Living in the Connection Age

Our ancestors lived through the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, the Agricultural Age and the Industrial Age. And now?

No one seems to know what to call the times in which we are living. Many people use Information Age, but that seems outdated. True, dealing with information is still a large part of the virtual world—searching for it, filtering it, selecting the useful bits, and making sense of it are essential functions for living and working. But what we do after that is the key to survival and success for individuals and organizations in the coming years.

What we do after that is connect. Increasingly, in an age of information overload, it takes collections of individuals with differing areas of expertise working together to figure out how their disparate bits of information can fit together to advance the work and mission of the organization. Fortunately, the same technology that gave us instant access to information has also given us access to one another.

Almost without realizing it, we have been undergoing a Connection Revolution. We are living in the Connection Age.

Identifying the nature of this new age is important because a new age requires new mindsets as a matter of survival. They enable us to adapt and live effectively. When people stay with the mindsets of the previous age—or, worse, insist on applying them to the reality of the new age—decline inevitably sets in. Societies that did not shift their thinking from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age were left behind, irrelevant to the advance of the human race. The same happened with those who clung to the Agricultural Age and did not adapt to the Industrial Age.

Are We There Yet?

The evidence for this new Connection Age is unmistakable. Facebook now gets more daily page views than Google. Mobile technology keeps us in continual contact with one another. Virtually everyone between the ages of 16 and 25—in the United States and many other countries—sends text messages and has a Facebook account.

Connection has permeated every aspect of our culture, online and offline. The most effective way to succeed in business—to get a job, recruit clients, or find partners—is through networking, whether via LinkedIn or face to face at a Chamber of Commerce dinner. Forty years ago, children were ordered to “do their own work” in school; now they are encouraged to get help from any source that can help them, including classmates and Wikipedia. Engineers work continually in teams throughout the product development cycle. In short, people are expanding their knowledge and opportunities by establishing and expanding connections.

We are also expanding our social networks. Through the Internet and social media, each of us is in touch with more people than any human being in previous generations ever was. And we know more about the private lives of politicians, celebrities, and those experiencing 15 minutes (now often 15 seconds!) of fame through YouTube, blogs, and TV.

But How Well Do We   Actually Connect?

Ironically, the connectedness of the Connection Age has also spawned its opposite: in an always-on world, many people are feeling more isolated than ever. When we can connect via email and Facebook and Skype, we generally will connect in those ways, often at the expense of the “human touch” that comes from voice-to-voice or face-to-face engagement.

The connections we make are not always ideal. Emails and social media messages can easily be misinterpreted because they do not convey the nonverbal cues—the facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language—that help us determine what others are trying to communicate. In many cases the misinterpretation can make people feel small or excluded, which isolates them further.

Today’s organizations are steeped in these realities. Advances in technology enable teams to co-create with their counterparts around the globe. At the same time, an overreliance on email and online workspaces has led to many people’s spending entire days in front of their screens, sending texts, IMs, and emails to someone two desks away.  This isolation can breed mistrust, and mistrust prevents individuals and teams from doing their best work together.  Misinterpreted messages only exacerbate the effect.

Like every other period of history, the Connection Age has its benefits and drawbacks, its opportunities and threats.  The time to embrace new, Connection Age mindsets, in all their human and technological facets, has come. The challenge is how long it will take for the new mindsets to take hold—and we learn to gain all the advantages of this new Connection Age.