by Doug McConnell and J. Ted Esler
No one can deny that the widespread growth and adoption of technology in society has heralded a new era with new realities.
In 1970, four computers were linked together in what was then the world’s largest computer network called Arpanet. Thirty years later, at the end of 2000, there were 105,728,000 computers available on Arpanet’s first-born, the Internet ( www.matrix.net). One report, State of the Internet 2000, (usic.wslogic.org) is among the most comprehensive, examining the usage by geographic location and language. A look at the disparity in languages used on the Internet shows that English reigns supreme. A more detailed look at the data suggests, however, that this lead is eroding quickly.
Five years from now, some industry estimates predict that the number of users worldwide will pass the one-billion mark, with more than 700 million users living outside of North America. Already, users who speak English as their primary language constitute only a little more than half of all persons using the net (http://usic.org).
No one can deny that the widespread growth and adoption of technology in society has heralded a new era with new realities. The implications of these technological realities create far-reaching challenges. Understanding what is strategic and what isn’t can help us to make better choices.
STRATEGIC VERSUS OPERATIONAL USE OF TECHNOLOGY
Operations technology allows daily business to occur with efficiency and effectiveness. A computerized accounting system plus a reliable e-mail service meets operational demands and is a necessity today. Strategic technology, in contrast, provides a benefit that leverages the vision of the organization. For example, a Web site that provides member care and assists in keeping missionaries on the field longer serves a strategic purpose.
Technology, as it ages, tends to move from having a strategic value towards an operational value as it is adopted in ever-wider circles. The first organizations with Web sites had an advantage over those that didn’t— now you must have one just to maintain an organizational presence. Most organizations tend to focus on operational technology to the exclusion of the strategic. They play catch-up without ever strategically deploying technology. This means that the strategic front is an ever-moving target. Leaders need to see technology deployment as an ongoing process rather than a product that is to be purchased on a one-time basis.
Technology not only serves a strategy—it influences the outcomes. Missionary efforts have long reinforced this concept on their fields of service. It is also true from the agencies’ perspective as they seek to mobilize and fund work from an administrative base. For example, if more and more donors are giving via the Internet, the donor profile will change by the use of the technology. Those who have computers and are comfortable with online transactions will make up a greater percentage of the donor base.
Not surprisingly, there are global challenges for multicultural organizations in which the members are culturally and technologically diversified. The range of challenges includes such generic problems as accessibility, differing communication styles among the ethnolinguistic groups within the mission and the individual levels of self-discipline with regard to the use and upkeep of the tools. Tools such as teleconferencing, while a great way to reduce costs, may leave the best leaders out of the loop due to their remote locations or lack of competency with the medium of communication.
Further compounding this problem are cultural differences in the speed of response. The overwhelming amount of inbound e-mail makes communication difficult for the most organized and detail oriented cultures. When two different cultures team up in ministry this difference will challenge both their effectiveness and relationships.
IDENTIFYING THE STRATEGIC FRONT
The strategic front today is inextricably tied to security issues. Security on the Internet (and other networks such as phone systems) is still in the formative stages of development. This means that there are some significant strategic hotspots available today which were not practical for many agencies just five years ago.
Secure e-mail systems are not only essential, but are becoming more common. These have two flavors: point-to-point and point-to-server. In a point-to-point arrangement, both the sender and receiver use an encryption system (like PGP) to encrypt data. The downside of this approach is that both sides must be set up for point-to-point communication. In a point-to-server arrangement, the data sent between an e-mail program and the server is encrypted. Once on the server, it may be forwarded to anybody, perhaps in an unsecured format. However, by having the entire organization utilize a point-to-server method, organization-wide security is achieved since both the sender and receiver use this encrypted pathway.
Inter-mission communication via extra-nets is also becoming a reality. These systems provide a more secure environment for missionaries on the field, mobilization staff and constituents to communicate among themselves. They typically have a security component that keeps out unwanted visitors and encrypts data sent over the Internet. SSL technology and password protected Web sites are making this a reality. Uses include forums, knowledge bases, organizational communication, online chatting and the growing missiological databases available.
Regardless of how the Internet will be used, security is perhaps the largest detriment to widespread acceptance among missionary agency personnel. The challenge is to provide these services where it is possible without alienating staff in security conscious areas (or remote areas) due to their lack of access.
