Interview: Steve Carter, senior partner, Apter Development
Image credit: Nick Smith
Business psychologist and management guru Steve Carter, senior partner at Apter Development, discusses the ways in which switching to a paperless environment can change the way we work.
“I don’t think we need to get rid of paper altogether,” says Steve Carter. “I think we need to use it differently. I also think those who were predicting the end of paper publishing are now looking a bit silly, especially given that sales of e-readers have flatlined over the past two years.”
Carter is a renowned business psychologist and senior partner in Apter Development, a consultancy that aims to “transform leadership in organisations”. With a reputation for provocative thinking, he’s worked with an impressive client list over the years, including Oracle, SABMiller, HSBC, First Gulf Bank, Scania, The Economist Group, and Reckitt Benkhiser. He’s also an author of five books, is a prolific musician and an adventurer with more than 100,000 miles of remote exploration under his belt. “Sometimes the lines between these can get a bit blurred, bt they tend to feed off each other creatively,” he says.
As a former board member of the Association of Business Psychology and one-time head of management development at the Chartered Management Institute, over the past two decades he’s seen a fundamental shift in emphasis in what he does. “Traditionally, psychologists involved in the world of work have been called occupational or industrial psychologists, whose agenda has normally been personnel assessment, recruitment selection and organisational health. Yet today, business psychology addresses issues more to do with performance.”
Three of Carter’s five books have been in the management space, including the highly successful ‘Successful Mentoring in a Week’ in the Teach Yourself series, still going strong after 14 years. This was followed by ‘Renaissance Management’, which deals with the psychology of risk and decision-making. “This led me into working with uncertainty, and eventually to my book ‘A Little Nostalgia for Freedom’, which, while being more personal in tone, has sold well into the business market.”
During his career, Carter has seen the move from the analogue or paper space into digital publishing. “In trying to remove paper – which has been around since at least the Ancient Egyptians – this is probably one of the biggest transitions we could make in terms of the way in which we organise ourselves in the business space.”
Whenever Carter is asked why we need to get rid of paper, he finds himself flipping the question. However, there are reasons for getting rid of paper, principal among which is the expense. “It’s also clunky. You can’t edit on paper easily and neither can you co-work on a document. There’s an increasing trend for people in business to contribute to and develop electronic documents from all over the world. That can be seen as very important: we live in a globalised world and a digital platform is much easier to work on than an analogue. Essentially, digitisation enables flexible collaboration.”
Carter is keen to stress that knowing the benefits of moving to a digitised documentation strategy does not necessarily improve performance, which is (as a business psychologist) the game he is in. Yet he willingly concedes that streamlining the paper process represents the opportunity for radical change. “If you were to design a set of processes for a financial institution today, you certainly wouldn’t do it along the lines we have done this historically. You’d do something completely different. You want a world where things happen quicker, more easily and in a less costly way, while being environmentally in tune.”
‘Rather than replacing what we already do, digitisation is providing the opportunity to enrich it.’
We can change technology, but we can’t change psychology, says Carter. This is because the way we think lags behind the pace at which technology evolves. It might superficially look like it, “but it’s not a generational thing. As a species we are hard-wired to deal with our lives in a tangible way, and this can’t be unlearned in a second or two. That is not to say there won’t be massive uptake in future labour-saving, security-enhancing and cost-saving digital technologies as they replace paper. However, if you look at the way people work, the changeover becomes complicated. In terms of performance, people still need to interact and have conversations. Good technologies are now starting to recognise that.”
Carter goes on to detail how the business social media platform Yammer – a kind of professional-level Facebook that allows inter-organisational networking – can assist social interaction without replacing actual face-to-face communication. “That would be my big point here,” says Carter. “But once we see these technologies being used in a meaningful way, that’s when I think exciting things can happen.”
While it is tempting to think we are in a transitional phase of digital replacing paper, Carter disputes this, saying “we’re much further down the line than that. When you look at banking, which is almost as traditional as you can get, within that, anyone with a strategic bone in their body is asking ‘what’s next?’ The one thing we are learning about digitisation is that, rather than replacing what we already do, it is providing the opportunity to enrich it.”
He says this has been apparent in the audio and publishing industries for some time. “CDs died. They got replaced, ” says Carter, who has released several CD albums under the name Steve Bonham. “Even the biggest bands don’t sell many CDs and neither do they get paid for recording anymore because they don’t get any sales. I got a cheque for £3.47 from Spotify the other day, so you can see there’s a need to adapt. The most successful bands make more off their merchandising than their music, and that is a function of the transition from analogue to digital.”
