About the future Organizational Design and Development Thinking out loud

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 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

Bottom Up Development Local Economic Development Thinking out loud

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?

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.

Addressing persistent market failure Knowledge Intensive Business Services Meso organisational development Thinking out loud

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,” Dictionary, 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.

Thinking out loud

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.

Technological change Technological disruption Thinking out loud

Social technological disruption: The disruption that hits hardest

This is the 5th post in this series on disruption. This post was updated on the 15th of September 2020.

It is a common mistake to think that the contest is only about technology in the form of hardware, software, services or processes. These are the most visible features of new technologies that can more easily be compared, measured and integrated into existing operations. In these visible forms, technologies can be procured off-the-shelf (or from a website or an app store) and can be adapted in an existing operation. The nature of the disruption for the technology adopter then mainly concerns the inconvenience of changing routines, systems and arrangements. Technology and operational managers often spend months planning, preparing and carefully integrating these kinds of change into their operations to try and mitigate the effects of the disruptions.

In many organisations in the public and the private sector, operational managers focus on ensuring that their system designs and processes are able to resist all kinds of interference and disruption, as these introduce potential variations, risk and uncertainty into their finely tuned operations. This is true for a factory, and it is also true for a hospital or a government department or a post office. Any process that is striving to attain a certain level of efficiency must be protected against unnecessary changes. Change means costs. The downside of striving for efficiency is a loss of flexibility. 

In more modern production and organisational systems, the topic of flexible configuration and agile process design has enabled many newer products, services and processes and their supporting systems to allow for more flexibility. However, many older or more conventional products, services, processes and systems are vulnerable to being overly rigid (meaning resistant to change) as they are often more sensitive to minimum scale and efficiency thresholds.

The most difficult disruption to cope with is at the level of business and organisational models. This is where a new technology market requires a complete or significant rethink of the business strategy, organisation, operations and leadership frameworks. Many new business models that have emerged in the last twenty years have overcome previous market and technology limitations, meaning that even an inefficient provider using newer technology may have an advantage over an older organisation using their older technology efficiently. 

New business models that leverage new digital technologies often make for a potent competitive advantage once a leader can break free from the pack. These new entrants are often free from many of the constraints and limitations that older, more established firms face. They are also closer to the edge or just on the other side of the current regulations and controls that restrain many more established competitors.

These innovations in business models often draw on new social technologies. Social technologies could change the internal or external arrangements of the organisation. Internally, social innovations can be about how workplaces are organised, how decisions are made, how people from different business units relate within an organisation, how communication takes place and so on. However, in my experience, when organisations are arranged innovatively on the inside, this is often mirrored in their relationships with external partners, suppliers and clients. 

In many spheres of society, these new social technologies are challenging older paradigms. For the companies, regulators, government departments and communities that have become intertwined with existing social arrangements, changing the business or organisational models is very hard if not impossible. It is often simpler to start something new because the old arrangements are so deeply entrenched. Think for instance about the shift from coal mining to renewable energy and its effect not only on the mining companies but the communities, the financial markets, the downstream buyers of coal, the suppliers of equipment and technology and the specialised public and private institutions that have emerged around the coal industry. Do not forget about the labour unions, local charities, churches and other social partners. The new energy market will eventually take over from this older market with its more established social arrangements, but the players and institutions will look different, will be funded differently, will use more modern regulatory frameworks, and will most likely also be located in a different place using different skills and very different social arrangements. This disruption is not going to look pretty, and local stakeholders all have good incentives to dig in their heels to resist the disruption for as long as possible. 

If a society cannot foster the emergence of new institutions and social innovations for new configurations to be developed in the local market, then the local system becomes even more vulnerable to international disruptors in the longer term. The implication is that if the government cannot enable new competition to incumbent arrangements in the shorter to medium term, then in the longer term the intensity of the disruption caused by new social technologies may be more severe. Many governments resist promoting new business and technologies because of the entrenched positions of business, labour and civil lobby groups. Yet even while agreeing that promoting new technologies to disrupt or challenge existing arrangements is a good policy, it may be very hard to implement.

The reason why new technologies are hard to implement is because of the many simultaneous investments and changes that may be required; in other words, the coordination failures that may make a new market and all its dependent institutions and networks harder to establish. This is one reason why so many developing countries are being reduced to being users of new technologies: because it is so hard to create the densely interrelated market systems that enable new technology adaptation and development. New markets often leverage older market institutions and norms, so it is not as easy as simply allowing a new market to be established. A whole web of other supporting arrangements is needed.