In terms of ministry outreach there are obviously numerous strategic fronts which technology is opening up. Chief among them are new creative access strategies using the Internet. Finding holistic approaches that make the connection between, for example, a Web site and on-field personnel is crucial for these strategies to succeed. Radio and television ministries are the most experienced players in this field and a valuable resource in the development of these ministries.
THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
The “digital divide” is the gap between the computer and Internet savvy groups and the technology have-nots. While there are many statistics available that attempt to detail this divide, they are confusing. For example, one Web site claims that only “six percent of the world’s population is online,” while a later one states “thirty-three percent of all Asian homes are online” (www. digitaldividenetwork.org).
The non-Western world continues to be plagued by the disparity in economic distribution with regard to expanding technological tools. Access to telephone lines and other necessary modes are limited both in availability and by bureaucracy. Further, the seeming privilege attached to ownership and use of technology creates a separation between the missionary and the local community.
Solutions may be embedded in a capital investment strategy that would be a cooperative endeavor from the West with the goal of production and development taking place in the developing world. The ongoing discussion on the strategic use of capital in missions should include a focus on potential new developments in technology that could be both self-sustaining and applied to the strategic fronts of technology.
It could be argued that technology is getting both cheaper (for example, the falling prices for computers) and more expensive (seen in a greater percent of budgets spent on technology than in past years). In either case, there are resourcing challenges for missions leadership to consider.
LEADERSHIP ISSUES FACING MISSIONS
Naturally, such significant changes in the global environment have a rippling effect on mission strategy. It is difficult to identify all the issues involved, but a look at the major areas is a fruitful exercise for all those in mission leadership.
Geographical issues. One of the greatest attributes of technological solutions is the immediacy of connectivity over great distances. News that traditionally took days or even weeks to obtain may now be available instantaneously. The implications are enormous, but most readily identifiable is the growing collaborative work of virtual teams. The standards for management are suddenly much higher than in previous eras, particularly when it comes to operational decision-making. The benefits are readily observable to those who are dependent upon others for information and tasks.
As with anything, the downsides are equally observable. The two extremes of information anxiety on the part of those who believe they should know and information overload on the part of those who don’t are a constant tension. Recently a colleague returned from a trip through a remote part of Asia only to be confronted with over three hundred e-mails all waiting to be answered. In addition, the tendency toward over-managing situations is a very real temptation.
A third aspect to the geographical distribution is the growing demand for more than virtual encounters—a phenomenon known as high-touch, high-tech. Many mission leaders have discovered that the corollary to virtual connectivity is the need for more frequent face-to-face meetings. Due to the natural tendency toward a kind of short-hand used in e-mail, misunderstandings abound which necessitate actual meetings. In the midst of this, leaders who monitor communication between the divergent constituencies must learn a new style of mediation.
Resourcing issues. Accompanying the emergence of new technologies is the inevitable need for new resources to both obtain and maintain them. Initially the cost of adding operational technology solutions is a reality that dominates our budgeting concerns. The acquisition of hardware, software and the range of services required to use them effectively are no longer optional. For example, a virtual leadership team charged with coordinating global activities for a growing mission society allocates thirty-five percent of their budget for maintenance and development of technology.
The personnel cost of technology must also be considered to realistically evaluate the impact. Once a group has adopted an extra-net solution, the pressure for frequent data input demands additional administrative personnel. Perhaps an even greater consideration is the maintenance of the hardware and the continued development of the software. Ironically, the initial investment of capital to purchase technology solutions is often matched or exceeded by the combination of ongoing support. A new reality has dawned on many would-be techies; a little knowledge is seldom enough. In real terms, mission leaders are barraged by promised technological solutions that never materialize. Sadly, some energetic leaders pass on the promises only to find they have joined the ranks of a new movement, “Promise Breakers!”
In the current market, it is difficult for any smaller group to support qualified high tech personnel. Yet thus far, the lines of cooperation have not proven to support many inter-organizational efforts toward operational solutions despite attempts by leading mission societies (e.g. MAF, WBT). Additionally, the potential for strategic uses of technology is still a cutting edge for missions. For the purposes of initial funding and creation of sustainability, a broader intermission strategic response is required to attract funding for projects. A major cooperative pilot project could be planned between geographically compatible groups as part of an initial response to the strategic fronts.
