In my 29 years in the Air Force I have seen a lot of things change but there has always been one constant -- Airmen. It does not matter what you are engaged in there are Airmen making it happen. Our senior leaders constantly remind us the world's greatest Air Force is dominant not because of technology but because of our team of Airmen. However, our technology may be having a detrimental effect on our team.
I will use the term "institutional isolationism" to articulate what I am referring to. Our migration to electronic systems has replaced a large portion of the human interaction that occurred early on in my career. When I reflect back on my first term, I immediately remember my supervisors and their role in helping me adjust to the Air Force. In those days, a typewriter with memory storage was considered high tech! All of our personnel and financial processes were paper-based and front-line supervisors had to understand and teach these procedures to junior Airmen. I learned about re-enlistments/promotions, career job reservations, travel orders and vouchers, Leave and Earning Statements, training records, assignments, in/out processing checklists, records reviews, and the list goes on from my rater or NCOIC. Back then, these functions required face-to-face interaction to accomplish. Today most of them are "network enabled." As a result front line supervisors are sometimes on the periphery of their execution. As a general rule, the social interaction requirements of these institutional processes are declining as technology automates them. I am not advocating we return to the "good ole days," however this changed dynamic cannot be ignored. I ran across the following cracked pot story a long time ago, I think it has relevance so I will share it.
An elderly Chinese woman had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which she carried across her neck. One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water. At the end of the long walk from the stream, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, but the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it finally spoke to the woman one day by the stream.
"I am ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house." The old woman smiled, "Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot's side? That's because I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you water them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house."
Each of us has our own unique flaw. But it's the cracks and flaws we each have that make our lives together so very interesting and rewarding.
Your take away should be the front line supervisor (elderly Chinese woman) knew her team (the pots) and the technology (pole) allowed her team to be more efficient but did not interfere with their relationship.
So I ask each of you, has technology interfered with how well you know your team?
Back in the 1990s, the nation was hearing about a leadership concept called High Tech/High Touch which basically stated that technology will intrude on the human social sphere. The theory was the more technology advances the harder we must work to retain the social interaction needed to sustain relationships. I clearly remember as a supervisor my job was to negate the impact technology would have on reducing my interactions with my Airmen. Back then social networking was accomplished via vocal cords or written letters; today social networking has a whole new meaning. There are scores of social networking apps/sites and communication can occur instantaneously via smart phones operated by fast moving thumbs.
Our young Airmen have communication skills and preferences that are much different than I tend to use. However, at the heart of our Air Force is a very basic requirement -- teamwork. Our teams make us strong, whether we are talking about mission or about family, our social skills are still required. Technology is infringing on our interpersonal skills, and I believe we need to recognize that fact and work to incorporate as much face-to-face interaction as possible into our institutional processes. I challenge you to know the Airmen who work for you.