One of the roles I have enjoyed is tutoring a first year entrepreneurial business class. Each week, I ran four work-shops with twenty students and get to see them converse and create their new ventures.
However, one thing I have been astounded with is the level of technology use in the class. I am not amazed by the fact that these students bring their laptops, iPads and smart phones to class; what I am surprised by is the amount of time they spend glued to these devices.
Interestingly, I have also observed that the groups that seem to thrive and be the most innovative are those ones who focus on their face-to-face conversation, and simply use technology to record their findings.
Some groups appear to be working as collective individuals, each focused on their own research and thoughts - and only occasionally combing back together to discuss their ideas. Even though they are sitting in close proximity to one another, they are far removed cognitively - and their innovation seems to struggle because of this.
Interesting research from the University of Toledo has shed light on the relationship between technology and innovation, as a group of researchers have explored notions of 'Techno-Stress' - how technology increases stress levels at work and the effect it has on other work factors. One of their findings will be of particular interest to anyone with a passion for creativity:
"Professionals experiencing technostress face decreased innovation in their tasks while using IS (Information Systems). Techno-overload, for instance leads to hurried and ineffective information processing and does not leave sufficient time to look for imaginative and innovative ways to accomplish work using IS." (Tu, Tarafdar, Ragu-Nathan & Ragu-Nathan, 2011).
When these researchers studied the way people used technology, they discovered that those who were over-whelmed with new technological systems were much less innovative. This could be both because of techno-overload (the sense that we are always connected and should always be working) leaving no time to dream and imagine - but there is also another possibility.
Technology works by stream-lining our process into a repetitive way. Think about it - most of us go through some sort of routine when we open the Internet for the first time each day. We check the same websites, read the latest Twitter feeds, scan Facebook - and then log off. It's a routine based approach.
This is the same when we send an email or create a presentation. The program is designed for us to use it in a certain way, that leads to efficiency with multiple use. This is great for getting faster at doing the mundane tasks - but it is not an effective way to create space for innovation.
Innovation requires thinking in a different pattern, or combining existing ways in new and exciting directions. Technology requires repetition and same-ness.
When we try and use technology to be innovative - we are setting ourselves up for a hard task. When we instead merely use technology to record our innovative explorations - we can begin to find some true success.
The best groups I work with have realised the power of face-to-face dialogue - including all points of view - and the benefits of letting their minds wander.
These groups are the ones who come to our workshops with new ideas from their observations during the week - often from unusual and unique places.
The other groups have instead spent their time attempting to be innovative while inside a Google Doc (and probably have multiple other Internet sites open at the same time!).
Technology is an amazing tool when we use it to assist us in the innovative process. But it can severely hamstring us when we begin to allow it to shape our way of thinking and interaction.
As I have said before, if you are wanting to really spark some innovative thinking - break your routine and go for a walk, grab a coffee or visit a museum. It is when we encounter the new, that our mind will truly begin to spark.