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Clouds, Crowds, Jams, and Data:
Leadership in the Face of New Technologies

Presented by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rice Centennial: Four Short Talks
Tudor Fieldhouse, Rice University
Houston, Texas

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


It is a delight to be here, both as a speaker and as an audience member, and to share in this intellectual feast.

Tonight, I have chosen to speak about “Clouds, Crowds, Jams, and Data: Leadership in the face of new technologies.” My title references both technology and leadership. The essentials of leadership, things like strategic thinking and planning, organization, managing talent, developing human capital, and, of course, ensuring execution—do not change over time. However, technology can have both positive and negative impacts on traditional approaches to leadership.

One need only think of the world of a hundred years ago when Rice was founded, where many enterprises were small enough so everyone knew the boss, and the boss knew all the employees. As inventions such as the telephone and the automobile worked their way into how business was done, leadership approaches needed to be reevaluated. Perhaps, most famously, Alfred Sloan of General Motors did much to develop the concept of the corporation, and how it might be reorganized to take advantage of new technologies.

Now, we hear about new technologies everyday, and many of them force leaders to rethink and refresh their approaches. Cloud computing makes complex applications and massive amounts of data and information available for a wide array of people across an organization — and, sometimes, those in the general public who may have an interest in an endeavor.

Significantly, the cloud brings this information and processing power to the mobile world, making it practical for individuals in the field, or executives on the move, to access and share this information, even when the file sizes are enormous. This is something that was unheard of, at least at this scale, even ten years ago.

We also live in a world where “big data” is coming to the fore. Social networking leaves behind “digital crumbs” for us to follow and study. The Internet is the new library – with more information than anyone can think of really ingesting.  Sensors and networks are embedded in everything from buildings to automobiles to cameras to satellites, and are creating what often is referred to as “the Internet of Things.”  All of this leads to trillions of bits of unstructured data in different formats.  The ability to process that data in an efficient and relatively inexpensive way provides us with new bases for decision-making. It also brings data to more participants, and allows them to manipulate this data to discover patterns that heretofore were invisible.

Advanced visualization systems can take matrices of data from a variety of sources and put them together in ways that allow them, despite their complexity, to be understood — with new insights coming from seeing changes over time, and by more easily recognizing anomalies.

One of the more intriguing possibilities for the emerging role of big data is illustrated by the ability to “mash up” data from different sources in ways that create compelling new insights. A simple example of this is the pairing of real estate data with crime data to create maps that can be used to reveal problems and suggest possible solutions.

At Rensselaer, one of our professors, Jim Hendler, through data.gov, has been developing interfaces that allow government data from a huge variety of sources to be combined in unexpected, but useful ways.

We also have seen the phenomenon of crowdsourcing (and a related phenomenon of crowdfunding). The applications that make this possible allow us to engage the expertise, perspectives, and enthusiasm of many people, including those who previously have not had a voice in enterprises that concern them.

Crowds can help to identify problems, suggest ideas, and assist in the execution of solutions. They also make available a precious resource, voluntary activity, in a new way.

Of course, you all are familiar with Wikipedia. This online encyclopedia provides a good illustration of the pluses and minuses of crowdsourcing. On the one hand, Wikipedia is a rich resource, providing a powerful starting point for research. On the other hand, this online encyclopedia, despite the efforts of many people who take it upon themselves to make corrections, is riddled with errors—such as false reports of the deaths of celebrities. Some of these may be ephemeral, and some may be persistent. Some may be added in good faith, while others are added maliciously. However, no matter how they got there and how long they persist, they can mislead and misinform. This brings up concerns around trust in an online world, a theme to which I will return.

Perhaps less familiar to many of you is the idea of the jam. IBM has been a leader in facilitating these online sessions, which bring together interested participants from around the globe to concentrate on a selected challenge over a short period of time. Working from shared data sets, propositions, and questions — within a carefully designed framework — experts and interested parties use online collaborative tools to come together to share knowledge, express concerns, and brainstorm projects and solutions that can have high impacts.