Ultimately it is not about the use of new technology. The biggest challenge lies in the business model and network arrangements that are needed to make a new technology market viable. This is where the most serious disruptions occur, namely when one country’s social institutions and social arrangements are displaced by those from another country. An example is where high-tech companies embedded in one country’s market system disrupts another country with weaker or inferior market and organisational arrangements. Local funding markets, tech entrepreneurs, regulators and policy makers will constantly be on the defensive and will be caught between those that want to completely resist the uptake of the technology and those that want to adopt the new technology.

Now we turn to the question of why these new social arrangements often originate in the USA and Canada, and why Europe and Africa are often on the back foot. A closer look reveals that many of the new social arrangements actually originate from only a handful of cities and locations, and to simply paint the whole of the USA as a hotspot for new business model innovations is perhaps a bit optimistic. Somehow, to develop new business models requires a tremendous amount of trust between individuals and the hierarchies that they form part of. Yes, even a flat hierarchy still has rules, and in fact, it depends on a certain singularity of mind of what the organisation is trying to achieve. In societies where much importance is attached to degrees, years of work experience, social hierarchy, and professional pedigree, social innovations are much harder to achieve. Not impossible, just harder. The same applies to societies where people need to be directed, where only a few have the vision while the rest just grind away at what they are told to do. 

Here in South Africa, with our low trust, it is tough to manage or lead a team, even if it is a team of professionals. Almost all our efforts at innovating in South Africa are focused on building systems and procedures that must make up for what we cannot draw on from the broader environment. Managers are constantly checking up on subordinates. The ecosystem around most organisations has a trust deficit, so any team or organisation must make up for what is lacking on the outside through structures and functions on the inside. This shows in our economic data. In almost any market here in South Africa, there are only a handful of companies (public or private) that have managed to achieve a scale or a semblance of stability. They are often like self-contained islands. Their supply chains often don’t look like chains, they look rather like pipes that extend from the bigger buyer. I suppose this is social innovation in its own right, but it does not help us to navigate a future where a small and even unheard of competitor from abroad can come in and very quickly establish a new market because of its combination of social and technical innovations.

I am often asked how ready we are for technological disruption. Mastering a new product, service or gadget may seem easy enough. But I shudder to think of the rigidity and readiness of many of the companies and public organisations that I know of. They have been successful at defending themselves against many external threats, but have often not embraced many social innovations that are now already widespread elsewhere. I think that social innovations and new social technologies are potentially the biggest disruptors. 

Is it different in your context?

How are the organisations that you work with experimenting with or tracking new social technologies? 

What social technologies are you tracking because you think that these have the potential to create completely new business models or market arrangements?

Thinking out loud

Technological disruption over time

This is the fourth post in this series about disruption. This post was updated on 15 September 2020.

I have previously written about technological change cycles where I explored how the nature of innovation changes over time. This time I would like to explore disruption more from the perspective of the challenge to a business model as well as the broader sociological impact of disruption. 

Time is another dimension that must be considered if we are to understand disruption. In the short term, new technologies often disrupt incumbents (firmly entrenched existing players) who are dominant in a particular technology market segment. New technologies force existing companies in the market to rethink their products, services, operations and networks. They may decide to resist change, or adapt or retreat to market segments where their scale and operations are still competitive. 

In the shorter term, the most significant disruptions are at the level of functions and applications (or products and processes), and the disruptions are often felt by competitors who identify with a particular market or technological paradigm. The new technology may allow a better or different way for a function to be performed, and as a result a new need may be created. All competitors must scramble to get newly-introduced competing solutions integrated into their current offerings.

In the medium term, technological change may disrupt consumers and global technology markets, as new products and services might make existing alternatives incompatible or redundant. As the uptake of a newer technology increases, it may become more visible to other (unrelated) markets and user types. The result is that a technology that was developed for a particular niche market may be taken up or adapted to new markets. Technology providers benefit from more scale, and their attention often shifts from developing the products/services to improving their processes and systems. Users benefit from better-developed products/services and support, increasing compatibility and the establishment of standards, etc.

In the longer term, technological change disrupts investments in fixed infrastructure and social institutions such as universities, economic regions, job markets, regulators and industries. Some jobs, industries, key infrastructure or technologies may become redundant. From a spatial perspective, the way municipal boundaries or functional economic regions are drawn may be challenged, and regional infrastructure may suddenly become redundant or expensive to maintain.

