Telework: Good For Productivity, Bad For Innovation?

As a full time teleworker, I have been bemused by the widespread and unusual attention in the general news media this week about telecommuting.  See, for example, the front page story, “Yahoo Orders Home Workers Back to the Office” in the New York Times this week ( or “Does Telecommuting Hurt Your Career” from CBS Money Watch yesterday (

Yahoo has its own peculiar problems to address that don’t necessarily apply to other companies.  The news reports about Yahoo would seem to indicate they did not understand that telecommuting is not just about the technology making it possible, but is part of a larger transformation of management and employee behavior.  It’s no wonder they feel it hasn’t worked out so well for them.

This provided an opportunity for the usually hidden critics of telecommuting to come out of the woodwork.  It reminded me of the “I-told-you-so” crowd in the print newspaper business a dozen years ago – when the bust occurred and they thought the threat of the Internet was vanquished.

There has been much pushback from advocates of telecommuting.  They like it for the work/life balance, the reduced greenhouse gases, a less draining commute to work, the sense of autonomy, among other reasons.  And, despite early concerns to the contrary, the evidence seems to point to increases in productivity on the part of telecommuters.

So, some recent critics of telecommuting are offering a more balanced critique, which has quickly become the conventional wisdom of the day.  They say that telecommuting does indeed increase productivity, but it isn’t any good for innovation – which, of course, we know is the key to 21st century prosperity.  The message: if you want to succeed at high-level jobs you’ll have to go back to the 9-to-5 office routine.  

See, for example, the discussion yesterday on Public Radio’s The TakeAway – .

Perhaps the argument about innovation is just the latest excuse.  First, let’s not forget that an office often breeds “group think” too and its social pressures can severely dampen innovation.  Innovation occurs when people are exposed to different currents of ideas outside of their usual environment.  The global connectivity that the Internet offers is more likely to enable that kind of creative leap than just showing up at an office and talking to people who likely have the same background and mindset as you do.

Second, we need to recognize the fact that the Internet is actually quite immature.  If you think about what we do with telephones today, then, by comparison, the Internet today may be at a stage equivalent to where the telephone system was in 1920.  People then had only a cloudy vision of the various ways that phones would be used and incorporated into everyday lives.

It will take more time – perhaps ten years or more – before we have the software, cultural habits, incentives, ubiquity and all the other factors lined up to enable the collaboration and creative serendipity that can occur when people are physically face-to-face.  (I suppose we ought to replace the phrase “face-to-face” with something like “touching distance” since I can be face-to-face in a videoconference 😉

Are we there yet?  No, but does that mean we reverse course, instead of further developing the Internet and moving to a better virtual future?  Of course not.

What do you think?

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Does The President Need A 5th Column?

President Obama is now in his second term and he seems to realize that his ability to get things done through legislation is limited.  So he is very much dependent on his executive powers, including executive orders which can get him partly down the road he wants to go.

As chief executive, he also has at his disposal the formidable executive branch of the Federal government.  Every day, millions of Federal employees make decisions affecting the lives of tens of millions of other Americans in countless ways.  However, to an outside observer, the President has not adequately mobilized these employees to help him achieve his goals.  

Partly this is due to the fact that, like many other Presidents, Governors, Mayors and other public sector chief executives, he has focused on the formal organizational structure of the bureaucracy.  But, besides the President’s wishes, Federal employees face pressures from Congress, their own career bosses, the personal agendas of Cabinet secretaries and other political appointees.

This is why in his classic book, Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt starts with the story of President Truman speaking about what his successor, President Eisenhower, would face:

He’ll sit here and he’ll say, “Do this! Do that!” And nothing will happen. Poor Ike.  It wont be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating. 

Many a chief executive in the public sector has heard “yes” many times, only to find out six months later that nothing happened to actually implement that supposed affirmation by staff.

In the election of 2008, many Internet observers were impressed by the Obama campaigns use of Web-based tools and social organization to win a tough primary campaign against the “inevitable”, establishment candidacy of Hillary Clinton.  Yet, the lessons of the campaign seem to have been forgotten when the President took office in 2009.  

Now the President has another chance and he should consider creating his own “fifth column”.   I realize the phrase “fifth column” has negative connotations, since it has designated a group of supporters who are hidden within and undermine the enemy camp.  

But that may be exactly what the leader of an entrenched bureaucracy needs – a group of supporters, at all levels, who will help him achieve his goals.  The President can mobilize an informal network of the large number of change agents and innovators in Federal service, a network that can exist in parallel to the formal organization.  By doing this, he can also provide encouragement to those innovators, who may sometimes feel lonely and could get support from each other. 

Of course, there were be those who object to anyone, even the President, trying to sidestep the formal organization chart.  That’s nice in theory, but many long time senior executives in Federal service already know that, in practice, its the informal relationships that let them get things done.  Why shouldn’t the President learn these same techniques?

