Reaching agreements about matters in technological contexts requires an approach that's similar to — but different from — reaching agreements in other contexts. Most of what's most readily available as guidelines for reaching agreements has been developed for other contexts, such as negotiations related to business formation, exchanges of assets, divorce, or matters of law. And these patterns can be helpful in technological contexts if suitably adapted. The key phrase here is suitably adapted. In this post I explore some of the distinguishing characteristics of technological contexts that make reaching agreements so challenging.
What a technological context is
For this purpose, a technological context is one primarily defined by a set of technological elements, either physical or conceptual. Examples of technological elements are devices or systems that exhibit behaviors or possess properties that are relevant to the disagreement, and which can be understood in terms of engineering or applied science. Another example is a representation of such a device or system, in combinations of diagrams, figures, and text.
The property of being technological is one of degree. The degree of importance of understanding the relevant engineering or applied science principles determines how technological the context is. Usually, and unfortunately, assessing the importance of such understanding requires a high level of that same understanding.
For example, a discussion regarding the weight-bearing capacity of a concrete driveway is a fairly technological context. By contrast, a discussion regarding sweeping leaves from that same concrete driveway is less likely to be a technological context.
How troubles arise in technological contexts
Attributes of Attributes of technological contexts
that are especially troublesome are
those that challenge interpersonal
skills of group memberstechnological contexts that are especially troublesome are those that challenge the interpersonal skills of group members. Difficulties arise, in part, when people believe they are conversing about a purely technical issue when they are actually confronting an issue that is essentially political or interpersonal. Below are three such attributes of technological contexts that create risks for groups seeking to reach agreement.
- Breadth of knowledge
- The knowledge required of a group involved in technical negotiations can be very broad indeed. In some situations the set of interacting technical artifacts can include items that are the responsibility of other groups or other enterprises. Or it can include legacy items developed long ago. In such cases, members of other groups or organizations might be detailed to participate in the negotiations as consulting experts. Or members of the group might be asked to "cram" a knowledge domain to help the group broaden its base of expertise.
- Adding new members to a group — or removing members when you believe they've completed their work — can cause the group to traverse again several of the five stages of Tuckman's model of small group development. [Tuckman 1977] This re-traversal can delay the arrival of agreement because it causes the group to revisit interpersonal issues that it had previously resolved.
- If you anticipate the need to involve additional people, you can speed agreement by including them from the outset, rather than adding them only "when we really need their expertise."
- Rapid evolution of domain knowledge
- Rapid evolution of the relevant body of knowledge has two effects on groups as they reach for agreement. First, members must devote significant time and effort to maintaining their own knowledge currency. This workload can be so burdensome that members are compelled to be selective about what parts of the knowledge base they attend to carefully.
- Second, members' personal grasp of relevant issues might not be synchronized. That is, some members might be aware of and have a grasp of a relevant change or innovation, while others might not.
- When debates erupt, the first thing to check is the uniformity of knowledge currency across the group's members. The points of disagreement can often vanish when everyone becomes current.
- Social skills deficits
- "Soft skills" is a term that denotes a cluster of personal traits and abilities that enable members of social groups to form and maintain strong relationships. These skills include social facility, empathy, communication (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), teamwork, leadership, critical thinking, literacy, numeracy, trustworthiness, and more.
- Higher educational institutions do emphasize preparing graduates for dealing with the technical components of technological contexts. But they tend not to emphasize soft skill development to an analogous extent. [Matteson 2016] This bias is perhaps most evident in the education of students aiming for careers in technology.
- Organizations that depend for their success on the technical skills of their employees would do well to install and pursue a long-term program for soft skills development of all employees.
There are certainly many more attributes of technological contexts that create risks for groups seeking agreement about issues they face. For example, knowledge deficits in management ranks can cause managers to impose unreasonable or even irreconcilable constraints on teams that are engaged in problem solving. And because some organizations keep outmoded devices or practices in service alongside more modern components, enterprise asset bases are unnecessarily heterogeneous. That heterogeneity extends the persistence of the need for otherwise-obsolete knowledge for groups that must attend to those assets.
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