In the longer term, technological change disrupts investments in fixed infrastructure, social institutions like universities, economic regions, job markets, regulators and industries. Some jobs, industries, key infrastructure or technologies may become redundant. From a spatial perspective, the way municipal boundaries or functional economic regions are drawn may be challenged, and regional infrastructure may suddenly become redundant or expensive to maintain.

As new technology becomes more prevalent and as it reaches a more mature phase, its influence may spread to other more indirect markets in a slow, ever-expanding series of mini-disruptions. This is where convergence and spill-overs become a risk to those who are ignorant or complacent, as technological developments in unrelated economic activities may spill over into a deeply rooted and rigid technology marketplace. It may take a long time for this kind of disruption to slowly build up, but once it arrives, the changes are sudden and often catastrophic to the economic actors who are affected. 

The challenge is then not the new technology per se, but the organisational and social innovations that have been refined in the new technology market place. Many improvements at the product or business process levels can be copied (or perhaps licensed). However, new business models with different forms of financing, novel arrangements with suppliers, new partnership structures or with creative business logic are very hard to copy. It is especially hard to respond to business model innovations when an organisation is already set in its ways (or is successful). This is the real disruption, and it is not only the private sector that is vulnerable to this – The public sector and even the NGO sector can be disrupted by business model innovations.

In the course of my career I have worked with many leaders of companies and public organisations or technologists who have been caught off guard by technological change. They all describe the same pattern.

They were once globally competitive and could benchmark their operations, technologies and efficiencies against global peers. Then some competitors started choosing alternative technologies that were emerging at the time. Some competitors fell behind, while others appeared to have a small advantage. However, they were increasingly losing competitive bids for contracts. Some competitors were able to clinch contracts at prices and volumes that were just out of reach. By working hard, and staying close to their customers, they could make up for some of the disadvantages. They could justify their current path and decisions based on sunk costs and their reputation. They improved some processes and changed some arrangements, but were aware that other important priorities were not receiving attention. The status quo could be maintained for many years. Then suddenly, almost overnight, the performance gap was too big. The new technology was taken up by some local competitors, or one or two customers started insisting on the use of the new technology or higher performance standards. No amount of blood, sweat and tears could secure a deal. At this moment, they were disrupted. They had been left behind. They could not meet the criteria, the volumes or the market prices. It was not just a question of ordering a new production line, as the new technology required different systems, different suppliers, different volumes and different skills throughout their organisations. Key staff left. Funders no longer extended credit so easily. 

They were suddenly behind on all fronts. It started happening slowly, and then it happened suddenly. Their financiers, government officials and industry bodies all claimed they had been overtaken overnight. But this sudden disruption took many years. 

In hindsight, they could see where they had made the wrong decisions. Often it was not a big decision that caused them to fall behind, but rather the cumulative effect of many decisions building up over time.

In hindsight, they could see where they had made the wrong decisions. Often it was not a big decision that caused them to fall behind, but rather the cumulative effect of many decisions building up over time.

Some of these (disrupted) companies are still operating today, but they are now just a shadow of the successful companies that they once were. They still have some loyal customers who use their services, but they are no longer the leading suppliers or the default choice in their industries. One of these companies that I know well used to manufacture precision metal parts for the automotive sector to very high tolerances, and now they manufacture coarse grinding balls used to crush rock in the mining industry. Another company used to make trains, another used to make buses, and another used to design and build aircraft. They have all been disrupted over a period of more than ten years. It started happening slowly, and then it happened fast.

I also know of regions that have been disrupted. The town where I grew up also went through this (see my angry rant in a post about this town from some years ago).

Change in my home town also happened slowly. First, the biggest company in town moved some headquarters functions to a nearby city. They had problems attracting certain kinds of staff and supporting service providers to the small town where I lived. More functions followed a year or two later. Local government was not focused much on reversing this outflow of talent, investment and expertise. Next, certain equipment maintenance functions were moved elsewhere to consolidate operations in another city. Spouses and families moved in pursuit of jobs, and the local brain drain was gathering momentum. At some point, the existence of the local railway station and the small airfield could no longer be justified. Non-related industries such as agriculture suffered. As more and more functions moved from the town, more and more shops, restaurants and smaller companies closed down. It felt like the whole town had changed in just a few years. What started as a technological disruption in one sector quickly affected many others. 