On the other hand, “the people who are not prepared to pay for music are still prepared to pay for paper in the form of books”. This, he says, is due to reading being a more tactile experience. Psychologically we enjoy the process of the book shifting from our right to our left hand as we sense completion – an experience that is not satisfied by counting down percentages on an e-reader. “But whether reading works better digitally is a question of how the data feeds into the purpose we have for it. Having material online supplies a filter mechanism that tests whether you really want to read the material or not. The books I put on my Kindle are those I’m only going to read once on the plane. It saves me throwing them away. Yet if there is something useful that I think I might read several times, I tend to get the hard copy.”
Some of Carter’s own books are available as a digital download, while others aren’t. One of his publishers either can’t or won’t embrace digital, leaving one of Carter’s titles “expensively out of print”.
“However, when you are listening to an MP3 file on an iPod, you’re not particularly concerned as to where the needle is on the record.” In other words, paper performs the psychological function of an object, which is still required in some applications, but not in others. “People tend to trust paper, until you lose it, or it falls into the wrong hands. Physical quality of books is still important, but the level of change is interesting as we find ourselves having learned to cope with three or four digital channels simultaneously. So you can play ‘Football Manager’ on your PC, while streaming music on your phone and talking to your pals anywhere in the world on FaceTime. This level of co-existence of digital inputs allows us to be in more than one place at a time.”
Carter says that if we take this to a more industrial level, there is the opportunity created for dispersed project managers to have simultaneous input on virtual documents. Formula One engineers working on, say, a design tweak on a nose cone, can realistically work on amendments to a project from different continents, reducing lead-times that were once elongated by having to courier paper around the world. Beyond which “you’ll be able to plug into your local 3D printer and make identical prototypes without having to send your drawings to a third party to build a model. You just press a button.”
For Carter, the proposition of discovering whether it is ‘better’ to be paperless is a much bigger question than it sounds. It’s about technology integration that can’t happen in the paper world. “From a creative point of view, digital has added a huge amount of potential. Yet it has reduced the tactile quality of design. We are disconnecting the feel of pencil from paper, which is essentially cutting out an important information channel in your process. In the old days, I once used drawing paper and a pencil. That wasn’t an affectation. That helped me think differently, which I think is borne out today by tablets, which are marketed on the benefit of it feeling like paper, where the screen has been manufactured to give the user sensory information that was missing before. Moving towards the kind of software-led design on Apple Macs has produced a largely disappointing convergence of creativity that is being addressed, particularly in the form of tablet pens that actually look like pens.”
At this point, Carter comes back to what he believes is the crux of the argument in psychological terms: to look at the way we work most effectively, rather than to search for applications that will put new technology to use. “Even if we learn to do things in a different way, there is still a huge component of the Human Ape in our relationship with the world. The more technology starts to think like that and understand that, the more likely you are to have a positive impact on productivity. Of course, there will be individuals who will be completely comfortable with immersing themselves totally within the virtual world. However, that won’t be widespread because you are dealing with who we really are, rather than an abstraction of that.”
When it comes to assisting businesses to have more efficient structures, Carter is not convinced that discussing technology frameworks as a starting point is necessarily the best opening gambit. “The idea of working in virtual teams with distributed leadership has been around for a couple of decades now. For the whole of my career I’ve been dealing with this, and part of the challenge I face is helping organisations deal with a non-co-located workforce. In the beginning, the technologies involved were based primarily on data, almost seeing the world as a set of filing cabinets that needed to talk to each other. Yet, over the past few years, we have become much more sophisticated.
“In the first phase of knowledge management, what mattered was how you filed and retrieved it. There was no assessment of the human element at all. It was all about global structures for making sure that when you worked on ‘Project A’ in Venezuela it would be available for somebody working in Kazakhstan, which led to the rise and the fall of the knowledge manager, who almost got to board level within major companies before promptly disappearing. I’ve not seen the job title ‘head of knowledge’ for a long time. That’s interesting because it shows that how we manage situations like this isn’t just about technology.”
The second wave of working with dispersed personnel “was better as we started to remember we were dealing with humans. We created virtual meeting rooms that were actually set up to replicate sitting opposite each other around a table, except the person sitting opposite you was actually in Shanghai, which was when we really started to see a change in the way things were done.” Carter says that this was effectively paying some sort of lip-service to psychological basics: “People cooperate with people they know and trust, and they collaborate with people they are prepared to self-sacrifice for.”
What this means is that unless there is a contingency for creating a human side to the digital environment “it will struggle. In fact, most developments I’ve seen in the past few years are about trying to do just that.
“The biggest lever in terms of an organisation’s productivity is leadership capital. This is actually a sub-set of social capital, referring to quality of the relationships of those in charge, the leadership team. If you are working in a virtual universe, you still have to address how to build these quality relationships.”
Carter suggests a good example of how we are starting to pay more attention to this notion is another business social media platform, LinkedIn. “When it first started, it was dry as a bone. But now it is like – an admittedly rather prim – Facebook, albeit Facebook for the sober and slightly boring.”