Several months ago, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, generated considerable controversy with her decision to terminate the company's long-standing policy allowing telecommuting or work from home (WFH). Though widely criticized by many as a "step backward for workplace flexibility," I think there is much here (and in a similar move by Best Buy) that is worthy of consideration.
In explaining the policy shift, Mayer opined that people are "more collaborative and innovative when they're together." She is certainly not the first to come to this conclusion. The late tech guru Steve Jobs told his biographer that, "There's a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That's crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'Wow,' and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas."
A similar dynamic is known to be true in higher education, as well. Writing about online courses in the NY Times, essayist A J Jacobs noted technology's limitations when he compared electronic discussions with traditional classroom engagements. Quoting the University of Virginia's Peter Dewitz, Jacobs argued that online conversations deny "the rapid exchange of ideas that a true discussion would afford." Speaking of his personal experience with online learning over the past year, Jacobs noted that "none of the interactions seemed as invigorating as late-night dorm-room discussions at my nonvirtual college in the late 1980s."
[At my own institution, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, we have long favored a blended approach to Jewish learning. The not inconsiderable benefits that technology affords the learner must never supplant the similarly invaluable dynamic that takes place when students and faculty sit together in the same room to plumb the wonders and mysteries of a text face-to-face.]
In Judaism, for leadership to be effective it must be collaborative; power must be shared among and between individuals. Underlying many Jewish sources on leadership is a view that holds no single individual, however talented, can be effective by herself. When Moses seeks to shoulder sole responsibility for the Israelites after leaving Egypt, he is challenged by his father-in-law, Jethro. "You will certainly wear away, both you, and this people who are with you; for this thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it yourself alone" (Ex.18:18). In a dramatic text found in the rabbinic literature, the sages criticize Moses, otherwise known as the most humble of all men, for trying to horde power rather than share it (Ex. Rabbah 2:7).
Leadership is about relationships, not about a single individual. Precisely because no one is capable of doing it all, organizations need to think seriously about how to best create an environment in which collaboration, creativity, and innovation can flourish.
Whether Marissa Mayer made the right decision or implemented it appropriately, I cannot say. But I do know that, in the words of Andres Spokoiny, President and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, "innovation (and I would add creativity generally) rarely happens in a vacuum. It needs an ecosystem, a breeding ground that is conducive to the generation of ideas." Such an environment requires more than technology. It demands the very conscious decision to put the right people around the table, and an affirmation of the truth that none of us is as smart as all of us.