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If you want to enact change, you’ve got to understand technology

December 6, 2012

Whatever area of consulting you’re in; if you want to be effective in organisational change then an understanding of how technology impacts our daily lives and shapes the way that we move through the world is essential.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Initially puzzling, this question is actually rather easy to answer as it offers a false dichotomy; the egg obviously came first because eggs predate chickens (chickens evolved from egg-laying reptiles and a protochicken must have laid the first chicken egg*).
*A more interesting question then, would be: when did the protochicken become a chicken? But I digress…

Much harder to explain – and much more pressing if you’re looking to enact change – is the issue of whether society shapes technology or whether it is in fact the other way around. Do people merely build and use machines and tools or are they somehow shaped by them as well?

If that sounds like a grand question, consider the parallels that are so often drawn between the workings of the world and the workings of technology: ‘the brain as a computer,’ or, perhaps pre-Darwin, ‘the universe as like a mechanical clock built by a Divine Watchmaker.’ If our mental models for making sense of the world are rooted in manmade technological artefacts, then clearly the impact of technology on humankind is profound. And at this point I wish to reassure the reader that this isn’t an article about IT Services or (heaven forbid!) Intelligent Design. No, I am instead talking about the consultant’s bread and butter: organisational change.

Image: Chicken or Egg?

Chicken or Egg? via Photobucket, Goodstuff1852

If you’re reading this online then the technology involved is relatively easy to identify as The Internet, but supposing you were reading it from a manuscript, then you should consider that the pen (or even feather quill) and paper are also still examples of technologies.

Technology is anything which makes our lives easier. It is the great enabler. It makes us superhuman, allowing us to fly, breathe under water, repel bullets, manipulate the weather or go to the moon (if that is what we wish to do). Just as the internet, by enabling the instantaneous sharing of information, has proven one of the most significant technological developments of all time, the printing press and even the pen and paper or stylus and beeswax combo of yore were arguably every bit as influential to the society of their times.

Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – i.e. that it is astonishing and little understood. However, once an innovation becomes widely adopted a curious thing happens. Whilst it is no longer considered to be advanced and so generally fails to amaze, it does not necessarily become any better understood. The somewhat ironic result being that, as the populace as a whole – consumers, users, employees – have become more (hi-)tech savvy, the general level of understanding around technology has actually decreased (in relative terms). We build evermore encompassing metaphorical black boxes within which the magic happens. Few people could fail to understand how a type-writer functions, but even fewer would even attempt to work out the intricacies behind wireless/networked printing.


So why is this important if you want to make or manage change?

Well, because the pace of technological development is now just so blisteringly fast – witness The Tablet, 3D Printing, Cloud Computing, Crowdfunding** etc – and if we want to do more by using technology (not always a choice) then we must accept its ability to determine or compel certain actions, regardless of our depth of understanding as to how it works. As our use of technology is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, its impact on people is greater than ever before, whether we understand it or not.
**incidentally, those last two are not technologies, but technology-enabled business models!

Image: Evolution: Humans and Technology

Evolution: Humans and Technology via evolution-man-computer

The French anthropologist Bruno Latour, who expertly illustrates his argument by explaining the sociology of a door-closer, proposes that technological artefacts (nonhumans) are inherently anthropomorphic in that they are shaped by, and give shape to humans, because:

  1. They are made by humans
  2. They substitute the actions of humans (as humans delegate to them)
  3. They shape human action through prescribing human behaviours (resulting from prejudices inscribed in their design)


So, whilst it is true that humans must first build a technology, it is equally true that that same technology, once built, will continue to impact those who use it in the future. Even technologies that are so commonplace that we don’t even think about them can shape the decisions we make, the effects our actions have, and the way we move through the world. Technologies play such an important role in mediating human relationships, Latour argues, that we cannot understand how societies work without an understanding of how technologies shape our everyday lives.

Our near-universal use of the QWERTY keyboard, for example, a hangover from the mid-19th century standardisation of key positioning for the type-writer, impacts on the speed, creativity and overall course of the language that we use. It was not designed with ergonomics or efficiency in mind – the most pressing need was to prevent the mechanical typebars clashing – and there have even been suggestions that its inventor intentionally configured the letters to slow the user down. It is, according to Stephen Fry, “a deliberate spanner in the works of language, metaphorically and technologically,” and a good example of how technology influences and lends shape to the way in which we communicate and express our thoughts (as well as to our health whilst we do so). And if you don’t type – or read – then think instead of how different your life would be without the light bulb.

Google is changing the way our brains work, and the current generation of toddlers have already been dubbed, ‘digital natives,’ as they will be the first exposed to our all day, every day use of the World Wide Web from the moment they are born. They will know nothing of being stumped by trivia or of having to calculate and remember their location on a map as all the information they need is instantly accessible any time, any place and anywhere. To them, a magazine is just a broken iPad (or other tablet-like device of your preference) because, “Steve Jobs has coded a part of their OS.”