These projects include stakeholder specifications and many of the constraints from day one. Because of broad participation, the work begins with a level of buy-in from the impacted community, which facilitates acceptance of the innovations which result. All of this is accomplished quickly, over the course of just a few days.

Now, if you have been thinking about this, you already have begun to see some of the ways these technologies – cloud computing, crowdsourcing, jams, and big data — might reshape leadership. For instance, in many of these cases, you have participants who, in previous times, would not have had a voice. In addition, many people who are essential to achieving goals, which may be strategic, are participating on a volunteer basis. Anyone can tell you that managing an organization of volunteers differs in a substantial way from managing people who are required to accept direction.

In addition, as I mentioned earlier, there are concerns about trust. Are the sources of data reliable? Are the combinations, the mash-ups, fair and reasonable? Are the people involved really who they say they are, and do they have credentials that give them authority?

But let us not just look at the participants. The leaders themselves must be trusted. Traditionally, their positions give them authority, and trust comes from their reputations. But, when part of the team is formed on an ad hoc basis, will their authority be recognized? Will key participants even know who they are?

Do the leaders’ finely honed skills of persuasion translate into online communications? How do they build trust — especially for endeavors that include risk or important consequences — when they may never get to look people in the eye or shake their hands?

Clearly, as the world of such virtual leadership evolves, indeed, even when there is a blended approach that includes both face-to-face and electronic interactions, the challenge of trust is large. Knowledge management guru Larry Prusak did a study for the US military, and found that face-to-face contact, every 90 days, is a requirement for unit cohesion. But, more and more, we live in a world where people are responsible for working together on important tasks, when they never have had the chance to meet in the same room. As an added challenge to trust, many may come from different cultures, and may have different first languages.

But, on the plus side, if leaders can solve the trust problem, they will have access to a wider variety of perspectives, and more talent than ever before.

The new technologies also promise to benefit leaders by giving them more finely-tuned and complete pictures of questions, challenges, and opportunities. In addition to gathering new perspectives, the simulation and visualization capabilities that come with big data already are helping leaders to be better informed, before they build their plans and make their decisions.

Online tools can better enable education, and remote mentoring of both employees and those who represent stakeholders, as we face important challenges. However, engaging people in ways that ensure that they develop their talents may require more than a simple recommendation. Leaders will need to hone their arguments and find approaches to persuasion that work in this new context.

There may be a way to do this through online experiences. In a study IBM did a few years ago, they found that, for some of their managers, leadership capabilities were being reshaped for an online world through participation in games, such as World of Warcraft. These people had led volunteers on a variety of successful quests, effectively simulating the dynamic of working with volunteers in an online environment. The skills and capabilities they nurtured, by the reckoning of those managers who were surveyed, were transferable to their work with virtual teams.

In summary, the new technologies create a number of immediate and important challenges for those who seek to lead. However, in what would seem to be a contradiction, they also create opportunities. 

An application like jamming or crowdsourcing can bring in enthusiasts who may challenge authority.  They will need to be persuaded and inspired to achieve excellence without recourse to formal authority. However, crowdsourcing or jamming provides a quick and effective mechanism to engage multiple talents and often the best people for the job, and it can help leaders to identify people of talent who otherwise might go unnoticed.

People can engage in jams, and share and collaborate on documents, spreadsheets, and other files while on-the-go, but the leader will need to give more attention to setting ground rules and shaping the process.  Understanding constituency group formation and how trust is established in such settings, and in social networks more broadly, is paramount.  Ironically, in many ways, university presidents always have had to network and exercise collaborative leadership in order to succeed.  Talk to one, like David Leebron, your President.

It will be up to those of you who wish to lead, to work to make a difference in this technologically transformed world, to assess the pros and cons, for your leadership, of the new technologies that are emerging.  These tools will have enormous impact on what you can do, but also in how you will need to work with others to achieve your goals.

This is the new leadership.  I invite you to consider this thoughtfully, away from the obvious, and apart from the hype.    I wish you success in using new technologies as one part of your commitment to making our lives better. 

Do not just be “digital natives”, be “digital leaders.”

Thank you.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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