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Thinking out loud

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.

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