Exploring the gaps between universities and industries

When working on technological change and the improvement of innovation systems, the topic of the different gaps between universities and industries often comes up. This is true for South Africa, but also for my work in Europe and Asia. The gaps are described differently by development projects, academics and business people, and my job is to usually figure out where the opportunity to close these gaps lies.

In my experience of trying to close some of these gaps, it is important to be as specific as possible about nature and maybe even the effects of these gaps. It is important to go to businesses and to find out what they expect from universities, while also going to academics and researchers and finding out what they expect from the industry. Often, the expectations expressed by these two groups are unreasonable and hard to reconcile. Sometimes people are simply wrong about what they think is needed or should be done.

However, these different expectations are not the biggest obstacle to closing the gap. Often the bigger obstacle is a lack of imagination of what is even possible in terms of cooperation, interaction and information flow. This is made worse by low levels of trust by one side of the other side. Also, stakeholders often have little insight into how others value certain interactions and information flows.

Over the last 14 years I have worked occasionally with a Faculty of Engineering at a University of Technology. In the image below, I share some of the different interaction patterns that we have observed over the years of closing gaps between selected departments or technology centres and industries. I am grateful to Dr SJ Jacobs who agreed that I can share this illustration.

Of course, some relationships are more important than others. Also, not everybody agrees with the direction of the arrows that I have used in the diagram. I also know that some academics find it hard to believe that they can learn from industry. At the same time, many business people are surprised when they realise that their own companies have learned through the personal relations of their employees with their alma mater.

Even if a certain relationship adds little value in the bigger scheme of things, for the people directly involved it could mean a lot. For instance, for an engineering student to find an industry project that they could work on as a research project is a big deal, even if this may not be so important for a company or even for the academic department involved. In many post-graduate degrees, students are required to work on a real-life project, which often requires a company to give a student access to their facilities, data, senior management or other resources.

To reflect on the relations between a university and a community or a region would require another picture, but I will do that in a next project.

To be transparent, for many years I have used a simpler version of this map that was developed by the late Jorg Meyer-Stamer in the early 2000s. I include the original map below. I think many of my readers might have seen this map in RALIS (Rapid Appraisal of Local Innovation Systems) training course material or RALIS diagnostic processes.

While this original map is still useful to explain the different kinds of interactions between the private sector and a university, I found that we need a more detailed diagram if we want to improve relationships, design new services or improve the performance of programmes.

What do you use to map the relations?

What are some of the common myths or gaps that you come across often when you work on this topic?

Different kinds of technology dissemination

In many of the projects where I work, we face the challenge of gaining access to publicly funded resources that the private sector finds hard to reach. These technological resources could be in the form of scarce equipment, specialists or even in the form of codified or tacit knowledge. Often, the private sector is not even aware of the technological resources in their location or country.

I often describe three kinds of technology dissemination:

  • Technology development, which is usually project based and involves the development of very specific technological solutions
  • Technology transfer, which is usually based on a contract between the provider and the recipient that specifies pre-conditions, conditions and which equipment, processes and in some cases expertise will be transferred to the recipient
  • Technology extension, which is usually more interactive in nature. A knowledge holder, like a university department, research lab or enterprise support centre, extends their resources to private enterprises in a complementary way.

In my experience of working on the gap between public technological infrastructure and the needs of the enterprises, each of the three forms of technological dissemination works in some contexts and fall short in others.

  • Policymakers and public funders often prefer technology development because it leverages other scientific infrastructure investments at research organisations and universities. From a demand perspective, it is usually only those companies that have sufficient in-house expertise to develop a specification or that can afford to commission a research or development project with a research organisation that can benefit from this approach. I have only come across a handfull of small companies that have been able to commision technology development projects like this. In most cases, the founders of these enterprises had deep expertise in the technological domain, their internal processes, materials and the markets. I am thinking of one case where a small engineering company specilasing in advanced optics commissioned a research project to develop a new control interface for an aircraft.
  • Public bureaucrats often like technology transfer because it leverages research outputs at universities and research labs. Technology transfer requires that careful attention is paid to intellectual property and that recipients are able to absorb and leverage the technology they are gaining access to. I typically try to avoid this kind of work because I have often found that there are huge gaps between how public researchers and private investors value intelectual property. But I also know of many instances where a technology was developed in a university and then transferred to private enterprises. In my experience, there is a huge gap between what researchers in universities and public research organisations work on, and what small enterprises trying to carve out a niche in a smaller domestic market needs.

In my opinion, the importance of both technology development and technology transfer programmes is often over-rated in developing countries.

At the same time, the value of technology extension is often under-rated. Out of concerns that valuable intellectual property might leak out, many researchers, academics or other officials cannot provide assistance or advice to the private sector. While I understand this concern, in my experience, many enterprises are actually searching for somebody to point them in the right direction – they are not always asking for specific technical solutions that would infringe on intellectual property regulations.

Technology extension involves services like:

  • Demonstrating how certain (scarce) technologies work, or showing how scientific and engineering principles can be appled to real world problems
  • Advising companies on how they can improve or optimise their current processes
  • Providing technical problem solving, analytical or diagnostic services
  • Providing access to scarce equipment, software (like design or modelling software) and access to scarce expertise.

