How technology is changing the manager's brain

Scientific and technological advances are transforming the way companies do business - this much is obvious. But less clear is how these advances impact on the way we think and feel, and therefore how we consume, work, manage and lead.

by World Business web exclusive
Last Updated: 20 Jan 2014

According to Baroness Susan Greenfield, well-known author and professor of Pharmacology at the University of Oxford, the massive growth of electronic media is fundamentally altering our brains and central nervous systems. And companies that do not recognise this could become the forgotten victims of the tech revolution, she says.

Greenfield has spent much of her career working on neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, but her most recent work, Tomorrow's People, explores how 21st century technology is changing the way people think, feel and act. Speaking to World Business, Greenfield warns that these changes will transform the relationship between companies and their employees, and the way companies themselves are structured.

"We're already seeing the impact of the IT revolution on the workplace," she says. "Working on the screen is having a massive impact on the way we think and process information. The screen culture is not conducive to taking time to think -everything is instantly available. The result is iconic thinking, quick fixes and short attention spans."

These developments will engender some positive social changes, Greenfield says. For example, as more people choose to work from home, companies will be able to introduce much more flexible employment practices. This will be good news for older people and people with disabilities, who are often physically unable to travel to the office but whose knowledge and skills are still valuable. "The availability of technology will mean that people will stay mentally agile as they get older and there'll be no reason why they can't carry on working," Greenfield says.

But other changes will present companies with difficult challenges. As people's brains evolve, their motivations and aspirations will shift accordingly, Greenfield warns. "Our standards of satisfaction and fulfilment may be very different in the future," she says.

"We assume that people want to work for other people - but that may not be the case in the future. At the moment a lot of our pleasure is derived from status, but I think soon that will be challenged - people just won't be motivated in that way. It's just another arms race and I think we'll evolve to a point where people aren't so status-obsessed."

This could spell the end for traditional, monolithic corporations, she says. As the various rationale for forming large companies - for example, to reduce the cost of gathering in materials - become less important, smaller, more virtual units will emerge that are independent but work through a variety of networks of other organisations, she insists.

It is a measure of the growing influence of Greenfield's ideas that she has been invited to address some of the world's leading business figures at the Leaders in London conference at the end of November. Speaking alongside Colin Powell, Richard Branson, Sir Alan Sugar and Sir Bob Geldof, Greenfield will tell delegates how technology will change the way leaders need to think and act in the future.

One of the messages she will give is that while change is inevitable, companies can choose how they respond to that change. "It isn't accurate to think of ourselves as the 'victims' of technological change," she says. "But we have to wake up and be positive."

The Leaders in London international leadership seminar will take place in Central Hall, Westminster, London, from 29 November to 1 December. For details, visit www.leadersinlondon.com

 Interview by Nick Loney

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