New Training Requirements.There is a major educational and accessibility gap that affects the use of computer-based technology. For missions to increase their dependence upon virtual office based strategies, an increasing emphasis must be placed on the validity of communication content and protocols in the use of Internet and e-mail. An integral part of the process should also be the acceptance of a standard of expectations for leaders who, of necessity, lead in an increasingly high-speed virtual world. The difficulties with our increasing dependency on the virtual world may be highlighted by four major tensions, which in turn provide the content for new training requirements.
The first is the tension between speed of communication and expectation of response. Now every time an e-mail is sent the recipient is obliged to respond and, in most cases, if it is not immediate it is perceived as disrespectful or at least a denigration of the subject matter. To manage this tension a common understanding may be created by adopting an e-mail protocol that includes the following items:
- Nature and extent of confidentiality
- A priority scale (e.g. high, medium, low)
- A commitment to permissible use of forwarding e-mail (e.g., limit jokes and cute stories)
- A provision for a cooling box to reduce the hot e-mails we all regret sending
- Identification of necessary security
A second tension is between the quantity of communication and the quality of communication. It is exciting to hear from people all around the world in order to keep up with the events and efforts, but there is a tendency to share trivial information, to share sensitive and potentially dangerous information and, even worse, to share misinformation. It is advisable for leaders to provide regular feedback in cases where any of the above is obvious within the membership.
The third tension is our attitude toward those who respond to our requests or communiqués and to those who do not. Some people who invest time and energy in keeping up with the world of e-mail are not necessarily the best informants on issues of context and substance. Yet we find ourselves dependent upon them in our information hungry decision-making activities. Further, they tend to be the ones who are seen as leaders when in fact, proficiency in a virtual world may be correlated to a lack of social skills in general or an inability in the local language and culture, rather than leadership ability. The result is we empower people who are not in touch with the real world with the influence to deeply impact it through the virtual world. The corollary is a tendency to grow frustrated by those who do not provide a timely response, dismissing them as not interested.
The opposite may be closer to the truth; they are too busy with people to handle the virtual world. Cultural differences are not the only determinant, so it is unwise to ethnically profile our membership.
A fourth tension is the outworking of the high-touch, high-tech phenomenon mentioned earlier. The nature of the tension is observable in the list of experiences of virtual teams below.
- Demands of working from home with inadequate office facilities and minimal interpersonal contact for long periods lead to questions of self-worth, influence and a perception of loss of authority.
- Logistical frustrations in arranging meetings both in time and place; the reality is that someone somewhere is always working and worse, expects you to be also.
- High dependency on expensive technology systems that break down or crash regularly lead to a desire to just chat with someone over a cup of tea and not a keyboard.
- Tendency towards cliques (pressure groups)—virtual teams exacerbate the natural human tendency toward the formation of cliques usually fostered by those who share a location and have the opportunity to add face-to-face meetings beyond those available to the whole group.
- Difficulties in collaboration aggravated by varying degrees of commitment to the process that can not be assessed easily apart from reading e-mails; that is, the reduction of the additional sense of sight and sound which are often key to interpreting interpersonal communication.
The four major tensions and the range of appropriate responses required provide ample content for mission-wide training programs. The degree to which missions address these issues while affirming both their purpose and their people, will determine to a large extent their potential to flourish in a high tech era.
A recent US television commercial shows an excited young man loading the newest, fastest, most powerful computer into his car. He chuckles as he thinks of the raw computing speed in his possession. As he drives by a large billboard displaying the computer he just purchased, workers are replacing the numbers on the advertisement with the newer, faster specs of the computer about to be released. The commercial highlights the exasperation we often feel with rapid technological change. As soon as new equipment is purchased, better equipment is brought to market. A limited mission agency budget intensifies the need to make good technology decisions. Understanding what is strategic technology and what isn’t helps, but the exercise of faith is still the crucial element of mission leadership.
Doug McConnell is the international director of Pioneers and an associate professor of Leadership at Fuller School of World Mission.
J. Ted Esler currently serves as vice president of ministries for Pioneers-USA. He has also served as director of Pioneers-Canada and established and led Pioneers team Bosnia.
