Psychology Of Technological Change Research Paper

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This research paper addresses a combined set of issues, namely technological change and multicultural contexts. Each issue has received extensive attention in its own right, but in combination there is comparatively little directly relevant literature. After a brief introduction to the two sets of issues, the paper highlights three issues that will become increasingly important as areas of investigation in future years.

1. Technological Change

Technological change has a long history, and each new wave of technological development has resulted in changes to the nature of work (Wilpert 2000). Examples include the Industrial Revolution, developments in transport (air, land, and water), and most recently the information technology and communications revolution. The uptake of new technologies has not been uniform across the globe, and it is therefore difficult to speak of this without acknowledging the diversity of stages of technological change in different countries and cultures.

Industrialization has resulted in a particular form of work that emphasizes the division of labor, centralization of functions, and new forms of labor relations. The information technology revolution has added another layer of change with major implications for the location of work in time and space, and for the immediacy of communication irrespective of distance. Machine tooling provides an instructive example of the impact of technology. Early blacksmiths required carefully honed craft skills that involved the use of a range of tools. Lathe and mill technologies used by fitters and turners evolved into computerized numerical control (CNC) machines that have radically altered the skills required. Perceptual motor and hand– eye coordination skills were replaced with a need for the conceptual and cognitive skills required for writing numerical control code in order to program the machines. Retraining was not always possible because of the very different skill set that often required a high level of mathematics.

More recent developments of a similar nature include electronic data exchange (EDE), computer aided design (CAD), and computer supported cooperative work tools. Information technology is now pervasive with e-learning, e-commerce, and e-communication via the Internet rapidly replacing existing approaches. These developments have major implications for the nature of work. In general, many new jobs have been created, existing jobs have changed radically, and some jobs have disappeared. New jobs are usually more complex and require a broader set of skills.

Technological change of the sort described above is best understood within a broader work context. A useful framework has been provided by Emery (1969) who presents a model of organizations as consisting of interacting technological, social, and managerial components. The technological system includes all the equipment, infrastructure, and technology in the workplace. The social system includes individuals and groups and the social processes and informal channels used by these groups in communicating and negotiating in the workplace. The managerial system is concerned with the power and authority within the organization, and formal lines of communication. Cultural issues have been widely discussed within the social and managerial system, but to date there has been comparatively little attention to cultural issues within the technical system. Technological change has an obvious and direct impact on the technical system but also on the social and managerial systems, and hence on any cultural system.

2. Multicultural Contexts

Organizations and workplaces are increasingly multicultural. This has arisen because of globalization of industry, education, and many other activities, and increased migration and portability of populations. Developments in transport and communication technologies have provided an enabling basis for these trends. The workforce of large corporations is increasingly multicultural even within single organizations (Bochner and Hesketh 1994). Many large international firms have branches throughout the world, with a consequential requirement placed on their employees to deal with a variety of different cultures. These trends have led to the recognition of a need to understand different cultures as consumers and employees.

Triandis defines culture in terms of the group’s characteristic way of perceiving its social environment (Triandis 1972, p. 3). This should be extended to the group’s way of perceiving the technological and managerial environment. Values are fundamental to these perceptions, and Schwartz (1994) and Smith and Schwartz (1997) have made a major contribution to thinking in the area through their empirically based typology for evaluating environments cross culturally. Cultures differ in terms of: (a) Conservatism (collectivism), where the emphasis is on group goals, interdependence, and closely knit groups; (b) Hierarchy, where resources and roles are allocated by the hierarchy; (c) Mastery, where the emphasis is on self-enhancement and achievement; (d) Autonomy (individualism), with independence emphasized in the pursuit of individual goals; (e) Egalitarian commitment, where the welfare of others transcends self-interest; and (f ) Harmony, for the world as it is and for the preservation of the environment. Nations can be characterized in terms of distinct cultural value pat terns or profiles that map on to a circumplex. Bochner and Hesketh (1994) present data that show how these types of value differences, particularly collectivism and individualism, can be found within one multicultural organization.

3. Technological Change In A Multicultural Context

Several themes will be used to illustrate the reason for examining technological change within a multicultural context. First, the ways in which technology and culture might contribute individually and interactively to performance and other outcomes will be examined. Second, the impact of information technologies on work organization will be reviewed with a particular emphasis on the implications of the new communication technologies for trust in a multicultural context. Finally, the importance of training for changing technologies and for working in multicultural contexts will be highlighted.

3.1 The Technology–Culture Interaction

Hesketh and Neal (1999), in a chapter on technology and performance, highlighted the confounded relationship between individual differences and technology in understanding the contribution of each to performance. Using a sporting analogy, they illustrated how racquet technology has interacted with individual differences in skill level to greatly enhance the performance capability of tennis players. Unfortunately it is difficult to determine how much of the improvement is due to the technology or to individual skill in interaction with the technology because of the confounded nature of the relationship.

