Technology in the Workplace

Editor’s Note: This GWF2019 Advance Paper was written by the Catalysts for the Technology Issue Network as an overview of the topic to be discussed at the related session at the Global Workplace Forum 2019 held in Manila, Philippines. 

Cain and Abel perhaps used neolithic tools for farming and herding. From Genesis 4:21-22 we know that Yubal invented musical instruments while Tubal-Cain forged implements of copper and iron. Technology has been an integral part of human civilization since the beginnings of time described in the book of Genesis. It impacts the jobs we do, the nature of our work, our identities within the workplace, and the product or service that we deliver.

From the design and use of stone tools for agriculture to complex genetic engineering for healthcare, the history of humankind is intertwined with the evolution of technology. The information age in which we live in this 21st century is characterized by an economy that is based on information technology. These advancements are impacting our lives. Changing how, when, and where we do things whether at home or in our workplace. What happens when it alters the way we engage with the community, the way we minister, or the way we work? What is right and what is wrong? What is and should be our response as Christians?

As we discuss the topic of technology in the workplace, we will use the five essential elements of a story as a framework to explore the different facets of this issue. The five elements are: Characters, Setting, Plot, Conflict, and Resolution.

1. Characters

There are three types of characters in the workplace as it relates to technology. They are the creators, implementers, and users of technology.

A. Creators: They are the technologists or engineers who design, build, and maintain technology. As image-bearers of our Creator, all humans are unique from the rest of Creation in that we have the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge for building tools from God-given resources to increase productivity, reduce labor, and improve the standard of living. The dilemma often faced by this group of workers is whether they are inventing technology for good or evil. In most cases, technology is neither good nor evil. The answer lies in how we use it. For example, a knife may be used in the kitchen or as a murder weapon. While the decision of how we use technology is made by the next group of workers, the implementers, what is the extent of responsibility of those who create and maintain the technology tools that others use? Are there boundaries that help us perform as better stewards of our technological skills?

B. Implementers: They are entrepreneurs, executives, senior and middle management in organizations who make decisions about the use of technology in their workplaces. They stand between the creators and the users of technology. As an example of the serious nature of this role, consider that some technologies can either cause or cure cancer. Therefore, the application of technology requires insight, analysis, planning, and evaluation. It takes time and effort to understand the problem, weigh different options in selecting the right technology solution, plan every step of deployment, and periodically evaluate its results and impact. What is a God-honoring way to apply technology for the betterment of people’s lives? What are some criteria for making wise decisions as they pertain to technology?

C. Users: This third group is the majority of the workforce—those who use technology to do their jobs. From a school teacher who uses a data projector in the classroom to a checkout cashier in a supermarket using a point-of-sales system, these are the people who are on the front lines of their organizations interacting with their customers. The challenge they face is that they can allow technology to override humanness in their interactions with people. While technology helps increase productivity and efficiency, when is it time to set it aside and focus on the person in front of us? What are the key principles for good use of technology?

2. Setting

Today technology is reshaping industry after industry. Many work environments are undergoing large-scale change efforts to reap the benefits of technology to maintain a competitive advantage. In a new McKinsey Global Survey on digital transformations, more than eight in ten respondents say their organizations have undertaken such efforts in the past five years.

This change is accelerating, and it is impacting workers and their workplaces around the globe. This change has no bias toward culture, beliefs, nationality, income, or local economy. Workers find themselves in many different work settings using and being introduced to many different technologies. As discussed earlier, whether you are a creator of technology, an implementer, or a user of technology, your physical, cultural, and process environments are rapidly changing. Whether a worker finds himself within the workplace setting of an assembly line, operating room, sales floor, food counter, cubicle, transport vehicle, sports field, classroom, or home office, that workplace either has changed, is changing, or will soon change.

Additionally, technology will certainly be a factor in these changes. A workplace setting and the technology within it is influenced by local political, economic, language, and cultural influences. This change is also not biased toward any particular field within the workplace whether that is medical, agricultural, manufacturing, education, politics, professional services, distribution, or any other field. Workers in all fields need to adjust to the changing realities. Otherwise, they may find themselves unable to add value to the workplace. Technology is being introduced to bring efficiency and productivity to how, when, and where we do our jobs. This is resulting in a change to how and when we communicate, from long narrative written documents, to bite-sized nuggets of thought that are being communicated in fractured sentences across multiple mediums. It is important that Christians understand where we are today in light of technological change and how it ultimately intersects with God’s design.

3. Plot

The idea of technology and its introduction into people’s rhythm is neither a new concept nor is it limited to today’s environment. Humans have innovated since God asked us to subdue the earth in Genesis 1:27. Today, however, it is more prevalent at an individual level than ever before. In the past, tools were built to accomplish a task. Now many of the technologies work within and around us and involve broader application. These range from bio-technologies keeping a heart running, to artificial intelligence providing us with today’s news. There is a plot building in this story that the Body of Christ must be aware of, interact with, and walk through. This plot is a progression of interrelated events that start with innovation and end with impact. These events are:

  • Innovation
  • Intervention
  • Influence
  • Immersion
  • Impact

When we think of innovation, we often relate it to technology. However, innovation is much broader. The Webster’s Dictionary describes Innovation as something new or a change made to an existing product, idea, or field (merriam-webster.com, 2018). Change can be brought on without technology. However, in many cases, technology is used to assist in the innovation.

