Digital Smallness at Work – Shrinking the Enterprise?

by Terence Tse, Olaf J. Groth, Mark Esposito, and Dan Zehr

Digital Smallness at Work – Shrinking the Enterprise?

Image Credit | Avi Richards

Social media & the online world has turned our networks and thinking narrower.

Social media platforms undoubtedly have value in keeping us connected and many have fantastic potential to broaden our perspectives, forge new relationships and networks.  But herein lies the problem – most currently don’t.  In fact, rather than setting us free with greater mobility, making us discover new territory and enabling new possibilities.  While this is true in the purely geographic sense, it isn’t in the collaboration sense.  The arrival of the Internet was supposed to make everything bigger, wider, more interconnected and integrated.  In fact, we can now reach anyone globally, buying from anywhere around the world and learning about what is happening in the furthest reaching corner of the world, all instantly.  Making things and people more relatable across distances and domains could have broadened our minds.

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But more often than not the result is the opposite of the original promise: our networks and thinking have both turned narrower.  In the online world, we have become parochial by paying narrowly focused attention to very selected and curated (often downright faked) messages, “moments” and “snapshots.” As context gets stripped the tools are all too often squeezing us into keyhole sized, narrowed, point-to-point lines-of-sight, devoid of any context that could create empathy.  Much has been written about these digital technologies dividing us into tribes and devaluing truth, for truth is never narrow and always contextual.  “Digital Smallness” of network and mind results!

And now – with the conversion of presence work in offices into virtual spaces – Digital Smallness continues its evolution into the realm of collaboration, creativity and productivity.

A new paper1 published by 11 authors studying 60,000 Microsoft workers during the company’s conversion to virtual work found that collaboration networks among workers narrowed, compacted and shrank to the size of immediate project groups focused on discrete tasks.  Not surprisingly, the element of serendipitous interactions and chance meetings so valuable in physical settings disappeared.  It is no surprise then that researchers at University College London have found that 23 percent of the respondents reported that their relationships with colleagues or co-workers had got worse over lockdown

This means that we are gradually losing the so-called “theory of mind” of others with whom we are supposed to collaborate – building a story in our head about what is going on in someone else’s head.  We can mostly see how someone behaves within the boundaries of a narrow and short burst of transactions to get things done in a spot fashion, but we do not glean and empathize with the experiences that influence their behaviour. 

And that is maybe the most important point of them all: it’s not just our thinking and empathy skills that have been reshaped.  It is our behaviour as well.  The different degrees of lockdowns throughout the pandemic made many of us socially awkward and lower-skilled.  A recent study has suggested that while some people are born with trolling behaviour, ordinary social media users will also troll when mood and discussion context prompt such behaviour

It is unclear whether all of this has inhibited our productivity significantly in the short run.  But is is also clear that this cannot be good for a company’s culture, cohesion or creativity longer term.  The very justification for having organizations is to maximize trust while minimizing transaction cost.  But now, Digital Smallness threatens to erode both if we don’t look beyond the confines of the immediate workgroup “tribe.”

Needless to say, more research and more innovation are needed on the frontiers of this development, with the goal of bringing some of our more contextual and serendipitous interactions back, widening our perspectives and networks.  After all, empathy towards customers, co-workers and stakeholders is essential for innovation, but empathy is hard to develop without a view of a person as a multi-facetted human with memories, pressures, aspirations, fears and joys.  Life is not a Slack channel.  We need to design algorithms that help us re-aggregate and understand the broader picture, maybe one slice at a time with each slice bringing appreciation and relief, but also more optionality for shared connection and creativity.

This is an urgent call for us – technology and product designers, businesses leaders and government policy makers – to rethink and re-invent a technology-driven environment that is fit for human lives, communities and networks, an environment that is filled with empathy, humility and gratitude.  We need to tackle Digital Smallness before it becomes too big of a wrecking ball on too many levels.


Terence Tse
Terence Tse Terence Tse is Professor of Finance at Hult International Business School and a co-founder and executive director of Nexus FrontierTech, an AI company. He is also a co-founder of Excellere, a think tank with the goal to help people explore and release their potential through new technologies. He has worked with more than thirty corporate clients and intergovernmental organisations in advisory and training capacities. He has written over 110 articles and three books including The AI Republic: Building the Nexus Between Humans and Intelligent Automation (2019). His next book, The Great Remobilization, will be published by MIT University Press, in the course of 2023.
Olaf J. Groth
Olaf J. Groth Olaf is a Professor at HULT International Business School and Professional Faculty at Berkeley's Haas School of Business; CEO of; author of “The AI Generation” and “The Great Remobilization: Designing A Smarter World” (forthcoming); frequent speaker and contributor to the WEF C4IR, the Biden-Harris innovation policy committee, news and talk shows.
Mark Esposito
Mark Esposito Mark Esposito is Professor at Hult Int'l Business School and Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education and works in public policy at the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government. He directs the Hult Futures Impact Lab. He co-founded Nexus FrontierTech and the Circular Economy Alliance. He has written over 150 articles and edited/authored 13 books. His next book, "The Great Remobilization" will be published by MIT University Press in the course of 2023.
Dan Zehr
Dan Zehr Dan is vice president of communications at Cambrian Group and lecturer for journalism at U of Texas Austin. Prior to joining the firm, he was an award-winning business journalist whose reporting spanned most major industries and geographies. He most recently covered the economy and finance for the Austin American-Statesman. Dan has co-authored or edited eight books, including works on artificial intelligence and advanced technologies, digital marketing, social media strategies and consumer markets in developing economies.


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