In many of the examples that I have shared in this post, technological disruption started elsewhere through the technology choices of other organisations and companies. Without anybody noticing, the seeds of disruption had been sown. The effects would only be felt some years down the line, and then it was simply too late to start scrambling around to try and reverse what had happened.

Technological change Technological disruption Thinking out loud

Who is being disrupted, and by whom?

This is the third post in this short series on disruption. This post was updated on 15 September 2020.

In simple terms, technological disruption implies at least two actor groups: those that are being disrupted, and those that are doing the disruption. However, to assist societies, institutions, governments and businesses to be better able to adjust to, mitigate or even lead technological disruption this simple description is not useful.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler

Albert Einstein

Closer scrutiny of any technological disruption reveals many more actor groups that are both directly and indirectly involved in technological disruption. The more you dig, the messier the picture becomes. There are four groups that quickly spring to mind: you will probably be able to think of more if you focus on a technological disruption about which you have more detail.

  1. On the technology supply side, there are many concurrent contests where promoters and early adopters of new technologies are trying to gain a foothold in technology markets by achieving a viable scale. If an existing technology market is too firmly established (or protected), then an alternative technology market may emerge. Over time, this new technology market may disrupt the incumbent technology market, leading to further disruptions in many other related markets downstream. However, Clayton Christensen made us aware that in many cases incumbents are able to quickly learn from new disrupters, and they are often able to use their scale and operations to adapt quickly to their operations, and so beating the new challengers. It is only in rare instances that a new technology disrupter manages to unseat an incumbent, but there are many celebrated examples where this has happened.
  2. On the demand side, there are those who are disrupted when their suppliers, clients, employers or regulators select one technology over another. Markets and actors are disrupted by other markets and actors that they are dependent on. Users of technologies may have to master new skills to continue performing certain functions. To replace an older technology with newer technology may also involve investing in and mastering a whole range of other technologies. Occasionally an incumbent could even be disrupted by its own technology development. Remember the story of Kodak and the development of digital camera technology? Another more recent example is Apple’s iPad technology that disrupted its own computer technologies, but at least Apple has since adapted and even thrived. There are many examples out there with happy and sad endings.
  3. Occasionally, an incumbent could even be disrupted by its own technology development. Remember the story of Kodak and the development of digital camera technology? Another more recent example is Apple and the iPad technology that disrupted its own computer technologies, but at least they have since adapted and even thrived. There are many examples out there with happy and sad endings…
  4. Wherever markets are forming, changing and disappearing, a range of market-enabling and market-supporting institutions are affected. These institutions could be in either the public or the private sector, or in some hybrid form. An institution could be in the form of a combination of formal rules and informal norms as well as regulations, or it could be in the form of organisations. Whenever a new technology market emerges, it challenges the incumbent market and supporting institutional arrangements. Think of how the formal hospitality market is challenged by the emergence of homestay holidays and the ease with which a property owner can now rent out a property online. This has consequences for existing providers of hospitality, for regulators, for local authorities, other property owners affected by these transactions, and also for buyers of the new hospitality services. The implication is that the speed with which a country can create, adjust and adapt its market-supporting institutions will have a direct bearing on the pace and the effect of how disruptive the new technology may be, and how equal and fair the uptake of the new technology will be. It is very hard to add new market regulations and rules after technology has already become widely adopted.

When considering disruption, it is useful to think a bit further than the disrupted and the disruptor. We have to consider the networks that these two groups form part of, but we must also think of the social institutions and market-supporting organisations that enable these technology markets to exist in the first place.

Society bears the costs of late disruption

Attempting to mitigate the risks of any possible disruption may be a nuisance for many businesses that are just trying to cope. However, when many companies or whole industries do not adequately consider potential disruptions, the costs of disruption spread from the shareholders to the broader society. It is therefore important that policy makers, government departments, local governments, industry-representative organisations and labour representatives should also take into consideration technological change and the interdependence between different systems. 

In markets where competition is too low, or where the markets are dominated by just a few thought leaders, incumbents may be able to avoid being disrupted in the shorter to the medium-term through their defensive innovation strategies. However, in the longer term, these champions may become more vulnerable to technological disruption. This means that all the other systems are at risk whose success is highly dependent on the success of the leading firms.

It is a bit difficult for policy makers and industry bodies to imagine how disruption can be managed. It may even be necessary for countries and regions to intentionally disrupt their own industries and local social arrangements, as I heard they do in Singapore. I was told that the logic of purposefully introducing disruptions is that having more frequent small disruptions is better than losing big battles against global competitors already operating at scale.