GUIDELINES IN SETTING A PROTOCAL FOR E-MAIL CORRESPONDENCE
In the fast paced world of Internet communications, there is an immediate need for some guidelines in setting a protocol for the use of e-mail mission-wide. Leaders are increasingly facing the problem of internal administrative demands, face-to-face personnel responsibilities and the virtual world of immediate demand e-mail. All three are essentially relational, but due to the pressures of time and quantity, the separate demands compete for the leader’s energy. The following topics represent the beginning of guidelines for handling the virtual world of leadership through the use of a protocol that may be adopted by the organization.
Confidentiality. Despite arguments to the contrary, the expectations of confidentiality must be extended to a wider group of people in order to facilitate the leader’s efforts to validate the issues and/or urgency and severity of the problems under consideration. The circle of confidentiality maintains the same integrity of confidence that an individual professional would under the same conditions.
Ideally, the circle of confidentiality will include the immediate supervisor of the person writing, the leader of the unit or sponsoring group and the leader of the organization. For example, this may include one of the following circles:
- the team leader, area director, member care department of the home country, director of the mission, and the sending church pastor,
- the supervisor, the department head, and the senior pastor,
- the leadership team of the organization.
Priorities. With the many competing demands on each of us, adopting a reasonable priority scale is a good way to reduce anxiety and perhaps even offense to the recipient and the sender. The standard scales used in office management may be the best approach to use. These include:
- Priority A = urgent communication requiring an immediate response. The time allocation for urgency should be agreed upon within the organization, such as a response required immediately or on the same day as it is received
- Priority B = important communication, but can be handled within the next three working days
- Priority C = important, but may be handled within the next two weeks at the first available time
- Priority D = enquiry that will be handled by the receptor when time or information is available
In official correspondence, the sender of the e-mail must identify the level of priority expected for the information shared. The recipient may add additional priority levels to the e-mail depending on workload, but should notify the sender if it is a lower priority level within the time allotted by the level assigned by the sender. Members who fail to treat the protocol with respect by assigning a higher priority to non-urgent e-mails will be reprimanded and run the risk of leaders ignoring their e-mails.
Emotional Intelligence. Due to the inevitable tendency toward miscommunication or overreaction, leaders must establish a file for draft e-mails that may be too emotive or reactionary to send immediately. This “Icebox” which sits between the Inbox and the Outbox is a way to cool off both the leader and the written response prior to sending it.
Depending on the strength of the e-mail or issue that has provoked the leader, the cooling time should be up to five working days, despite the seemingly immediate need to comment. Experience teaches that an initial delay to allow for a more reasonable or emotionally mature response will save time and energy. In other words, chill out and let the situation cool before heating it up with your overreaction.
It is the responsibility of leadership to ensure appropriate communication within the organization. This is a factor of emotional intelligence and should be monitored by the relevant supervisors.
Objective Reading. Leaders should identify a trustworthy second reader for e-mails that deal with delicate matters or are likely to provoke a strong reaction. This may be a spouse or close friend if that person honors the implications and need for confidentiality. In some cases, leaders will need to use the members of the circle of confidentiality or the leadership team to insure the greatest degree of objectivity in reading and editing critical e-mail correspondence.
The Use of Leverage. Avoid the use of “cc” or “bcc” to raise the attention of supervisors or others and thereby strengthen your case. It is inappropriate to use e-mail as leverage for weak or self-interest based communication. Leaders must use discretion in the use of distribution (cc or bcc) to leverage a problem situation as it reduces credibility and provokes negative responses from others.
Junk Mail, Jokes, Pictures and Nice Stories. Avoid the broad circulation of any e-mails not directly related to the work situation. It takes on the same meaning and response as junk mail. If it is important, ask permission before sending pictures or jokes as it is often expensive to download lengthy e-mails and when it is unwanted non-relevant communication it provokes rather than encourages.
Beware, a common response from leaders to those who circulate jokes is, “They don’t have enough work to do.”
Security Issues.Be aware of the se- curity risks of e-mail correspondence to people working in restricted access countries. An e-mail sent without a reliable secure server should be viewed as sending a postcard handled by many and probably read by a few. It is best to write a carefully worded e-mail asking permission to send other correspondence before sending organizational or religious e-mails.
Avoid using terms that may be unacceptable to a person working in a restricted access country; for example, avoid “missionary,” “church planting” or other mission words. Respect those who travel frequently and send a short request e-mail before sending anything lengthy or that may violate the above statements.
An e-mail protocol adapted by a mission may at first appear to be too restrictive; however, experience shows that without protocol e-mail can easily become e-warfare!
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