The same type of analysis can be used to examine the contribution to performance of factors such as individual differences, technology and culture, and the various combinations of these. Gelfand and Dyer (2000) draw attention to the concept of the tightness or looseness of a culture. Tight cultures provide strong norms, with little opportunity for individual differences. Loose cultures are more likely to provide opportunities for a wider range of behavior and influences. Similarly, some technologies are extremely constraining, with resultant re-engineering that forces systems and cultures to fit their design criteria. Other technologies are more adaptable, providing the opportunity for individuals or cultures to tailor the technologies to fit their values. Using these analytical tools it should be possible to make predictions about the types of changes likely to emerge from technological developments in different multicultural contexts. Although this research is yet to be undertaken, current trends suggest an overwhelmingly strong main effect for technology that appears to be swamping cultural differences. For example, Jarvanpas and Leidner (1999) found no effect for culture in their research on trust in virtual work teams. In some respects technology is providing the common platform for communication within diverse multicultural groups. Even language translations are likely to be more instant and pervasive with future developments in the use of technologies.

3.2 Technological Change And Work Organization

The growth in communication technologies has made it possible to provide flexible work arrangements that are no longer restricted in time and space. These changes have major implications for the nature of supervision, monitoring of performance, and labor relations generally. Employees will need greater self-reliance and remote work self-efficacy (Staples et al. 1999).

Research into the newer forms of work organization is essentially descriptive. Current research has compared various forms (telecommuting, teleworking, satellite work stations, neighborhood work centers, and traditional work arrangements) in terms of hours worked, satisfaction, perceived flexibility, and the impact on work and family balance. Telecommuting is a term that is used to describe a work arrangement where an employee is provided with a computer for use in an office at home. The extent to which this is used varies from arrangements that systematically substitute the home office for a work office for anything between one and five days per week, to simply extending work into ‘non-work’ hours at home. Teleworking covers a broader range of work arrangements including the use of a car as a mobile office, call centers, and home work. In a large US study, Cree and Sorenson (2000) found that teleworkers worked more hours than traditional workers (56.4 hours versus 47.1 hours). Because of the longer hours, teleworkers perceived that the arrangement had a negative impact on work and family balance. However, when hours worked was controlled, teleworking provided the hypothesized benefit for work–family balance.

Most new forms of work require greater self-direction, and potentially alter the modes of communication and informal hierarchies at work. Given the centrality of trust and absence of distrust for effective performance (Baba 1999), it is important to understand how technology affects relationships. Trust and distrust are aspects of social relations that are found in all societies, although their bases may differ vastly. The ingredients and behavioral manifestations of trust are culturally bound. Technology can either improve or interfere with trust depending upon previous experiences with the technology and the manner in which it is introduced. Jarvanpas and Leidner (1999) report on a preliminary study examining issues of communication and trust in global virtual teams. Virtual teams are permeable, form rapidly, and dissolve quickly when no longer needed. They are often located across time, space, and culture, and make extensive use of e-communication. Jarvanpas and Leidner (1999) grouped their cases according to the levels of trust at the start and later in the team lifespan. Those teams that started with high trust and maintained it were able to function most effectively. Establishing trust early was important. Many employees have developed strong distrust of new technology in part because it has changed the ways in which they work. In examples where the technological change includes the development of multicultural virtual work teams, considerable effort is needed to overcome cultural barriers and to develop trust as this has traditionally depended on personal relationships. Jarvanpas and Leidner (1999) found that groups able to maintain trust without social contact were better able to manage uncertainty and complexity. It appears very difficult to overcome early events that disrupt trust or produce distrust.

Technologies differ in terms of the extent to which they provide employees and groups with opportunities to obtain informational control, something that most groups seek. If trust is lacking, the efforts of the workgroup to gain some form of control over their work tasks may yield counterproductive outcomes. Excellent case examples are provided by Baba (1999).

3.3 Training For Technological Change In A Multicultural Environment

Developing methods of training for adaptable and transferable skills has become essential in the face of ongoing technological change. This need has resulted in a remarkable increase of research on training, much of it drawing on recent developments in cognitive psychology (Quinones and Ehrenstein 1996). A multicultural context also presents a major need for culture training. One needs to both skill and multiskill the workforce. Hesketh and Bochner (1994) reviewed issues associated with culture and training. The chapter addresses issues linked to the impact of social change, the changing ethnic composition of work, work-related contacts between societies, a decrease in work-related discrimination, an aging workforce, and attitudes toward change. Training now needs to develop multiple flexibility, including flexibility in response to continuing technological change and flexibility in working with colleagues from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds. A key issue relates to the development of trust sufficient to endure the many new forms of work. In achieving this, one aim of training is to develop a shared mental model about whatever task or negotiation is being undertaken, including an understanding of the cultural differences in the group. The early development of a shared mental model helps reduce uncertainty, and allows each individual to predict how others in the group might react. Trust is a component of such mental models in that trust allows one to have expectations regarding the behavior of another. Violation of expectations about behavior can often be the start of the development of distrust which is difficult to overcome. A deep understanding of cultural differences facilitates the development of accurate mental models that underlie trust, particularly where the tasks and communications include a multicultural group. Where ongoing interactions are required, then shared mental models are needed to increase trust and communication.

4. Summary And Comment

Technological change has resulted in major and ongoing change to work organization in a multicultural context. To date there is comparatively little empirical data that is useful in making effective use of technology in this context, although several of the papers listed in the Bibliography: provide good analyses of the difficulties and issues. The very nature of the technology makes it possible to do research of a different form with the availability of possibilities for electronic capture of communication and output, and on-line surveys of attitudes and reactions. Such research and any forms of electronic monitoring will need to be handled in ways that maintain trust and provide employees with a sense of control.

Bibliography:

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