CIO Symmetry

Dec 4 2013   4:11PM GMT

Put down the handheld devices and ‘be brave in the new world’

Nicole Laskowski Nicole Laskowski Profile: Nicole Laskowski

The world is technology obsessed. So much so that Carl Hammerschlag, a Yale-trained psychiatrist who specializes in psychoneuroimmunology, or mind-body-spirit medicine, believes we’re beginning to experience cultural attention deficit disorder.

“As a culture, we’re having trouble paying attention,” Hammerschlag said during his keynote address at the Society for Information Management’s annual conference. “We have the capacity in this day and age to always be someplace other than where we are, which makes wherever we are never enough because something else might come up.”

People arm themselves with smartphones when waiting in line or standing in front of priceless works of art or … listening to a keynote speaker at a conference. The seductive sights and sounds from incoming text messages, Twitter mentions, Facebook posts and Instagram updates are creating cracks in how we communicate. Today, we talk in sound bites, our personal stories reduced to 140 characters or spit-polished as entries on a timeline.

The effects from cultural ADD and truncated communication are insidious. We’re starting to miss out on important details, which, in the most extreme cases, can literally be the difference between life and death. Recently, in San Francisco, passengers on a train were so entranced by the warm, glowing screens of their handheld devices that they didn’t see a man brandishing his gun before he shot a fellow passenger. In more everyday cases, missed details can be the difference between business as usual and new opportunities. To find those potential gems, Hammerschlag told CIOs to “be brave in the new world”: Step out of the virtual bubble, be present in the moment, ask questions, connect the dots.

And share stories. Hammerschlag told the audience how he came to meet a Mayan healer. He was touring ruins with his family while a guide pointed out the sites. When Hammerschlag asked if there were any Mayan healers left, the guide said yes, one, an uncle who happened to live in a village they would drive through on the way back to the hotel.

“You want to pay attention to those things,” Hammerschlag said. “Every act of insight, every act of creativity, every act of genius is simply the result of a prepared mind and a serendipitous moment.”

When he asked the Mayan healer the most important thing he’s learned that enables him to heal people, the man said: Don’t take a cold drink on an empty stomach on a hot day because it causes “bad belly.” Hammerschlag didn’t understand what that meant at the time; later, he realized the old healer was describing the potential for disconnect between logic and intuition. CIOs are familiar with that topic. As businesses become more data-driven, questions about how facts versus feelings fit into the decision-making process bubble to the surface. CIOs will have to choose on a case-by-case basis but, as Hammerschlag illustrates, they will need to consider both.

Hammerschlag’s storytelling ended with the tale of his recent visit to a Syrian refugee camp. When a fellow volunteer began playing his guitar, a refugee grabbed his flute and started playing along. “They had taken everything, but they had not taken his song. He can still hear the music,” Hammerschlag said. “Those are the kinds of stories we want to be telling. Those are stories of resilience.”

And they are the stories of community, a concept that should not be overlooked by CIOs tasked with building an IT culture that embraces risk and delves into uncharted territory. Because, as Hammerschlag is known to say, those who tell the story define the culture.

So put down the tablet and the smartphone, ask your employees to do the same and make time for face-to-face contact. “We need to be talking to people more. We need to inspire each other more. We need to remember what it is we liked best about who we are and not be captivated solely by the instruments that were intended to liberate us,” Hammerschlag said.

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  • FTClark

    I agree completely with the premise of this article. People are so wrapped up in their cellphones and whatever that they are blocking the real world out. How many times have people you know passed you by because they don't want to interrupt you on the phone! Watch where you are walking! Watch where you are driving! Be a part of the real world instead of some strange zombie passing through life in a fog. Unfortunately the same thing happens with iPods and whatever where people block out life with sound. People don't take time to think anymore or observe what is going on.

    I personally refuse to carry a cellphone. I am considered weird.

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