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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?