The Global Techno Beat

August 4, 2010

During July,  I happily worked with Mongolian and Bhutanese monks, Middle Eastern business leaders, North African and Middle Eastern university student leaders and last but absolutely not least, 5 Iraqi high school students along with American peers. It was an incredible treat as I could soak up one of Montana’s best months while continually enriched by extraordinary conversation.

As foreign visitors visited Bozeman for leadership, civic engagement and conflict resolution training, I asked many of the participants some of my favorite closing questions before sending them on their way:

What have you learned here?What are your next steps?What have you appreciated during your time as a group?

Mongolian Delegation at the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas in Arlee

Not easy questions for participants who have been drinking from a fire hose of lectures, field trips and project development skills for 8 to 10 hours a day.  For example, the Tributary Fund’s Mongolian and Bhutanese delegation not only attended multiple leadership and environmental courses in Bozeman, but also traveled south to the Teton Science School in Jackson, WY and then to northern Montana to the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas in Arlee, over less than two weeks. It can be a challenge to integrate so much data in such a short period, especially through the filter of your second or third language.

After an intense month with all these visitors, I got a taste of my own medicine. Last Tuesday, I posed these queries to 17 extraordinary university student leaders from the State Department Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative (MEPI) program. A bright young woman from Bahrain gently responded, “May we also ask, what you have learned from us?”

Running from meeting to workshop all month, I hadn’t been able to think about much other than lesson plans, preparing and did we have any milk left in the fridge!  I could suddenly relate to the blank stares I had received from some after hearing my closing queries. Hmmm, great question, what had I learned?

My favorite teachers remind that after major experiences, we are best served by giving ourselves time to integrate our experience. Systems theorists stress the importance of iterative learning – gathering new information, testing it out and then reflecting on what we have learned. Angeles Arrien posits that the seminal Taoist text on managing change, The Tao Te Ching, teaches that we must continually

Gather information (seek/be dynamic), thenOpen ourselves to the results (be receptive) and lastIntegrate the results of the first two actions.

So, lots of new information came in this month.  I have tried to be open to receiving. Now, what needs to be better integrated?  With some initial thought, four themes are emerging to be considered from this summer’s work:

Technology’s role in leadershipHow to balance connection and actionHow it is a rarely “an American issue” or “a Middle Eastern situation,” but that it’s usually  “a human being problem,” andThe absolute impossibility of truly knowing another in the global age

Today I’ll tackle technology…

For a bit of background, I began my career at IBM as a programmer. In 1985, many on our team coded only in machine language (that’s ugly stuff).  I would knit waiting for my programs to compile and my compatriots at IBM and I were some of the first to have email in the country which IBM called VNET.  By 1989, I was the project manager for one of the first electronic medical record systems in the country. We used optical disks the size of large dinner platters, $3,000 scanners heavy as boat anchors and computers that required cooled raised floor rooms to house them – all with less capability that you now have with a decent flash drive, a $200 home scanner and a steady PC server.

In those days, computer technology appeared in our everyday lives through clunky PCs and printers that we would use to write letters and attempt to budget the family finances and do our taxes. Working with computers daily at IBM had me swimming in very different waters than my friends and siblings.  This is not striking or very interesting until I contrast this with Asian students with whom I have worked over the past year who literally risk their lives daily to post their names and photos on Facebook. Where technology used to be nerdy, it’s now deemed a critical necessity.

The next generation, whether you come from a rural region of our south east, the Middle East, Latin America or a monastery in Bhutan wield external drives, digital cameras and cloud computing like our foreparents managed hammers and shears to complete their respective tasks.  Those I see in the classroom are usually armed better I to cross the digital landscape.

I witnessed students dialogue for hours on how to introduce those in their group of Kurdish descent (“should we call them Iraqis, Kurdish or from Kurdistan?”) all the while deftly creating a PowerPoint presentation. While grappling with big issues, I notice that there is no discussion on how they might want to add a short video or animate a slide.  On that they have equal awareness and agreement.

Computers can become more important than sustenance. Visitors with whom we work will forego meals and any entertainment to funnel their per diem money to a laptop fund. Host families and the program assistants consistently make midnight runs to Walmart during the last days of a participant’s visit so he or she can buy electronic equipment. It is not only cheaper here than around the globe, that I am told again and again, but also buying a computer for some is one of their top trip desires.

Through their yearnings and savvy, the students consistently demonstrate that computer and digital skills are key for our next generation of leaders…and, probably for all of us currently working to effectively implement change. This is not new news, but after this month of visitors, I realize I need to consider information systems technology as a critical leadership competency.

Last night in Washington, DC, I attended a final celebration dinner to send off our brightMEPI students after 5 action-packed weeks.Each of the 5 MEPI student groups from around the country were asked to create a 5 minute video or presentation on their time in the US. Our students selected a graphic design student, from Kuwait and a marketing major who also holds a corporate job in Lebanon to lead the charge. Knowing what was possible, most of the students provided photos and ideas and our two video leaders worked through 2 or 3 nights to create this final program deliverable.  It was stellar and included cartoon renderings of each student created by their team graphic artist, meaningful music and a carefully selected (and refined, refined, refined) photomontage to portray their unique Montana highlights.  I was impressed.

Although their video was truly unique, the Montana MEPI students’ professionalism and quality level wasn’t. The friendly competition included tough opponents! For example, when I was a bit awestruck by very polished video with fades, a story line and slow motion created at the University of Delaware. At the table, our students whispered, “It’s not a surprise, one of their students is a film student and works on action movies.”

Gone are the days when leading a project could be done without electronic savvy.  To sell your idea, to portray that your team was the best, or to present anything well, today you are going to want a plug, or perhaps a solar panel, attached.

Harnessing new technology, whatever the form, has always boosted leadership power. The train and then effective use of the car “drove” the results of political races when they were introduced. We can use the additional power for a variety of ends. And so,  if I arm you with a set of powerful tools, be it today computer expertise or how to turn conflict into opportunity, for what will you use them?

I’m a bit fixated on the above question when I am training young leaders. I was reminded again why it feels alright to keep pushing for clear and hopefully positive intentions while I passed through the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) . I stopped in front of a full-wall placard entitled, “Technology and Race,” The exhibit explained that by 1938, Hitler’s team had effectively employed the newest data gathering and storage technology available to create a country-wide national registry of Jews during that year’s census. By the following year, systematic killing began.

Then, down the hall, I strolled through the new USHMM Take Action interactive exhibit where you can access their website and track progress on ending genocide in Darfur, support relief and awareness efforts and create a pledge to make the world a better place. Knowledge is power. For good or ill, you must decide.

It gives me hope that every one of our Montana State University MEPI students chose to use their last Saturday afternoon in the US to thoughtfully tour the USHMM exhibits as well.  Each made a conscious choice; Best Buy, Target and more work on the QuickTime video needed to wait until another day.

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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