4 Ways Digital Technology Boosts Innovation

And four ways it hinders it. Here, we consider the evidence on both sides.

Earlier this year, Yahoo put an end to employee telecommuting in the name of innovation. Company CEO Marissa Mayer was attacked as someone who opposed work-from-home options, but the decision was her effort to emphasize face-to-face interactions over digital ones. The company's internal memo stressed the "insights" that come from "physically being together."

Whether digital technology will influence workplace insights for better or worse is a topic of ongoing debate. In a recent issue of Computers in Human Behavior, business scholars Greg R. Oldham of Tulane and Nancy Da Silva of San Jose State consider the evidence on both sides. Their work highlights four reasons technology will boost innovation, and four reasons it won't.

HOW DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY HELPS INNOVATION.

Information access. It's easy to see how access to new and diverse information might spark an idea, and it's equally easy to see how digital technology provides that access. One hardly needs empirical evidence to make this point, but the words of creativity researcher Todd Dewett bear paraphrasing: information may be the most important ingredient for creativity, and it's the very thing that information technology exists to provide.

Job engagement. Workers who are committed to a company are logically more likely to pursue ideas for improving it. One way to enhance this employee engagement may be by providing the type of flexible work arrangements facilitated by digital technology—such as telecommuting. Indeed, research released earlier this year suggests that some people who work from home can be measurably more productive than those who go into the office.

Professional support. Employees who receive support surrounding their work are more likely to nurture new insights into full-fledged innovations. One recent study found a significant link between an employee's creativity and the amount of emotional and informational support provided by primary coworkers. Since digital technology can improve social connections among colleagues, it may help create an environment of encouragement.

Personal connections. A great idea still needs sponsorship from above to see the light of day. One recent analysis of 216 employees in one company found that the long odds of implementing a creative ideas got better when they'd developed strong "buy-in" relationships with supervisors. Just as digital technology can strengthen connections across the employee chain, it can stretch them up and down it, too.

HOW DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY THWARTS INNOVATION.

Information overload. The flipside to information access is information overload. Behavioral scientists remain split on whether or not a person can multitask efficiently in the face of digital technology—some evidence says our computers spoil our attention; other research suggests we can adapt in time. The question of whether Steve Jobs would have become Steve Jobs using a computer designed by Steve Jobs is an open one.

Job over-engagement. The great thing about digital technology is that we can work from anywhere. The terrible thing about digital technology is that we work from everywhere. A study published last year found work-family conflicts were often linked to personal exhaustion and that this effect was worse for people who performed "extensive telework." Needless to say, stress and exhaustion sap our energy, and with it, our capacity to innovate.

Professional criticism. A wider social network can help employees recruit support for an idea, but it can also attract opposition. In that sense, digital technology has the potential to stifle innovation. Researchers have found that people are less creative when they expect to be evaluated by others—and that sometimes they even censor their own creativity so that others can't evaluate them at all.

Personal disconnection. For all the uproar that Yahoo's new policy against telecommuting caused, there's reason to believe it will have its benefits. Research from the early days of email found that company communication declined as a result of its use, with causal personal greetings the first thing to go. Densely populated cities are considered great engines of innovation because they foster chance personal encounters, and there's reason to believe densely populated workplaces can do the same.

[Illustration via Shutterstock]

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