Organizational Redefinition and the Pocket Calculator

Read this post in: French

History, we know, is apt to repeat itself, and to foist very old incidents upon us with only a slight change of costume.

George Eliot

New technology is often disruptive, and social technologies make no exception. Today, quite everyone agrees on the necessity to focus on cultural change to help embracing the new behaviors they enable, and there is quite a consensus on the levers which might make the shift happen. Pilots, either as small scale projects or as fox-in-the-henhouse tools, are common practice, and integration into the flow of work is this year’s new black. Those are, in no doubt, pragmatic catalysts for change. But… are we really focusing on the RIGHT change?

And the pocket calculator hit the school system

Pocket calculators were banned from examinations for a long time after being allowed in the classroom. Then, gradually, they made their first official appearance as digital replacement for arithmetical and other mathematical tables. In accordance to Moore’s law, the power of calculators grew rapidly, and the school system began to foresee much larger applications for these devices.

In France, an official document officialized the use of any type of pocket calculator -even programmable ones- in 1986. Furthermore, their use was largely encouraged during mathematical classes. But the interesting part isn’t the fact that teachers recognized the benefits of the technology and further promoted them (‘adoption’ and ‘empowerment’ might sound familiar to you), it is what these benefits were intended to be. A new version of the document, still applicable today, was published in 1999, explicitly setting the purpose of calculators’ use. Translating from French:

Mastering the use of calculators use represents an important goal in every student’s training, as it constitutes an effective tool to be used in their education and during their professional, economic and social life. For these reasons, their use is planned in many teaching programs and should be widely accepted during examinations and competitive exams.

In other words, calculators’ mastery is now required because of the way they allow faster and more sophisticated calculation, and are a good introduction to man-to-machine language. Wow… Where we could free students from tedious tasks to focus on higher level concepts, leading to a different mathematical culture, what we got is mathematics-as-usual on steroids, and a focus on technology.

Redefining organizations

For more than a century, our economies has been based on a paradigm where profit derived from production of goods and accumulation of assets, and where offer-and-demand markets where the only measure of customers’ satisfaction. Today’s globalization has displaced production toward less costly countries, and it won’t be long before intellectual production follows manufacturing of goods. What can be replicated, it can be outsourced. Markets reveal the internal complexity of interactions between capital, capabilities and irrational considerations. Uncertainty has replaced growth, and there is a growing and unsustainable chasm between the civil society and big corporations pursuing their own goals.

In this context, unleashing the power of horizontal networking inside and across organizations represents a promising answer to some of the toughest challenges our companies, and, beyond them, our society, are facing today. Businesses must repurpose themselves, and adapting to these challenges means acknowledging that work, as a set of activities, is changing nature, and that organizations must redefine themselves.

This shift is already happening on the public web: Clay Shirky, and others, have shown how social technologies foster resilience and creativity, and allow the connective tissue of our societies to take back their central role in human life. Alas, on enterprise side, what we are seeing is mostly the use of these technologies to enforce work as usual, the change we are calling for is too often a desperate chase to more productivity and efficiency. As history tends to repeat itself, social technologies are the new pocket calculator.

Sandboxes, not pilots

What is the purpose of an Enterprise 2.0 pilot project? The no thrill answer is obvious: they are set up to facilitate the diffusion of Enterprise 2.0 practices into the organizational culture, and to demonstrate business value. They allow, often through trial-and-error iterations, to blend the impact of social technologies into the operational structure of a company. They are not meant to help redefining the nature of work by fostering new behaviors, they are instead meant to leverage these behaviors to enhance the way work is presently done. The numerous experts talking about implementing social technologies “in the flow” don’t say anything different.

Social technologies DO HAVE business value, indeed, and that value is far more important than the transitory productivity gains that many tend to highlight. Most of the problems businesses tackle today are way too complex to be addressed the way companies are run today. Networked communities are better armed to deal with wicked problems than any leader, no matter how insightful or visionary he could be. In that sense, Steve Job’s resignation from Apple is highly symbolic: it somehow marks the end of an era, the one of lonesome visionary leaders.

Rather than thinking in terms of pilots, it is time to open sandboxes throughout organizations. Time to allow open, free-willing individuals to gather around real business problems, whether they are financial, strategic or organizational, and to let them probe and discuss how they could solve them. Here lies the real power of social technologies. Empowering employees is not about giving them more tools or putting higher performance expectations on them. It is about opening up what really matters, and giving them the power to influence the destiny of the company they are working in.

With big data comes big challenges

Integration is another social business buzzword on these days. Integration into work, integration into our systems’ architecture. This is, of course, a view suitable to a finite world, where most of business activities and outcomes can be stored into a system of record, and correspond to our process-based neo-industrial organizations. Here too, social technologies suffer from the pocket calculator syndrome. But companies can no longer ignore the outside world, and the necessity to take account of your customers in core business practices will radically change the nature of work and our reliance on today’s IT architectures.

We are only seeing the beginning of an era where data, and the way it flows freely in real time, relegate systems of records into the dark age. Social CRM is setting the basis for a future where interpreting and inferring patterns from customers’ interactions will become an important part of work. Handling and interpreting big data meaningfully will come with more uncertainty and complexity than today’s IT architecture can cope with, and will require changing most of today’s assumptions about how we deal with technology.

As an example, consider the evolution of weather forecasting. The more powerful the models are, the less precise they become. Among the characteristics of complex systems is that their evolution can only be predicted if the original set of conditions is known. The more parameters we introduce, the more precise we have to be in order to get coherent results.

A lesson from history

Pocket calculators, in France at least, changed the way mathematics are taught, but not in the right way, and didn’t change the essence what is taught in courses. Social technologies have a similar power to seed and sustain an inevitable change in work requirements and organizational redefinition. Let us just be sure that history won’t repeat itself.

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