The measures applied to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic have certainly forced many organisations, teams and individuals to use digital technologies in new ways. However, I doubt whether the new ways of using technologies have transformed the way organisations work, or the way that work is organised. Let me explain.
The term “technology” is a combination of two Greek words, techne and logos. Techne means art, skill, craft or the way, manner or means by which a thing is gained. Logos means word, the utterance which expresses inward thought.
This means that technology is the expression of how we do things. It is the way in which we achieve certain outcomes. We are constantly using many different technologies without giving the process much thought. Language is a technology, the software I am using to type this blog is a technology, and my smartphone is also a technology. These and many other technologies that I use on a daily basis are in many ways interconnected. The coffee machine is one of my favourite technologies. Technologies are not just about physical objects, software and systems. Behaviour, routines and recipes are also technologies. For instance, the way in which a meeting is chaired is a social technology, which in turn is enabled by many other physical and social technologies. The organisations we work in are social technologies, and even the communities we live in are nested structures of physical and social technologies. The technologies that we use and depend on often incorporate many features of our environment.
When we substitute an existing technology with another new technology, we not only replace the “what”, but the new technology also typically allows us to change the “how” and perhaps even the “why” of what we are trying to achieve. For instance, when we replace a physical meeting with a digital meeting application, the digital technology allows us to change the how, the why and the way of conducting the meeting. If we only substitute one part of the “old” technology, we are not fully embracing the capabilities of the new technology. This means that we have not transformed the how or the why, we have merely replaced the what. If we only replace the what of the technology, there could be an incremental improvement in our efficiency or costs, but we are still limited by the capabilities and functionalities of the older technology.
I have been thinking about the different levels of taking up the capabilities that new technologies offer us. Here is my first attempt at describing it.
The simplest way of adapting a new technology is to use it for the features that replicate the features we are already familiar with from the old technology. It is basically a substitution. If you use only the functions that you associate with the old technology, you are still largely constrained by the limitations of the previous technology.
Adoption means that you have to change how you use the new technology, such as by making changes in other related technologies. Perhaps some functions of the newer technology are much easier now, and may perhaps even make certain procedures and processes redundant. Adoption implies that you have to change some arrangements and behaviours, and some of the logic of how you use the technology.
When you adapt a new technology, you may even have to tweak the new technology itself to fit into your context or to work with the other technologies you have chosen. To adapt a technology requires some level of mastery, either of the technology itself or of the other supplementary technologies that you are using. Geeks often overcome the limitations of a new technology by combining it with other (incomplete) solutions.
The highest form of leveraging new technology is to integrate the new technology into how you do things, and then re-organise and adjust the technologies around the new capabilities. There are two simultaneous movements here. You adapt the technology and at the same time you reorganise, or remodel, your process and organisations around this new capability. As you remodel why, how and what you are doing around this new capability, you are able to adjust, tweak, modify or even discontinue other technologies. In real life this often happens in an iterative process of mastering a new technology. As you discover new possibilities to improve the arrangements, you reorganise yourself around newly recognised capabilities to take advantage of them. This is when we leverage the functionality of new technologies, and in many cases the newer technologies could even make some complementary older technologies work better.
Then there is the concept of exaptation, which is like co-opting something for a purpose for which it was never intended, like off-label use of a medication. An example of exaptation is where equipment developed to scan for fine cracks in aircraft wings has been modified and re-engineered for scanning for tumours.
One of my favourite quotes by Bill Gates is:
The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.Bill Gates
I think Mr Gates will forgive me for substituting the word “automation” with “digital”. Digital technologies will amplify poorly designed, undermanaged and inadequately thought-through processes. These technologies will reveal our inability to think through, consider and respond to the capabilities offered by newer technologies and the remodelling that they require. That is why it is not so easy to take a process that works in the physical world and just replicate it online. Amazon is far more than a bookstore with a webpage. If you want to use the new capabilities offered by the network of digital technologies to their fullest extent, you have to re-think your complete business, your relations with suppliers, clients, banks and more.
To really harness newer digital technologies demands that we reconsider and think through the underlying and complementary processes, systems and arrangements. These are all enabling technologies. But we must also think of the constraints, side-effects and downsides of the existing technologies we are replacing. Key questions to ask are:
- Can we break with some of the dependencies that we no longer need?
- By overcoming some of the constraints of our legacy arrangements and capabilities, where can we innovate in the how, the why and the what we do?
- How can we manage some of the new limitations or challenges of using a newer technology? How do we overcome the hesitation of users to change how they engage with us?
- Which inherited arrangements, legacies, rules, habits and routines no longer serve us to reach out goals?
- What does fully using the new capabilities demand from us in terms of product, process, system and business model innovation and change?
It is not always necessary to think through all the implications of adopting and harnessing a new technology beforehand. We usually select a new technology based on explicit features that we believe are beneficial to or more effective than current technologies. We often discover new capabilities as we use a new technology. The Covid-19 pandemic has made this decision for many of us. At other times, shifts by clients, competitors or government regulations force us to confront new technologies. As we learn how to use a new technology, we discover potential adaptations, tweaks and new arrangements. The problem is that this can sometimes take a very long time. In order not to fall behind, or be seen as incompetent or ignorant, we have to purposefully explore these new capabilities if we wish to be faster than our competitors and increasingly, our digitally conversant clients, suppliers, competitors, regulators and, dare I say, children?
In conclusion, if you have merely replaced a physical meeting with a digital meeting, or a physical document with a digital document, you have not yet transformed. You have just substituted one way of doing things for another, and you will most likely revert to the old way when conditions allow. If you have simply substituted one way for the other, you will still be held back by the constraints of the older technology.
When you harness the capabilities that come with adopted new technologies and then change the “what” and even the “why” of how you are doing things, then you have transformed. In most cases this requires us to let go of some of our ways of organising ourselves around earlier capabilities.