Image: Invisible Cats

Invisible Cats via KnowYourMeme

I was in a discussion with a client recently as part of a workshop to define their strategic vision for ICT. At the end of the (long) session, it was sort of decided that, if the IT function was running BAU effectively in future, then it should be invisible; seamless; taken for granted.

For the beneficiaries of techno-organisational change, this should certainly be so, but for those of us who want to initiate and drive that change, it must be anything but.

The most difficult part of any change programme invariably lies in people and culture. But, if you are a Management Consultant – or indeed any professional in the business of changing business – then you need to understand technology as an intrinsic part of that people and culture, and that just as an erroneous focus on kit (instrumental rationality) won’t fix business problems, treating ICT as a standalone and separate realm is likely to contribute to a rise in the prevalence of unintended consequences and therefore the potential for disaster.

Any business change is techno-organisational. Whilst I’m not suggesting that you need to go out and learn C++, open a Data Centre or start flogging cloud services, taking a holistic view of the world as an interconnected whole, in which altering one component – be that people, process or technology – is likely to have a fundamental and potentially unpredictable impact on another, might just help reduce that frequency of serious and negative unintended consequences.

Whether you are into strategy, finance, HR or marketing, whatever, if you deal with change then you should make sure that you can open the black box and understand and truly value technology.


FYI – You’ve just been exposed to a small aspect of Information Systems thinking. If you enjoyed it, read more about:

  1. Social Constructivism vs Technological Determinism
  2. The Structurational Model of Technology
  3. Black Boxing and Technological Frames
  4. Actor Network Theory

From → All Posts

  1. Completely agree. Doug Neal, @ the LEF, has been talking about “double deep workers” for years, and it’s this that he means by it. Of the insights in this piece, the one I’d like to pull out and emphasize is the notion that “you need to understand technology as an intrinsic part of that people and culture, and that just as an erroneous focus on kit (instrumental rationality) won’t fix business problems, treating ICT as a standalone and separate realm is likely to contribute to a rise in the prevalence of unintended consequences and therefore the potential for disaster.”

    I find parochialism and outright thought bigotry on both sides of the divide you illustrate here, and I am as obsessed with attacking it in propeller heads (whom I like to demean and embarrass by asking questions about NPV or opportunity cost) as I am with attacking it in MCs (aspiring and otherwise). The thing that amuses me about the latter group is their ability to selectively mask concepts — it’s fine to be contemptuous of “tin”, these folk often think (in some McKinsey-esque circles, even required). So when I point out that something like an “enterprise” (aka “company”, “firm” or “commercial entity”) is a *technology* (and oh, yes. it is — go read Coase’s “Theory of the Firm”), the resulting “who just farted?” facial expressions can suffice to make my day.

    I liked the nod to systems theory at the end, but cannot refrain, now, from remarking that it, too, is a technology. Indeed, once you begin pulling on this ball of yarn, it quickly becomes clear that _everything_ is, right back to the very first technology of all: language. Thus, it can quickly become maddening to try to reason about all of the complex interactions, in the manner that you seem to suggest. But, in my experience, very successful people are particularly good at just this trick: intuitively being able to judge the break-even point, in a kind of cost-benefit analysis, of this kind of analysis. They know how to do just enough to gain competitive advantage, and when to stop (and avoid paralysis).

  2. And as if more evidence of how important the concept underlying this post really is, cf.

  3. Young consultants permalink


    Thanks for getting involved, Its amazing how often the underlying idea or “technology” is ignored and just outcome considered with no thought for its limitations.

    You can go with a new(ish) example like “Cloud” or “Big data” which which suffer from security issues and integrity issues respectively all the way to an older example like fire which doesn’t really work in the rain.

    A friend of mine introduced the concept of a “black box” basically the idea that we all sometimes accept outcomes without really knowing the process, an example: For most people they know when they put their foot on the accelerator a car goes faster. Some know about internal combustion, some know about the getting power to the wheels through a gearbox, Some know about how the altitude and resulting air density will affect the performance of the car. Obviously the black box is getting smaller and smaller in the example. We all have our black boxes and they can be useful. It does however seem that all too often we have no desire to fill them in and don’t really have an understanding of anything. We don’t understand the technology

    Maybe we should all be systems engineers and the world would be a better place…….

    • Peer permalink

      I certainly wouldn’t want the world to be dominated by engineers! For me, the notion conjures up dystopian visions in which an odd mix of utilitarianism and gold-plating prevail at the expense of aesthetics – resulting in buildings but no architecture, everything in UNIX etc etc. I guess I’m erring on the MC side of the divide, but surely pluralism is best?

      Less dramatically, I wonder what the implications of the unknown (unknown, for most people — to quote Rumsfeld impact of technology on us is for the broader industry? Do we advise on/provide technology based upon what our clients need, or do they shape their requirements around the technology available? How do you sell to someone who is shaping what you sell? And, ignoring technology for a moment, does the consulting industry have a duty to shape the marketplace rather than be shaped by it?

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