The old Zollverein Coking Plant World Heritage Site in Germany is one of my favourite places to visit to witness how technological change can challenge a region. Click here to see more photos of industrial heritage in Germany

Over my 25 years of working experience, I have worked with disruptions in many different forms and contexts. To me, disruption is not an abstract term. Sometimes it is about being optimistic, trying to introduce a change. Other times it was about pain, trying to find a way out of a mess. I have worked with governments and industry bodies that were trying to find ways to resist disruption, or that were desperate to figure out how to catch up after being left behind. I supported innovative teams to use the logic of disruption to explore how they could break into or gain a foothold in an established market. I have experienced the desperation of stakeholders in regions where key industries have been disrupted, where those that have remained behind are struggling to reignite a depressed economy. I have also worked with technology extension programmes that were trying to introduce (disrupt) new technologies into existing markets. These experiences all exposed me to different practical challenges of disruption, being disrupted, disrupting others and trying to resist disruption. I am sharing these experiences because disruption is a very different experience based on who you are and what you are trying to achieve. 

Technological change Technological disruption Thinking out loud

Defining disruption

This is the second post in this short series on disruption. It was updated on the 15th of September 2020.

Disruption can be defined as the act or process of disrupting somethinga break or interruption in the normal course or continuation of some activity, process, etc.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Disruption means that somebody or something is interrupted by somebody or something else; plans may no longer be valid as priorities have changed. It means more than just being surprised that something is now possible, as being disrupted implies inconvenience.

When we think of global disruptions, periods of economic turmoil or political change typically come to mind. For instance, the effects of the global financial crisis are still echoing around the world. The effects of the technological disruption enabled by the increasing reach of the internet are still reverberating around the world. Think of how smartphones have challenged fixed-line communication technologies, and how internet connectivity is reaching into factories, schools, churches and households. 

There are other forms of disruptions, such as natural disruptions that are often felt more intensely at local or regional levels. Disruptions caused by politics is a reality in many regions and countries in the world, with the biggest disrupters being regional or global conflicts.

Supply chains can also be disrupted by regional and international events. For instance, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many supply chains were disrupted as ports closed, and as suppliers, routes, logistics centres and shops were closed.

Our local retailer ran out of stock during the Covid-19 lockdown due to a combination of panic buying and the disruption caused to supply chains. This disrupted our dinner plans and required us to completely re-think our frequency and way of shopping.

What makes any form of widespread disruption hard to plan for is how interconnected different systems are. A disruption caused by political turmoil may quickly lead to economic and technological disruptions, or a disruption caused by nature may lead to political, economic and technological disruption. We often do not know how the systems we rely on in turn depend on other systems.

From a resilience perspective, this interconnectedness is called “coupling”. In highly coupled systems a small disruption in one area could lead to a domino effect elsewhere. In loosely coupled systems, failure or disruption in one area could be contained or isolated in that area. With the increasing convergence of technologies, the interdependencies between systems are increasing. Just think of how many systems would be disrupted if a country’s internet connectivity were to fail. 

Every leadership team should be aware of the potential disruptions that may affect their operations, their networks and their plans. These disruptions may originate externally to the organisation, or they may originate within the organisation. Being more aware of potentially vulnerable points in the organisation and the broader context can help to rapidly reallocate resources and reconfigure arrangements when something unexpected happens. I find it interesting that some domains use “surprise” disruptions to build something akin to muscle memory for their organisations. Think of emergency response teams such as medics or firefighters using scenarios to challenge their assumptions and to reveal dependencies. 

Thinking out loud

A big shout out to Harold Jarche

A few years ago, I completed the Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) programme by Harold Jarche. I was then struck by how well thought through his training programme was. I could immediately use many of these ideas to improve how I develop, nurture and organise my knowledge on a daily basis.

One key idea that Harold promotes is the idea of sharing emerging thoughts and ideas, even if they are half-baked. He calls this “living in perpetual beta”. He predicts that our future will require much more of this mode of knowledge creation. For several years, I followed his advice to live in perpetual beta here on this blog site and elsewhere. However, somewhere along the line, I stopped sharing my half-baked ideas and concepts. It felt to me as if I should rather write about ideas that I am fully convinced about and concepts that I have thought through.

As many of my readers noticed and commented, I blogged less. When I blogged, the ideas were already further developed, language edited and almost final. Some complained that my posts were too long. I forgot about living out loud. I became afraid of making a mistake in public, of sharing a half-baked idea that was dumb! Of making silly grammar mistakes in my excitement to capture and share an idea. I was afraid of writing in my own voice!