What makes technology extension more difficult is that the advice provided must fit the enterprise’s context and capability. For instance, while companies can pay to get their products tested or certified, very few companies have access to a lab or technology centre where they can get design feedback to make their product more compliant or more economical to produce. At the same time, many universities and public research organisations can provide a basic analysis and design feedback service.

A challenge for the private sector is that public research organisations are often like labyrinths. It is hard to know where the expertise, capabilities, or excellence lies in buildings or behind closed doors. Often you cannot even get into these buildings without an invitation and, in some cases, security clearance. Nevertheless, I love wandering the corridors of these organisations and seeing what technologists are working on. Often there are prototypes, half-dismantled instruments or posters adorning the corridors. The people working there can tell the most amazing stories of how they had to solve a problem, make up for a missing bit, or how they discovered that X could be substituted for Y. When I ask them who in the rest of the world knows what they are doing, I am often met with a shrug, and a “nobody is really interested in this”.

When I ask technologists, scientists and engineers in public research organisations who can most benefit from their genius, I am often told that ex-students, former colleagues and their alumni are often the most valuable customers and sources of inspiration. This seems consistent with the notion that the best form of technology transfer is through the mobility of people. It might imply that I have to introduce “technology transfer through human mobility” as a fourth kind of dissemination.

Image credit: The image at the top of this blog is from an optics lab at the National Metrology Institute of South Africa (NMISA). I took the picture while touring their facilities in March 2020, just a few days before the strict lockdown was announced in South Africa.

Series: Promoting innovation systems praxis in Africa

This year there have been several series of events celebrating the centenary of Christopher Freeman, one of the founding fathers of the study of innovation systems. The different events highlighted many older ideas that are still relevant while pondering how some new ideas might play out into the future.

These events provided the perfect opportunity to read up on many of the essential publications created in the Innovation Systems field in the last 40 years. Many of the ideas developed by these scholars have had a profound impact on my praxis. In the next few posts, I will highlight some of the insights that I have gained from this series of events.

During a recent event, the 3rd “Putting Africa First” panel discussion based on the excellent book by the same name edited by Bengt-Åke Lundvall, Mammo Muchie and Peter Gammeltoft, Prof Mammo Muchie invited me to share some thoughts from the perspective of an innovation systems practitioners.

The remainder of this post expands one of the points I shared during the event about the role of innovation systems practitioners in Africa.

There is too much focus on technological and scientific knowledge and not enough emphasis on learning and innovating in social technologies.”

I am not arguing that we invest less in strengthening scientific research in Africa. Scientific research should continue in areas where Africa face unique or pressing challenges. There are many knowledge domains where learning primarily takes place through scientific research. Examples are healthcare, water management, drought management, etc. that are very important in Africa but are not attractive to international research efforts.

However, we must admit that strengthening scientific research capacity is more exclusive; it involves fewer people, costs more, and takes longer to show results. Moreover, this kind of knowledge accumulation is driven by scientists, engineers, technologists and professional management.

Instead, we have to invest more effort into learning. As practitioners, we must mobilise industries, academics, innovators, and policymakers to learn about problems or opportunities they can explore together in their local or regional context.

In many African Innovation Systems, I believe that this kind of knowledge accumulation through learning-by-doing involves a different set of actors. The attention shifts from universities and supporting organisations towards firms and industries, where most learning-by-doing takes place. Scientists, engineers from academia and other supporting organisations can still play a valuable role here, but the emphasis is different. The mode is also different. Learning-by-doing is a social process. To be effective, it must be inclusive, transparent and accessible to a broader stakeholder network.

Whereas in science management we try to manage risk, in learning-by-doing we try to reduce the risks of trying something new, often involving somebody or knowledge from beyond the organisation.

The role of the innovation systems practitioner is also different. Our function is to enable learning, enable knowledge exchange, joint problem-solving and adaptation of institutional mandates. We often have to overcome coordination failures that constrain investment or reduce the search costs of finding technological expertise or solutions available in the system – irrespective of whether the capability resides in the public or the private sectors. We must often connect decision-makers from different spheres of society, fragmented institutions, divergent knowledge domains, and capabilities around a theme or a topic that matters to an industry.

So, for example, I often take individuals from universities or other supporting organisations to go and visit companies, factories or farms. Or I take entrepreneurs and their staff to go and visit research labs or other technical organisations.

There are two challenges that I have to overcome when I work with technology and education institutions that want to have a more meaningful impact on the innovation system:

  • Firstly, academics, engineers, and policymakers must not see the companies they want to reach as beneficiaries of their wisdom. Nor should they see companies and the technological choices they make as subjects in a research project. I have to help these institutions listen and carefully observe how companies make investment, recruitment or technological decisions.
  • Secondly, technological and educational institutions often have low credibility with or relevance to the private sector. Or worse, institutions like university research centres, research labs, and other specialised organisations may even look down on the private sector.

To get a social learning process going within a firm, or between firms, or even more importantly, between firms and their supporting institutions, I have to find something that different people have in common. In my experience, it seems like it is easier to get companies to work together on problems that are too difficult for individual companies to solve by themselves. Perhaps this is the case because it is easier to quantify the value of a potential solution. It seems much harder to build trust around an opportunity where different stakeholders are worried that others derive more benefits from the process than they are.

I received this image via a Whatsapp message and could not figure out the origins of the photo. The rabbit and the tortoise reminds me of the two modes of learning.

September update

It is spring here in Pretoria. Many of the plants and trees in our garden and our neighborhood are growing new leaves. We are all waiting for the first spring rains to wash the dust and pollens from the air.

