Mark Satov's 20 employees know better than to take liberties with smartphones, tablets and laptops.
"In my company, God help you if you walk into a meeting where I am there and you have a BlackBerry and you're looking at it," says Mr. Satov, founder and leader of Satov Consultants Inc., a Toronto-based management consulting firm that advises clients in all industries on strategy and operations. "When you're in a meeting, it's time to focus on the people that you're meeting with."
Not that Mr. Satov shuns the latest technology. Outside the boardroom, his young staff use BlackBerries to work remotely and LinkedIn for sales, recruiting and other tasks. As the boss, Mr. Satov strikes a balance with these tools. "I espouse them for efficiency and try to control them so that they don't detract from focus, personal respect and that ability to have impact," he says.
Business leaders and managers can't escape the rapidly growing influence of consumer-driven technology. But at the same time, they shouldn't overestimate its power or usefulness. Although mobile devices and social networking may make organizations more efficient – and less hierarchical – they're unlikely to change the basics of business and leadership.
For leaders who work in the knowledge economy, Mr. Satov contends that new technology hasn't delivered much in the way of efficiency. Thanks to e-mail and advanced information management tools, they get richer reports more quickly and frequently. But there's a drawback, Mr. Satov says.
"What's happened is the volume has gone up and the need to manage that has also gone up," he explains. "So the actual efficiency gain, in my view, has been marginal from a leadership standpoint."
Such technologies mean increased complexity for those in charge, notes Kate Morican, an Ottawa-based associate partner in human capital consulting with Deloitte Canada. Employees connect and communicate using more mechanisms, and establish connections to more people throughout the organization, Ms. Morican says.
"Organizations that tend to reap benefits from tools like mobile devices and social media are ones that have very well-thought-through visions and strategies for what benefits they do want to gain from them," she says.
Leadership is largely about how you communicate with your staff, Mr. Satov says. He warns against relying too heavily on e-mail – or the telephone, for that matter. "You cannot replace one-on-one meeting time with employees," he says. "The tougher the message, the more live you should be."
Ron Cenfetelli, an associate professor in the management information systems division at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, says we are social animals, and no amount of e-mail or video-conference will equal face time.
Could social networking produce flatter organizations?
Hierarchical management structures evolved to enable communication and co-ordination, Dr. Cenfetelli says – the old command and control.
"Technology such as social networks facilitates such communication and co-ordination," he says. "That suggests less need for hierarchical structures, and there is some research to support that."
Although some companies may be getting flatter, top-down management structures aren't going away, says Janet Krstevski, the Toronto-based talent and organization practice leader for Accenture Canada. But Ms. Krstevski has noticed what she calls the amplification of the organizational network.
"I think there's tremendous value and power in informal networks for getting work done," she says. "There's also a lot of benefits to it, which include retention of your top talent, increasing productivity, having happier customers and ultimately a more agile organization over all."
But the biggest transformation wrought by emerging workplace technologies will be a results-driven culture for leaders and their teams, Ms. Krstevski predicts. "The shift to a more mobile and flexible remote working environment means that the measurement piece has to change," she says. "So the shift needs to be focused on the outcome of the work as opposed to time spent."
At conferences Mr. Satov attends, marketing pundits claim that everything about the business world is changing. He doesn't buy it. In his experience, relationships still drive business internally and externally, and people still look for value the way they always did.
"The way that we communicate about things has changed a lot," Mr. Satov says.
"But I don't think that any of the fundamental rules of business have changed, and I'm not sure any of the fundamental rules of leadership have changed. Nor should they."
Tips for leaders
Janet Krstevski, Accenture Canada's talent and organization practice leader, offers this advice to business leaders confronting technological change in the workplace:
Don't get hung up on losing control over remote employees: "It's not about loss of control – that's probably focusing on the wrong part of the equation. I'd say it's about setting clear goals, what your expected results are and a measurement plan that tracks the results."
Not tech-savvy? Use that lack of expertise to engage workers: "We do a lot of reverse mentoring, which provides an opportunity for the more junior employee to give back and teach their point of view and passion. When they do that, it builds their sense of engagement in the organization and reinforces that their opinions are valued."
Open a Twitter account: "If you're looking to learn more about emerging technologies, Twitter is a great place to start. The relationships on Twitter are not symbiotic, so you can follow experts in a field without the need for them to follow you."