments strive to become post-bureaucratic in an information intensive-environment. As boundaries become more fluid, collaboration can spur greater information sharing that quite often, in turn, translates into an overflowing (digital) inbox. Middle managers pay the highest price here, forced to navigate and filter, upward and downward, increasingly networked decision-making flows.

The second leads to fundamental questions about the nature of creativity and innovation both individually and organizationally. A growing number of studies demonstrate that multi-tasking alters cognitive behaviour in ways both positive and negative. We have access to more and more knowledge but a more scattered and less methodical mindset results.

Nicolas Carr is perhaps the most visible spokesperson for the perils of multi-tasking and information overload. His 1998 article in The Atlantic magazine, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” sparked much debate including both vitriolic and thoughtful responses (just Google the article and online debate to gain a scattered sense of the issues). More recently, his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, explores the neurological underpinnings of his arguments, as well as the wider implications for society.

Artists have understood these challenges well, mixing commerce, connectivity and creativity in new ways. Chances are, however, your favourite musician is much more likely to be happily tweeting and updating their Facebook page while on tour or promoting a new album. There are then many months (in some cases years) where outward silence reigns, as the creative process demands inward reflection and freedom from distraction.

While most public servants may not always equate their work with artistry, the analogy is nonetheless important. Pages of this magazine are rife with references to public sector innovation and creativity and so it bears asking if and how these core competencies are nurtured and expanded. There is a real danger within large and traditionally hierarchical organizations that an infrastructure of connectivity may subsume managers in a futile attempt to simply keep up with multiplying informational demands and tasks of nominal value.

Such dangers are hardly new, but their relevance is intensifying. A recent article in McKinsey Quarterly offers guidance on “Recovering from information overload” and calls upon senior managers to take heed of warning signs and apply thoughtful, disciplined strategies to ensure appropriate boundaries are in place. The alternative is simply multi-tasking toward mediocrity (or more dire consequences in terms of anxiety and stress that can quickly spread throughout the ranks of an organization).

One important caveat here is demographic, a point underscored by my own classroom conversations with current and aspiring government managers. Mid-career professionals are much more likely to identify with the arguments of Carr and others since they themselves are living through technological changes that provide both flexibility and disruption. Younger people are much more inclined to view Carr as a middle-age nerd bemoaning change.

Tomorrow’s managers are today ever more seamless in their deployment of technology across increasingly fluid private spaces and workplaces. For today’s generations growing up digital – more likely to be sharing ideas via Google Docs than working autonomously on Microsoft Word – multi-tasking is simply a way of life and there is no comparator. iPhones, BlackBerries and Android gadgets and tablets are all facilitating such ubiquity and propelling us through uncharted waters.

Of course, many young people also understand the value and importance of artistic creation. The workplace of the future will thus be one that aligns the requisite amount of process, physically and virtually, with a much greater leveraging of mobility, freedom and collective forms of intelligence driven by a more participative Web.

Yet this new balance will by no means come about by natural evolution, especially in a public sector culture shaped by hierarchical tradition and, increasingly, information overload. Multi-tasking is both a virtue and a curse: only proactive strategies via sustained and meaningful employee engagement can generate the new set of differentiated arrangements that will redefine roles and relationships in the still nascent world of Gov 2.0.

 

Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (roy@dal.ca).

About this author

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy is Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management. He is a widely published observer and critic of the impacts of digital technologies on government and democracy. He has worked with the United Nations, the OECD, multinational corporations, and all levels of government in Canada. He has produced more than eighty peer-reviewed articles and chapters and his most recent book was published in 2013 by Springer: From Machinery to Mobility: Government and Democracy in a Participative Age. Among other bodies, his research has been funded by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He may be reached at: roy@dal.ca

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