In my work, there are also new green shoots that I want to share with my readers and my friends.

  • I have been appointed as a Professor of Practice with the DST/NRF/Newton Fund Trilateral Research Chair in Transformative Innovation, the 4th Industrial Revolution and Sustainable Development hosted by the University of Johannesburg. I am grateful to Prof Erika Kraemer-Mbula and her team for making me part of their team, even if I am only a part-time member of faculty. My role in the research chair is to make the abstract and often-academic literature more accessable to practitioners and post-graduate students here in Africa, while bringing my practical experience into the academic discourse. I will also be able to further pursue my research into the role and performance of innovation intermedaries and meso organisations with the research chair. I have already participated in several calls with post-graduate students and some of the other members of faculty.
  • As many of my regular blog readers would know, I have been contracted since 2018 to do research and policy advisory work on the topic of technological disruption with the not-for-profit research organisation called TIPS (Trade and Industry Policy Strategies). We are now using the insigths gained from our research to develop analytical and process instruments, and are already applying these frameworks in the South African plastics, metals, automotive and leather and footwear industries. It is rewarding to see how these ideas can be used in practice to gain a better understanding of how business people and supporting organisations innovate, learn about new technological possibilities and develop new capabilities.
  • My first year of serving on one of the WEFs Global Future Council for the New Agenda for Economic Growth and Recovery have come to an end, and my term was extended for another year. During the regular meetings with my fellow council members I have realised how local insights into businesses, supporting organisations and the dynamics in locations can contribute to a global perspective on economic change and collective action.

The singing of the birds outside urge me to also want to celebrate the arrival of the new season. Of course these green shoots had its origins in previous seasons, and I am thankful for this continuity that goes on even when I don’t pay attention to it often enough. I want to express my gratitude to God for the ongoing provision that we receive as a family, despite the destruction caused by the pandemic and the responses of governments to it. I am constantly reflecting on how I can be more effective in blessing others out of the abundance that we receive as a family and as a business. I know that writing blog posts and developing short text modules is one small way of encouraging others, and I want to commit again to thinking-out-loud with my friends and collaborators.

In the days to come I will share some reflections about innovation systems, competence building, learning and some of the other topics I have been working on in the last few months.

The photo at the top of this message was taken by Caitlin Cunningham in our garden just before sunset earlier this week.

Untangling digitisation, digitalisation and digital transformation

I was recently invited by the Reconomy Programme and the Helvetas working group on Market Systems Development to address practitioners working on economic development in the Balkan region. I was specifically asked to untangle the concepts of digitisation, digitalisation and digital transformation in the context of international development cooperation.

The remainder of this post are the notes that I prepared for this call.

We are increasingly using the words digitisation and digitalisation to refer to certain kinds of economic development and changes to how work is done. These words are often used incorrectly as synonyms to refer to the increased use of software and other electronic gadgetry in everyday life. Every now and then the term digital transformation is also used.

Even though these words sound and look very similar, they are different concepts that are all somehow related. Let me try to explain what these three concepts are about.

Digitisation is the process of converting analogue information into digital information. An example of digitisation is when you convert your old vinyl records to MP3 format, or when you scan your old, printed photos so that you can store them in digital format on your computer. 

Digitisation has slowly crept into our lives over the past several decades. It started with measuring changes in natural phenomena, for instance measuring speed, distance, temperature, vibration, time or altitude. Analog information was simply converted into data points represented by blinking warning lights, alarm bells and bright red digits. Slowly the focus shifted to using digital instructions to control mechanical objects. Consider how vehicle dashboards and instrument panels of aircraft have changed over the past thirty years. 

The digitising process often combines mechanical and electrical/electronic systems, in other words, it combines different knowledge and technology domains into an integrated solution.  As more diverse knowledge domains were integrated, so the reliance on processors and logical operations increased. Initially coding was limited to logic programming of chips, but over time the complexity of coding has increased as the cost and size of chips came down, while the processing power increased. 

Digitalisation is different from digitisation. It describes the use of digital technologies and digitised data to change how we get things done. For instance, emails have replaced (most) physical post, and social media is increasingly replacing phone calls. We buy and rent music from an audio library service instead of buying music CDs.

Our attention shifts from using a digital device, or manipulating digital data. Often different people can use the same digital content for different purposes. For instance, various engineering teams can simultaneously design separate components of an integrated system, such as a car or an aircraft. A the same time another team could be using software to test the performance of digital designs to ensure that they meet performance specifications before they are approved for manufacturing, while another team is working on new materials.

Digitalisation is not only about using physical technologies, data files, software and expertise. It describes the creation of new social arrangements where different people, experts or organisations can cooperate in new ways by sharing digital information. The interoperability of data between different physical technologies and social technologies is what connects digital systems and blurs the lines between traditional industries. Digitalisation makes new arrangements possible that are very difficult or expensive to accomplish in conventional ways. An everyday example of digitalisation is how a photo captured on your smartphone can be synchronised to your computer, posted to your friends via social media and combined with the photos of other people in a digital album stored on a server in another country. 

Digital transformation goes further than simply gadgets, software, geeks and data. It describes an evolutionary process where the social relations between individuals, groups, organisations and social institutions are transformed over time because of the exploitation of new capabilities afforded by digital technologies. The emphasis shifts from the application of digital technology or the exchange of data to creating new ways for people to interact and cooperate towards shared goals. Over time new norms and social institutions evolve that supersede conventional paradigms.

In digital transformation, the traditional boundaries between different knowledge or technology domains shift or disappear. Existing scientific knowledge is creatively combined with new technological capabilities that are reinforced by the emergence of new social institutions like norms or new organisations. 

***

Transformations are essential because conventional paradigms, politics and socioeconomic arrangements are interlocked and re-inforcing a robust construct that only permits incremental changes. This conventional interlocking system makes it hard for radically new ideas and arrangements to get any traction; it often takes an almost fanatic effort to get something new to start in domains where tradition, institutions and older norms have become fossilised.

Transformations often originate in niches that are off to one side where the established leaders and ideas don’t mind (too much). In these niches, an idea or a movement slowly gains momentum as it creates new routines, norms, where new arrangements or combinations can be tried and where confidence can be built.

Social media has made it possible for different niche champions to be connected internationally, even if they feel oddly disconnected from their local realities. In these (global) communities, ideas are exchanged, courage is strengthened and collaborations developed.

As I mentioned before, digital transformation is about far more than making changes to the system by adding digital front-ends, digital services or a search box. A collegue working in public sector reform told me that once communities understand that they can hold public officials and political representatives accountable, the whole initiative got a life of its own. What started off as a way to improve transparency and accountability through digitalisation, ended up being about democracy, governance, public service quality and managing public resources better. Of course, it is also much easier to design and improve public services and impact when communities are keen to be involved.

This explains why a digital transformation in a system is not only about the “digital” or the “system”, but how these interact within a broader socioeconomic context. We have to figure out which higher-order questions to ask.

Can you imagine what it would take to digitally transform a system in your economy? For instance, what would it take to digitally transform an education system in a country? Which combinations of norms, knowledge domains, governance, institutions and technologies would have to be tried to enable such a transformation? It is not possible to design this kind of system upfront. And it is not merely an IT problem. It requires many innovations in different areas such as regulations, processes, systems, organisations, subjects, management and delivery. For digital transformation some solutions would be digital, several would be political, and most would certainly be contested by those already in power.

***

The phenomena of digitisation, digitalisation and digital transformation are fuelled by faster processing, smaller components enabled by new materials, improved energy consumption and reliable and fast connectivity. 

However, digitalisation requires more than advances in hardware and coding; it also requires the integration of different systems and a re-imagination of what is possible with data. It asks of us to combine scientific knowledge with an understanding of how people can work together in new ways. Digitalisation pulls our vision to create new ways of doing things, it asks of us to let go of trying to optimise what we already have in place.

Digital transformation goes even further that digitalisation, as it requires that conventional arrangements, institutions and norms be challenged by entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and change makers who want to use digital technologies to challenge existing dominant paradigms that are no longer effective.

***

It would be a mistake to think of digitalisation and digital transformation too narrowly from the perspective of ICT, software development or known digital solutions. Of course, it goes without saying that computer programmers, coders and ICT start-ups are still important. Yet digitalisation more often draws on a fundamental understanding of the underlying natural sciences used in a society and how these existing systems could be re-imagined in combination with digital technologies. It requires the ability to integrate systems that are now separate to achieve a specific goal. It asks us to set aside the ambition to incrementally improve different systems and re-think solutions and challenges in a more integrated and holistic way. 

Development projects can support digitalisation by helping developing countries to figure out where conventional processes and social arrangements are too cumbersome or completely lacking to encourage economic growth and investment. Development organisations should remember that the focus of digitalisation is not only on digital skills, technologies and imported solutions, but on how these are combined with other knowledge and scientific domains. Lastly, for digital transformation to occur, diverse stakeholders must work together to re-imagine new ways of doing things in areas where conventional solutions are no longer effective. This requires facilitation and a technology-neutral facilitator that can encourage local stakeholders to experiment with new solutions that combine existing knowledge in new combinations with digital technologies. 

Both digitalisation and digital transformation take much longer to accomplish than a typical development project, and both often need to be nurtured despite resistance from the established interest groups affected by the emergence of a different paradigm. It may be necessary to assist the stakeholders to develop action plans that show results both in the short as well as the long term, otherwise some stakeholders might run out of energy before sufficient gains have been made. 

Lastly, transformations are evolutionary processes. It is not possible to design the ideal end-state and then develop a plan of how to get there. The path from the present to the future is not straight or easy to plan. At best we may be able to figure out a few steps or concurrent processes.

Transformations often start with dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire to cause a variation of the current trajectory. Or it can sometimes be sparked by a crazy idea starting with “what if we tried this instead?” Often the initiators of transformations are quite naïve about what it would take to see the transformations through. We must therefore step up beside them and help them to build their case for change, to encourage them when they face resistance or when experiments don’t work, and to help them balance the short-term and the longer-term priorities. 

Further reading.

I have benefitted immensely from the publications by Frank Geels and Johan Schot, to name two authors. Searching for deep transitions, socio-technical change or multi-level change will also yield great results.

If there is sufficient interest I can also write a follow-up article about some of the literature that I have found most relevant.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Some thoughts on re-thinking your workspace

Originally posted on 23 April 2021, updated on 3 May 2021

Several of my friends and clients are wondering what their workspace arrangements may look like in the future. The lockdowns and disruptions over the past year have rapidly accelerated the use of digital technologies to enable remote work, to improve coordination within and between organisational functions, document sharing and connectivity. Some key experts and managers of some companies are now reluctant to resume work in the office.

Just thinking out loud, I would like to share some of the points that we often have to grapple with about the future of work and workspace. These thoughts are still taking shape, but I would like to share them with you as they may be similar to the points that you are discussing with your teams right now.

  1. We should think of it as working remotely rather than working from home. Working remotely has now been piloted at scale. Some love it and have vowed never to return to a boring corporate office. Others loathe it and cannot wait to get back to the corporate office. What leaders must consider is that not everybody will be willing to come back to the office.
  2. The future of the workspace is a hybrid between working in an office and working remotely. Corporate offices are now seen as so 2019. Leaders should engage with their teams to figure out what works best in a shared infrastructure and what works best remotely.
  3. It is not necessary for people to travel to work for a desk, internet connection and coffee. Leaders must re-think the affordability provided by working remotely and the advantages of working in a shared space. I know of organisations that can now redesign functional workspaces that meet the different requirements of individuals and teams. People want comfortable lounge areas for reading and writing, comfortable tables and chairs for collaboration, cubicles for making calls and deep-thinking work. 
  4. There is still a role for a corporate or a shared workspace. Not everybody can afford to create and maintain a working environment at home or in a setting elsewhere. Not everyone can perform their functions remotely. Some people simply get lonely and need to connect with other human beings. Others need the kind of equipment and technology that can only be provided and make sense in a shared environment. But there are other soft issues that must also be considered. Innovation culture is shaped by how different people interact and work together. Innovation is hampered by working only with people you like on projects where everybody agrees on what must be done next. Innovation thrives when you bump into somebody from another discipline or department. 
    Maybe Taylorism (defined by Merriam-Webster as a factory management system developed in the late 19th century to increase efficiency by evaluating every step in a manufacturing process and breaking down production into specialised repetitive tasks) and efficiency have shaped the design of office spaces for too long. Why not create innovative spaces that invite deep concentration (like a lounge or a library), or smaller cubicles for undisturbed work? Or flexible desks that can be re-arranged with good coffee nearby?
  5. While you are busy rethinking the arrangement of your organisation, why not consider placing teams or experts at your clients, or bringing your suppliers or clients into your workspace? The increased use of digital technologies during the past year has led to the discovery of how it is possible for teams from different organisations to work together in completely new ways. I recently listened to an interview with a CEO who explained that their organisation had not only embraced remote work but had also decided to switch to asynchronous meetings! This means that a meeting is recorded, and people who could not participate during the event could still contribute or even challenge what was said afterwards. The use of channels in applications like Slack and MS Teams makes this very easy if used properly
  6. There are also downsides to working remotely. Just because you use MS Teams does not mean your people feel that they are in a team, or that they are trusted or equipped to do their work. People are zoomed up! At least there were physical constraints that limited the number of people who could participate in a meeting back in the ”old days”. Now with digital communication tools, meetings are being held more frequently with more people participating. A friend told me that she spends her evenings working because her days are filled with Zoom meetings.
  7. Lastly, working remotely is not for everybody. Here in South Africa, creating and maintaining a remote workspace is also often determined by your race, your age, where you live, and who lives with you. Where you live determines internet speed, the reliability of the electricity supply and also how long and safely you commute to an office. We live in a leafy green suburb which is a fantastic environment to work in. But a colleague whom I work with lives in a small apartment with two other professionals sharing the same space and internet bandwidth. While some individuals enjoy working at their own pace, others need to be supervised. For younger employees the socialisation process of working with older and also very differently skilled people is critical.

I would love to hear from you about what you have been grappling with, or what you are debating to do right now. 

  • Have you redesigned your workspace, or renegotiated how certain processes work? 
  • Have you made up your mind whether you are going back to the “office”, or do you prefer working remotely? 
  • Has somebody on your team decided to not come back and to work remotely, or even worse, to resign because they prefer to work remotely?
  • Which tasks would you prefer to perform remotely and which in a physical office space?

If you would rather not reply on this blog post, you can send me an email.

Here are some interesting resources by others:

In interview #100, Shane Parish interviews the co-founder of WordPress Matt Mullenweg. Head over to https://fs.blog/knowledge-project/ for more information 

In episode #784 of the HBR IdeaCast, Anne-Laure Fayard talks about her HBR article “Designing the hybrid office”

A special thank you to Natasha Walker and Sonja Blignaut for the conversations and the encouragement that made this blog post possible.

Image by DarkmoonArt_de from Pixabay

Thinking about places we live AND work in

We have just completed twelve months of lockdowns in South Africa. As many of my international friends would know, our initial lockdowns were quite harsh. No going beyond our property, no alcohol sales and no travel.

Thankfully it got a little “easier” or less-draconian somewhere along the line. A constant stream of memes and jokes about making beer from pineapples, or re-arranging a bathroom into a makeshift office made it all a little more bearable and maybe even a little funny!

During this year our family often reflected on our privileges. We have a house that is big enough for our family of four to work from without being in each other’s way too much. We have a good internet connection, a beautiful garden to relax in, and enough computers and devices for our children to access school from. We are very blessed indeed.

But we are acutely aware that our arrangements are an exception to the rule here in South Africa. People either cannot stay at home or cannot work from home either.

Most of my fellow-South Africans are living in really harsh circumstances. Millions of people were forced to lock down in dense settlements, informal housing or small apartments. Many still live in informal settlements (which means no public services) without electricity, running water or a toilet inside their property.

Furthermore, many South Africans do not have the education or job opportunities to work from home, nor do they have digital connectivity. They have to travel beyond their neighborhoods to find or do work.

While some of my friends are complaining about working from home, I also hear of organizations that will most likely never go back to being fully “on-site”. Maybe workplace rental prices will go down, enabling new businesses to move in. But maybe more people will choose to work from home. Or choose not to work in an office but to work from a shared working space, a coffee shop or a park bench.

I see many parking lots are vacant, shops have closed down and many office buildings are underutilized. If the pressure to create larger concentration workplaces is going to be lower in the future, can we not rather invest more in making more residential areas “liveable” or maybe even “home-workable”?

I know that I could do more intensive work over the last year because my home office, home, and the surrounding area encourage this. I cannot help but wonder how you all feel about your arrangements?

I am wondering, how has your relationship with your home and your office changed over the last year? What is your wish for the area that you live and work in?

Technological change is everybody’s business

For the last three years, I have spent a considerable part of my research and advisory efforts on understanding technological change. Although my description of what I am doing has changed a little over time, I am often asked whether I am not working only with geeks and techno-enthusiasts. Some have expressed genuine concern that a focus on technological change is a privilege or even a nice-to-have that is far removed from the everyday issues of deindustrialization, under-development, overcoming inequality, and addressing unemployment.

Working on the topic of technological change is not only about gadgets, code, and advanced technologies. A lot of disruption is created by older technologies that are available off-the-shelf that simply can no longer be ignored. Newer technologies don’t only disrupt businesses and industries, they also disrupt social arrangements, institutions, organizations, and also places. Organizations, whether public (e.g. a University programme) or private (a small company) typically change incrementally, while technologies often change exponentially. Organizations often change incrementally based on what is clearly articulated by markets using past data, while technologies appear to change exponentially based on perceived possibilities and potentials. The bottleneck is that organizations typically change based on agreement and consensus, while new technologies emerge because of distributed and often uncoordinated efforts and innovations. When you design your programmes mainly on what customers/users want, you are extremely vulnerable to sudden shifts when a new market or technology or capability emerges “suddenly”. You have to also design what you offer and how you are organized on what is possible (within certain resource constraints). Many leaders of institutions in developing countries are paralyzed.

As a close observer of how industries, places and institutions change it has been breathtaking to witness the effects of the socio-technological change on workplaces and in cooperative networks. I am participating in research efforts, business networks and other collaborations using communication technologies that enables really deep collaboration, sense making and joint development. Yet, I still frequently encounter workplaces where only the bosses use email, where all the communications is top down, and where collaboration or coordination is done by instruction and not by trust, mutual recognition or by other creative means. This latter category are the workplaces for whom socio-technical change is the biggest threat, but also where many jobs are created. We cannot just shrug and let these companies die, because so many families depend on them for a livelihood. Even if these lagging workplaces invest in all the right equipment, software, and systems, their cultures will not be able to make use of these new technologies. That is because many new technologies are far more social than what is apparent when you read the specifications. I have clients that use outdated hardware and systems, but because they are organized so smartly internally and connected so closely with their clients they can outperform peers that have more capital, equipment, and expertise.

In the introduction of his 1974 book The Economics of Industrial Innovation, Christopher Freeman wrote:

“In the world of computers and space travel, it is unnecessary to belabour the importance of technological innovation. Whether like the sociologist, Marcuse, or the novelist, Simone de Beauvoir, we see technology primarily as a means of human enslavement and destruction, or whether, like Adam Smith, we see it primarily as a liberating Promethean force, we are all involved in its advance.
However much we might wish to, we cannot escape its impact on our daily lives, nor the moral, social and economic dilemmas with which it confronts us. We may curse it or bless it, but we cannot ignore it.”

The gaps are widening between those that can draw on the affordances provided by newer technological arrangements, versus those that are not able to do so. In many cases, it is the decisions (or indecisions) of leaders, managers, policymakers, and entrepreneurs that determine how the rest of us are confronted and affected by newer technologies. One of the unforeseen consequences of the COVID19 pandemic lockdowns has been that it forced a distributed effort by families, individuals, and workplaces to improve how they communicate, collaborate, and operate.

Perhaps all the focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution has distracted us from the huge challenges facing most workplaces, leaders, policymakers, workers, and the unemployed.

The distraction is caused by the appeal of talking confidently about technicalities and future possibilities/threats, while the disruption is created by the micro shifts that are made every day by people that are able to draw on new ideas, that can create new combinations and that can figure out new arrangements. We all know about the effects of compound interest. In innovation, we have the same effect of “compound learning”. Frequently made small changes, innovations reflection accumulates over time to create a huge gap between those that can adapt and integrate new technologies and those that can not expend the resources on trying new ways of doing things.

I am keen to continue exploring how public organizations, social entrepreneurs, policymakers and other developmental organizations can lower the energy gradients for the rest of society to try new ideas, prototype new arrangements and to choose more just upgrading pathways. I want to play a role in creating future-oriented institutions that are not only relevant to the sectors they serve, but that are resilient and innovative in themselves. They must add value to the technological and innovative capability of the societies they are in. When public organizations, NGOs or other meso organizations innovate and embrace new technologies, the effects can spread wide. I have witnessed on many occasions how an innovative meso programme can have a catalyzing effect on a whole region or industry. Often their impact on the broader society outlives the programme itself.

I’ve had a great time reading up, experimenting and developing ideas with a few close collaborators. However, it dawned on me that I should not be developing my ideas in the same way as many of the organizations that I am trying to help. If I want to equip and encourage others, then I must in a more iterative and inclusive way. I have to encourage others to try, adapt, integrate and build on the ideas that I have shared. Ultimately, the decision-makers should co-develop these with me and my collaborators.

So I want to publicly commit to working more with other facilitators, change agents, and leaders to develop decision support frameworks, methods, and technologies that can be used by leaders to make better and more just decisions about technological change, innovation, and closing the gaps. If technological change is everybody’s business, especially those that are leading organizations, then we must make their jobs a little easier. This is especially important given all the noise, distraction, and jargon that leaders have to navigate to make decisions about technological change.

Drop me an email or send me a comment if you want to collaborate with me. This will most likely involve a Slack workspace and working with a very diverse group of people. I have not yet decided how to do this, but I hope that some of my readers will be willing to figure this out with me.

The affordances provided by institutions

In October 2020 I participated in a week-long exploratory retreat hosted by Cognitive Edge. Actually, there were two different events in the same month and I experienced them as one event where we explored amazing concepts around complexity, sense making, aesthetics, knowledge management and so on. During one of the many breakout groups of these events, I was confronted by the concept of affordances. I was introduced to the concept by Greg Spencer and I was immediately intrigued by it. Since then I have been thinking a lot about my work in innovation systems, institutional change, and the adaption of various meso organizations from this new angle.

Greg explained that an “affordance” is what the environment offers the individual. If I recall correctly we were talking about resilience at the time and Greg wondered how organizations provided affordances to their people that enabled individuals and collectives to be more resilient in the face of unexpted challenges. Although I have heard this word used in user-interface design contexts, I have never thought of it as being useful to think about what institutions, organizations, or other resources made available to users. I have in the past simply thought of the concept of functions, as in a technology transfer organization performs a certain set of functions in an economy that is taken up by users.

The word affordance was first coined by James Gibson in a book in 1966 (read more on Wikipedia). In 1979 Gibson refined his defintion to:

“The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment”

J. J. Gibson (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), Boston.

The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines an affordance as:

“the quality or property of an object that defines its possible uses or makes clear how it can or should be used”

“affordance,” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/affordance. Accessed 1/11/2021.

Gibson was thinking of ecology and how an environment provides support or resources to an animal. At the same time, the animal must possess the capability to perceive the affordances and to use it. From a human perspective, it means that things must be designed in a way that makes certain actions possible. Imagine how a door handle invites you to reach out and open the door, or how the presence of a button on a reception counter invites you to press it, or how stepping stones in a garden invite you to explore around a blind corner. However, not all the characteristics of an affordance need to be explicitly designed. Many of the affordances that make some organisations more resilient than others appear to be in what is allowed or accepted or maybe even forgiven in the arrangements in the organisation, in other words in the culture and the relationships between different people. It implies that some affordances in organisations emerge out of the interactions and the relationships between people, and I guess the same is true for communities and locations (or even societies).

For humans to draw on affordances, they must have an idea of what actions are possible or desired. They must feel empowered and capable of using, exploiting or drawing on a resource. The verb “afford” is useful to consider the energy and commitment required by a user to exploit an affordance. If the energy costs are too high, most people would not bother. This is a problem in societal change because those with more resources can often afford to invest in finding out more or exploring new ideas at the edge of common knowledge. Therefore, it is about the presence of the affordance AND the energy cost combined with the required capability (the pre-requisites) of a user to engage with the affordance.

Architects, urban planners, and many other professions already think of affordances and how people use spaces, pathways, and everyday objects. In software development, the consistency of menus, icons, and screen layouts all make affordances easier to access while reducing the effort to figure things out all the time. For instance, to improve the quality of life in many cities, urban planners are turning roads into pedestrian zones. This then changes the affordances provided by public spaces. I recently saw an interview on the National Geographic Channel (about airports) where a person explained how they design icons for signage in the Frankfurt airport that must cater for diverse travellers, languages and understanding of symbols. It struck me that the signage in the airport itself offers an affordance, but it also directs people to affordances that they might need.

When it comes to how societies create and then adapt a range of institutions that shapes market incentives and behaviours, the problem is with abstraction. There is often a low-equilibrium relation between the affordance provided and whether using the qualities of the affordance can be afforded by a typical user. Let me provide some examples of challenges in this dynamic between the availability of affordances and the ability of a user to afford drawing on it:

  • The service offering or capability of a certain organisation is not entirely an object, partly because services, advice and information flows are largely tacit.
  • It is also hard to fully understand the value of the service beforehand. Sometimes, the value of a service only becomes apparent during or it was used. Think of heart surgery, asking for technical advice from an expert, or paying for tax advice.
  • Often, knowledge-intensive services require active participation by the user – the user must be able to share relevant context-specific information with an expert while absorbing information from the expert that must be integrated back into a specific context. It is not the same as sitting in an opera and experiencing a great audiovisual experience.
  • To use knowledge-intensive services you need a certain level of knowledge intensity. The barriers to using many public affordances may be quite high, and we do not often enough consider these pre-requisites. This may also be true for many more elemental services. Today, many services offered by the public service here in South Africa assumes that users or citizens can read and write.
  • A further problem is that there is so much emphasis on the capacity and responsiveness of the providers of affordances provided by public organisations (the supply-side) while the challenges and obstacles to fully participate (or absorb) costs faced by users are out of focus.
  • With increased global mobility of knowledge and knowledge workers, if a certain environment in a country or a place is not good at providing the affordances needed in the society, some of the more mobile members might access these affordances from other places. Globally this is happening in science, technology, innovation and technology development. Increasingly it is happening in education. The challenge is that in many countries only the elite or highly mobile can afford to search for affordances beyond their borders or location. This will increase inequality, but it might also undermine the just development of the potential of places and people.
  • Lastly, there is also the challenge of time. For me to access an affordance today might be shaped by my schooling (a long time ago), the role models I had as a child, and so on. It means that we have to pay attention to the justice or injustices that may be perpetuated by certain affordances and their relations with preceding affordances that are only weakly connected. I am thinking of how some low-paid workers must spend hours a day travelling to work on unsafe public transport. Their affordances are fewer, but to access even those affordances (like a regular job) might also cost them proportionally in relation to the transport costs of a more affluent family.

I wanted to share these ideas with you because I found the idea of affordances to be refreshing. I am glad I signed up for these events to make new friends like Davina Burgess and Greg Spencer. In particular, they helped me draw back the curtains on this concept that felt so profound to me. The idea of affordances helped me to start thinking beyond the technicalities of supply, demand and persistent failures for these gaps to be closed. It also highlighted the importance of paying more attention to the capability of “users” that are trying to innovate, solve problems and the resources that they could afford to invest in drawing on affordances in their environments.

Looking back at August 2020

This is a short article to reflect on some of my learning over the month of August. I put the timer on 30 minutes to practice writing faster.

In the first week of the month, I made time to read up on socio-technical change and transitions. I was trying to figure out how “big transformations”, “technological disruptions”, socio-technical change and several other permutations fit together. For me, the scholar who brought all of this together in the most succinct way is Professor Frank Geels. You can find his Google Scholar page here. The diagram that he co-developed with Professor Johan Schot has gone through several iterations, and I think it has for now settled in the form shared below. Now that I mention Johan Schot, his work on transformative change and deep transitions and how it relates to innovation systems and systems of innovation are also very important. You can find his papers on his personal website.

In the 2nd week of August, I participated as a panellist in the Knowledge Management South Africa conference (called an e-Imbizo. Imbizo means a gathering in isiZulu, and it is usually called by a leader). As the event spanned several days it made sense for me to dive deep into knowledge management for the week. I had three highlights that stood out for me that week.

The first was the opportunity to again go through Harold Jarche’s Personal Knowledge Management course that I wrote about here. Central to Harolds teaching is the idea of living in perpetual beta.

The second was re-discovering a paper by Matthew Jelavic titled “Socio-technical knowledge management and epistemological paradigms” (Researchgate link). What I liked about this paper is the description of the functionalist versus the integrative socio-technical knowledge management. As I am interested in how knowledge flows and is shaped between organisations in a distributed way, this paper really resonated with me. It was a presentation by Brenda van Wyk from the Independent Institute of Education that led me back to the paper by Jelavic. Brenda showed how their university created a knowledge management strategy based on the work by Jelavic that included functional KM as well as integrative elements.

The third highlight was to follow a lead from Harold Jarche to look into the amazing work by Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. We were discussing how new technological disruptions could be detected in a distributed way, and Harold suggested that I look into the Tetrad concept developed by McLuhan (it is also known as the Tetrad of Media Effects). I am still trying to wrap my head around the Tetrad and I will write about it once I have read through all the material. Below is a template for a Tetrad.

To develop the Tetrad, ask the following four questions of the technology you have in mind:

  1. What does the medium/technology enhance?
  2. What does the medium/technology make obsolete?
  3. What does the medium/technology retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the medium/technology reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?

In the original formulation, McLuhan used “media”, but it appears that the substitution of media with technology works. But more about this in a future post. My thoughts are still too messy right now.

In the last two weeks of August, I shifted my attention to the topic of disruption. I wrote a series of five blog posts on disruption here:

Post 1: What does it mean to be disrupted?

Post 2: Defining disruption

Post 3: Who is being disrupted, by whom?

Post 4: Technological disruption over time

Post 5: Social technological disruption: The disruption that hits hardest

I have received an offer from Marcus Jenal and Zenebe Uraguchi to edit and integrate these five posts into one working paper or a coherent article.

During and after the disruption series I received many requests from readers asking me “now what?“, or “how do we become better at tracking potentially disruptive technologies and trends?“. Well, I am delighted so many asked about that, as that is the topic for September.

In September I will also revisit Local Economic Development and how local stakeholders can become better at system innovation and tracking innovations that have the potential to disrupt the location. I will also finish the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem benchmarking instrument for a client, and I will publish a concept note to establish an observatory to track technological change for another client.

If you are a subscriber to this blog, then you will receive a copy of the integrated working paper on disruption when it is ready. If you are not already subscribed, then fill in the line below to stay connected.

Thank you for the many comments, shares and likes. Your support encourages me to keep on digging, exploring and connecting ideas that make development and innovation more valuable.

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