It was not as if I have been short of ideas during the last 6 months. I have been living in perpetual beta behind the scenes. I have been pondering how societies and communities can make more decisions in decentralised ways. This was emphasized to me in the way the South Africa government handled the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The whole lockdown in South Africa was managed in a very directed top-down manner. Dialogue, feedback or critique was (and is) simply avoided or suppressed. There is almost no focus on building credibility, trust or information flows. Even though I believe decisive action was needed to avert an even bigger crisis, I am disappointed that building trust and resilience never became a priority. Along these lines, I have been brooding on ideas about how to get institutions (like local governments, or small enterprise support organisations) to be more sensitive to the challenges their constituencies are facing today and in the near future. It feels as if distributed knowledge, decentralised decision making, and being more sensitive to weak signals and emerging trends were all connected in a very messy way, and those local institutions that are close to communities must play a central role. Thinking about how we can get institutions and organisations to adapt, make transparent decisions and think about the future filled my days and my restless dreams. Yet, I have little to show except lots of loose ideas. I started to worry that I would lose some snippets of knowledge along the way.

I wrote to Harold to ask for some advice, and he replied by promptly enrolling me to take his course again. For free! (The option to re-enrol is a standing offer to his alumni that I had completely forgotten about). I was sort of hoping he could give me a one-sentence solution, or a link to an app….

The idea of another on-line course during lockdown was daunting. Even though I am used to working from my home office, I have been feeling frustrated by my output and productivity during this lockdown. To my relief, others could better describe how I felt, as novelist Amy Sackville so brilliantly put it here in the Guardian. It felt like I had holes in my thinking, and also in my calendar.

As a result, I approached the course with some apprehension. At first, I rushed through the course. I skipped some of the exercises. Every now and then I would pause at an idea or an insight that I realised had already become part of how I develop new ideas and concepts. I was searching for a simple solution and hoping it would be described in the next lesson.

After rushing through the course, I realised that there were also some key ideas that I had not adopted that could enhance how I work. Some topics required more thought and changes in my habits. For instance, the course contains great concepts on curating information flows and sensing weak signals. I could immediately use these frameworks in my current research.

After a few days of simmering in the back of my mind, I decided that I had to give the course more attention. I went back through the material a second time, this time paying more attention to the ideas that I could adopt to improve my practices. I followed the many links to other sources and authors and managed to only get a little distracted along the way. I immediately made changes to some of my folder structures, how I recorded notes, and how I organised my snippets of ideas.

In addition, I decided to take Harold up on the invitation to his learners for a 30-minute coaching call. Our scheduled 30-minute call turned into almost 2,5 hours of reflection and coaching. Not only did Harold provide me with some useful pointers on personal knowledge management, but he also shared his experience on time management. He listened to the research I am busy with, and connected me to the work of Marshall McLuhan and some others. Thankfully our call was on a Friday afternoon, so I did not have to rush into something else afterwards.

After pondering our conversation for a few days, I decided that my first blog post in five months should be to publicly thank Harold Jarche for sharing his thinking so persistently. I really hope that some of my friends and clients would also take his course. I do not get a commission if anybody signs up. I think that Harold’s ideas are fundamental to what we are trying to get right in economic development and in building more knowledge-intensive economies, and therefore I want more people to know about Harold’s resources.

The answer to my concern that I feel incoherent and overwhelmed with these many loose ideas is to simply share them with my friends and my readers and to allow others to contribute to the refinement of these ideas. Instead of hoarding ideas and snippets and then writing it up when I confident about their coherence, I must be courageous and put my ideas out there. I will better curate the ideas I find interesting.

My intent with this blog is to help the people I care about to make better decisions or to make better sense of their options and potential strategies. I feel better equipped now to share frameworks and material that can achieve this aim.

Harold, you have set a high standard with how you develop, write and share your thoughts. You are a master curator. I will follow your blog more diligently going forward. There is still much for me to learn, and many new habits for me to cultivate to improve my perpetual beta and personal knowledge management.

I guess there are many people that using your ideas without giving you due credit. Despite this selfish behaviour by some, you still continue to develop, refine and share your material. I thank you and I want you to know that your ideas and concepts are valued and are helpful to many.

Thank you for being a role model worth following!

PS. My mid-August resolution is to live in perpetual beta mode. I will share my half-baked ideas more frequently. Watch this space.