Pondering disruptions and industrial revolutions

I am asked almost daily about my opinion about “the fourth industrial revolution”, technological disruptions and the impact on jobs.

Depending on who asks, I might fire off a statement like “I don’t believe there is a fourth industrial revolution underway”. Or perhaps I might be a little bit more popular and say “I don’t think there is one, but probably many smaller revolutions going on”. I must be honest, I have also told several leaders in business and government, “definitely, and you had better pull up your socks and scan the horizon so that you don’t get caught with your pants down”.

I do feel a certain responsibility towards those that ask me these questions. I am all too aware that my response might encourage somebody to think more seriously about their organisation’s ability to sense change and to respond. Or my response might paralyse, or maybe even give somebody a reason to remain complacent. The truth is, we simply do not know the exact answer or extent of the technological changes around us.

When the change is as complex as it is now, and so dispersed across many actors in the economy and the world, we simply do not know. We can measure patents, imports, exports, value add, jobs, but we simply do not know how many entrepreneurs, government leaders or citizens are reading up on new ideas, trying new combinations, dreaming in the middle of the night of new business models and arrangements. These changes, when they aggregate into a pattern or a groundswell, often only make sense looking back. When we look back we see those moments where shifts took place, where tipping points were reached, where narrow or broad revolutions took place. But in the present moment, it is just foam, sweat and conflicting messages in the news that seems to make us numb.

Maybe it deserves a blog post on its own, but what we have to bear in mind is that in the original meaning of an industrial revolution, the “industrial” should be understood as technological change. The revolution describes what happens to many forms of social institutions. That means small and large, formal and informal social institutions are too clumsy, too rigid, fitting an older order but not ready for the new order. So it is not the autonomous vehicle that will disrupt us (well, maybe us geeks might be very distracted by them); the disruption will come from the massive investments that would be required in transport infrastructure, in the way we move around, in the way governments regulate, collect taxes, and so on. Maybe it challenges how companies are organised, maybe it completely challenges global supply chains or creates new markets that are much better than older markets. The physical technology, when it outpaces the evolution of the social technologies, disrupts the latter.

I must say this in stronger terms. When the evolution of the physical technologies is too far ahead it destabilises the society, because the required social technology modules are not available. It destabilises because the “have’s” can draw from other societies social institutions, while the rest are left out behind a huge and growing barrier.

For me, that means that we should figure out ways to enable experimentation and innovation in social technologies because this is the hard part. Investing in a specific physical technology and the required knowledge to use is still the easier bit. Figuring out how to crowd in a broad cross-section of the society, how to get more people to try new ways of managing, new forms of enterprise, new arrangements of market and non-market actors; that is where we need resilience and creativity.

In South Africa, I feel that we are all too focused on the physical technologies, the gadgets. Yet, our societies ability to raise new enterprises, to experiment with new management models, new ways of doing business enabled by new technologies, is just too low. Despite having richly diverse demography, having people with great experience and qualifications unemployed or employed and frustrated, we are simply creating or encouraging too few people to venture out and start something new.

Exploring individual Social Technoliges that enables Systemic Change

My exploration of complexity thinking and how it enables leaders and collectives to make better decisions is taking me back to where I started. I started in organisational development and innovation. Then I shifted into larger economic systems like innovation systems, local economies, value chains or regions. For the last four years I have been working mainly on organisational development in meso organisations involved in technology development and innovation promotion. So I have come full circle, but I sense that I am now better able to synthesize and use my experience and ideas. Now I will focus on the role of individuals in changing economic systems.

Marcus Jenal and I wrote last year about Systemic Change. In our reading the wealth of literature on economic evolution we were were deeply impressed  by the work of Eric Beinhocker. In particular, the idea that economic development demands a co-evolution of:

  • Physical technologies – are methods and processes for transforming matter, energy and information from one state into another in pursuit of a goal or goals; they enable people to create products and services that are worth trading. A physical technology is not only the physical object itself, but both the design of the thing and the instructions and techniques to make and use it. The ability to learn how to use, make and adapt the physical objects is critical.
  • Social technologies – are methods, designs and arrangements for organising people in pursuit of a goal or goals; they smooth the way for cooperation and trading products and services. For example, the ability to organise people into hierarchies, such as companies or other organisations, which can allocate resources to specialised functions and which can learn is a social technology.
  • Business plans – are developed by enterprises and other organisations that are competing for resources, acceptance and buy-in in the economy. Business plans play the critical role of melding physical and social technologies together under a strategy and then operationally expressing the resulting design in the real world. From an evolutionary perspective, the purpose of business plans is to discover what is profitable, efficient or even possible in a given economic context. You could call this an economic technology.

I realized last week that I have spent at least five years of my career immersed in each of these three co-evolutions, but with the others not completely forgotten. From a physical technology perspective, I have always been involved in promoting trans disciplinary research, promoting innovation systems and helping innovators become more effective. I have spent a number of years supporting entrepreneurship, developing supply chains and promoting value chains. From a social technology perspective I have been working on management education, business consulting, assisting with change processes and facilitating search and discovery process within and between organisations.

Now I am taking this to a next level. I will for the next few months focus intentionally on the role of individual leaders in the co-evolutionary process. The co-evolution is fractal. I started at the highest level, the level of open systems, innovation systems, local economies and industries. Then I shifted to meso organisations, development organisations and universities, where I often focused on teams and how they use their resources in a systemic way to improve the networks they form part of.

The focus on individuals will be formal this time, where in the past this was informal, almost a by-product of my process consulting and advisory work. To equip me for this role I had to refresh my organisational and coaching skills. I have also participated in an advanced coaching programme in order to facilitate this shift in focus. Lastly, to enable this process I have exited many contracts, or not renewed contracts as they came to a close. This will enable me to dive deep. I will focus my coaching praxis on leadership support, innovation support and institution building, but with the role of the starting point. This will require many new business practices, and many new clients. I will try my best to frequently reflect here on my learning.