Various Internet collaboration tools, like wikis, social media and video chat, make creating this informal network a lot easier than would have been the case decades ago.  Indeed, some of this informal network already exists.  This week, for example, there is #SocialGov Summit 2013, hosted by the 18-month old Federal Social Media Community of Practice (

Build on that base, expand it to a larger network of innovators and the President may find it easier to get things done – at least in the Executive Branch.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Africa and Technology?

When I was in college, I took a course on science policy.  For the course paper, I decided to do something a bit unusual – study science policy among African nations.  Although there were (and are still) grave problems of poverty in Africa, there were universities, scientists and research. 

More recently, technology has become a truly global enterprise.   So we have seen the Internet and software development in Africa as well.  Ushahidi ( was created as an open source project in Kenya a few years ago as a means for the average person to report violence during their almost-civil war.  It has since been used in other ways and places, including reporting on conditions in Haiti as a result of the earthquake there in 2010. 

Now, the Kenyan government has announced the creation of Konza Tech City, about 40 miles southeast of Nairobi.  It will take years to determine if this project meets the promises for it (or if it is the best use of the money), but it is nevertheless worth watching.

More information can be found at:

Of course, there are still many Africans who need to benefit from technology and don’t get the chance to do so, even with the widespread use of mobile phones as a primary means of connecting to the Internet.  For these people, there are organizations starting to help create community technology centers and other ways to make technology available even in quite rural parts of the continent.  One good example is U-Touch ( in Uganda.  (Disclosure: I’ve given them a bit of advice, partly because I was a student in Uganda for a semester.)

Despite poverty, political corruption and instability, the desire for learning, entrepreneurial spirit and energy of Africans has been impressive.  The general view of Africa elsewhere in the world reminds me somewhat the way that China was viewed twenty years ago – as a “hopeless backwater” in the perception of those who didn’t know better.  Africa these days has all the potential to take the world by surprise the same way that China did, so that thirty years from now it will be a very different place.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


What Is A 21st Century Library For?

Although I’m not a librarian, I am the President of the Metropolitan New York Library Council ( and former President of the New York State Library Trustees Association, among other library positions. 

Because of this long standing activity in the library world, which seems to some to be incongruous for a technologist, I’ve often been asked what libraries will be like in a world of Google searches, e-books and the like.  

Although some people question whether we will still need libraries, those folks haven’t been in libraries recently.  Most libraries have had significantly increased use over the last decade, both in the building and online, both for printed and e-books and databases.

Libraries also continue to be the major public institution that helps to overcome the digital divide.  See the recent Pew studies on this subject.

So I’m not going to spend time here retreading the issue of the existence of libraries or even printed books.  Instead, I want to talk about the longer term, more subtle ways that libraries will evolve along with the rest of the 21st century world.

First, look inside the library building itself.  Most newly renovated or newly built libraries have devote a decreasing percentage of their space to bookshelves.  There are computers everywhere and meeting room for community groups, book clubs, author presentations and the like.

In the future, there will be much more than the community center rooms found in most libraries today.   There will creative centers for writing, poetry, music and even community art.  The public library in Aarhus, Denmark has been one of the world leaders in creating these new kinds of library spaces.

In addition, libraries are beginning to understand their key role in supporting entrepreneurs as unofficial corporate librarian for these budding businesses.  The Chattanooga Public Library has made their top floor of their main building a center for entrepreneurs.   The public library in Westport, Connecticut opened up a Maker space in which people can use 3D printing machines to make all sort of artistic and/or utilitarian objects.

Clearly, e-books are increasing in popularity and most libraries offer e-books for loan.  Some even offer e-readers for those who don’t have one.  The serious longer term issue is that some major publishers are refusing to sell e-books to libraries, even under onerous terms such as elimination of the e-book after it has been used a few times.  This is a major threat to what libraries have been all about for a long time – a common collection of books.  I hope the lawyers figure this out soon because if the situation continues it will prevent libraries from evolving their traditional role as collectors of shared books.

It’s worth noting that traditionally published books – print or electronic – are becoming a diminishing fraction of the total written material.  Traditional publishing is being dwarfed by self-publishing and peer reviewed open source publishing on the web.  So one new responsibility of librarians is to include these new sources into the library’s collection, manage them and make them useful to readers.

Moreover, the publishers who are shunning libraries may find they will be encouraging librarians to undertake a more frightening path – mashups of parts of electronic texts.  In various ways, librarians have always been curators.  Now they can curate parts of open source writing and assemble them in new works that help readers better understand a subject than any single author can.

But the most important trend to note is that library services will be everywhere.  They will no longer be constrained by the limits of the building we call a library.

In a sense, librarians will reference guides to the Internet, including the many parts that are not visible to Google and other search engines.  Library services will, as always, help organize the worlds knowledge for us and help us find what we need but these services will be accessible from anywhere. 

I’ve only skimmed the surface here and this post is already too long 😉  So let me know if you want more.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis