Lessons From Victorian Technology

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The Leading Virtually team regards virtual collaboration technology as a new wave of options for human interaction. Much like the advent of the Internet changed the way we communicate and interact, our growing ability to connect in virtual worlds has a similar potential to drive social change.  In our modern world it’s easy to forget that at other times in human history new technologies also made great changes in people’s work lives and everyday lives.

I was reminded of this over the weekend when I read a book called The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage. The book documents the development of the telegraph (and several companion technologies), and the effects it had on human interaction.  I was astounded by the parallels and similarities to the more recent effects of the Internet, and it seems likely there will be parallels with newer virtual collaboration technology, as it develops further.  I was amazed by the examples that Standage gave of abbreviations telegraph operators used; they were so similar to the contemporary texting language (like “lol” and “imho”).  I was touched by the Victorian-era predictions that the faster communication of the telegraph would bring nations together, much like what our modern day optimists predict of virtual collaboration technology.  I had never given this much thought to what it was like for people when the telegraph began to spread as a communication medium.  I realized that technological breakthroughs seem to consistently have a major effect on human beings, whatever the year.

This made me think that perhaps virtual team members and leaders can learn something from what our Victorian predecessors experienced as the telegraph changed their range of possibilities.  Read on for five lessons we can learn from the Victorian experience of the telegraph as a new communication medium.

1. Planning is crucial when adopting technology.

The development of a telegraph system was plagued by amateur scientists who were put in charge of major events such as designing and laying cable across the Atlantic to connect the US and Europe.  The men put in charge of this project underestimated a number of key variables, resulting in considerable rework.  This represents a waste of resources that can be avoided with prudent planning.  So too for virtual collaboration – managers should take the time to investigate their team’s options thoroughly and exercise that ounce of prevention before investing in or installing new technologies.

2. Keep in mind the distance between early adopters of technology and average users.

The telegraph represented a huge improvement in communication, yet the general public was slow to recognize its potential influence on society.  Even governments were slow to recognize the benefits of an improved communication system.  This seems to be the way with most technologies – there are dreamers pushing the limits of the technology, early adopters who are willing to try technologies right away, and far behind them are the majority of people who aren’t necessarily excited about major change.  Managers may want to benefit from the knowledge and skills of people who aren’t natural early adopters.  But as my colleague Angelo points out in a previous post, casual users or later adopters might be behind early adopters not only in technical acumen, but also in crucial areas like awareness of best practices for the technology.

3. Make sure your technology continues to support your purpose.

With the telegraph, there came a stage where some lines or offices were so busy that messages weren’t getting from place to place in a timely manner, yet that was the whole purpose of the technology.  Similarly, virtual collaboration technology must be implemented and managed in a way that makes team productivity possible, rather than hindering it.  Technology (and use of technology) that starts out being a helpful tool for a team might later become a hindrance.  For example, your team might initially depend on a wiki for collaboration in early stages, but later find that the wiki has grown unwieldy and hard to navigate through.  These kinds of problems are easily noticed if there is a strategic planning or assessment process throughout the lifespan of the technology, not just for initial implementation. We also advocate the regular use of After Action Reviews to help catch such problems.

4. Remember to consider companion technologies.

The story of the telegraph is incomplete without also discussing the rise of pneumatic tube systems around major cities.  Initially these tube systems were developed to relieve the busiest parts of the telegraph lines that were causing bottlenecks.  Likewise, there are a number of technologies available to virtual teams, and each should be considered for its contribution to the work at hand.  Consider carefully the purpose of each so your choices support one another rather than confusing or competing.  For example, see our earlier post about the importance of using email judiciously, whereby some communications are better by email while others are more effective by phone or another communication medium.

5. Don’t lose sight of the people for the technology.

One eyewitness account of the telegraph said that the telegraph cables crossing the Atlantic were not just cable, but represented bonds between people.  The most interesting parts of the book were about the social change brought about by the telegraph system.  Doubtless, it is crucial to plan the hardware and software logistics, but always keep in mind that they support the human bonds, and not the other way around.

Conclusion

I would highly recommend that managers or even members of virtual teams read The Victorian Internet.  The rise of the Victorian communication system has so much in common with the changes we are currently experiencing in human communication.  There’s a tendency in our culture to focus on the future, and an emphasis on how different a time we live in.  But from a social perspective, communication technologies get fancier and fancier while human beings are still much the same.  This book serves as a great reminder of the social issues any manager faces when dealing with new communication technology.

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