New tools or technologies are often brought in to help us change what is being done today that could be improved upon through the intervention of technology. Technology’s benefit to us is also not just limited to replacing a previous tool. It can replace processes and impact how and where we do the wielding of the tool. This innovation or change can be brought on by various internal and external factors. An external factor, for example, like a new competitor or competitive service, can drive a workplace to change to avoid being overrun by the competition. A new law can force a workplace to change its practices to comply with that new law. Internal factors, on the other hand, can be brought on due to a change in leadership, demand for lower operating costs, or advancement in tools that the market is providing.

With this innovation, the new technology enters into the environment and intervenes in our processes and activities. Interventions can disrupt the environment enough to change a former process or way in which work was previously done. The pressure that this change brings can often feel uncomfortable or disruptive at first. An example of this would be the innovation brought on by UBER to the driver and rider environments. Drivers and riders have been around since before the horse and buggy. However, the UBER app brought together those drivers with cars and those riders who needed them in a new and creative way that impacted both those that drive and those that ride in profound ways. It didn’t just impact drivers and riders; it impacted competition and other older ways of doing things. Those who wielded the older tools, in this case, taxis and rental cars, likely felt the intervention the most. UBER’s innovation was an intervention not only to one workplace but an ecosystem of workplaces that were already established.

Here you see how technology begins to influence the environment once it has engaged and intervened in that environment. UBER began its intervention in July of 2010, where it provided its first live services within San Francisco, California. From there, the company grew domestically within the United Status until it expanded internationally on December 5, 2011, to Paris, France. Today, in 2018, UBER operates in over 60 countries and 400 cities worldwide, and it is still growing month by month. The workforce is well over 2,000,000 drivers worldwide. In Quarter 1 of 2014, ride-hailing (UBER-type service) was 8% of the market while rental cars and taxis held 55% and 37%, respectively. Today, ride-hailing is 70% of the market while taxis and rental cars are fighting over 23.5% of the market. (Michael Goldstein, Forbes, 2018) UBER’s app intervention influenced the market greatly both for those riders and drivers, and it also impacted the older workplaces of the taxi and rental car industry. Many say it also ushered in an era of platform and digital ecosystem thinking that have influenced creators, leaders, and implementers throughout multiple workplace verticals all over the world.

As stated above, once innovation intervenes, it influences. And once it has reached a point of influence where it has successfully saturated people’s way of doing things, we enter the fourth event: Immersion. This is when culture, society, process, and the overall workplace is affected to the degree that the worker doesn’t consider it as novel or disruptive. People no longer think about the innovation as something that took them away from something but more as an extension of their present flow. A good example of this is evidenced in Henry Ford’s invention of the automobile. Today we are fully immersed in the world of automobiles, whereas just over a hundred years ago, people were immersed in the world of horses and stagecoaches. While it was once considered new and novel, the vehicle is now considered a typical form of transportation.

In many cases today, people think of and plan for distance in terms of the average speed of cars, not of horses. Therefore, what would have been a day’s ride is now just three hours, giving someone time for lunch or several other short journeys. A hundred years later, we are fully immersed in our current reality of cars, and we no longer consider the horse in relation to travel.

This brings us to the final 5th event: Impact. Immersion can result in either a positive or negative impact. In today’s digital world, the impact upon us is widespread. It is showing up in about every workplace, and it overlaps our home life, family life, and professional life. Christian leaders throughout history spoke for and spoke against those ideas, concepts, and ways of doing things that were contrary to Scripture and God’s design. Many new advancements with the use of technology are challenging our morals, Biblical values, and God’s design. As Christian workers, what is our position? How do we create? How do we decide when it is good, when it is right, and when it is wrong to use technology in our workplaces? We need to provide resolution for the church worldwide to help ensure that the way technology is created, decided upon, and implemented is in alignment with our humanity and God’s design.

4. Conflict

Albert Einstein said, “It is appallingly obvious our technology has exceeded our humanity.” How do the three different types of characters in our story ensure that this trend is reversed so that humanity exceeds technology? The conflict in our story is that technology can be used for good or evil. While the implementers are the key decision-makers on how technology is applied, they share responsibility with the creators, who hold the key to technological advancement, and the users who ultimately engage the technological innovation.

5. Resolution

The GWF Technology track will build on each element of the story, from characters to conflict, while the main focus is on the resolution of the conflict. We hope to expand this paper with the inputs of the GWF Technology track participants and make it a valuable resource for everyone in the workplace as well as those who provide thought leadership and influence on the issue of the workplace from a Christian perspective.

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