Design, development and disruptive technologies

Disruptive Technologies: advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy, a report from the McKinsey Global Institute came out in May 2013. It's long, but fascinating. There's an executive summary if you can't find time for 170 or so pages.

Researchers considered over a hundred different technologies and came to the conclusion that, of these, twelve were likely to radically – perhaps completely – change organizational and working life. (The report has a lot of data to back up the points they make and a good reference list). However, rather than be dogmatic about their assertions they add the sensible reminder that 'By definition such an exercise is incomplete – technology and innovations always surprise'. They say that the technologies they reflect on 'are illustrative of emerging applications over the next decade or two and provide a good indication of the size and shape of the impact that these applications could have.'

The report should be read by every organizational design and development practitioner, not to mention business leaders and managers, for three reasons that I discuss below:

  • To develop or deepen insight into what is on the technology horizon
  • To assess the likely impact of the technologies on their organization.
  • To take planned action to develop their organizational capability to use the technologies effectively before it's too late
  • Keeping up with technology trends and planning/acting in relation to them should, in fact, be a continuous activity for OD & D practitioners but in my experience they do far too little of it. (See my blog piece on Business Savvy).

    • To develop or deepen insight into what is on the technology horizon
    • To assess the likely impact of the technologies on their organization.
    • To take planned action to develop their organizational capability to use the technologies effectively before it's too late

    Keeping up with technology trends and planning/acting in relation to them should, in fact, be a continuous activity for OD & D practitioners but in my experience they do far too little of it. (See my piece on Business Savvy)

    What is on the technology horizon?
    The twelve technologies that the Institute researchers think will have the most impact are:

    Mobile Internet: Increasingly inexpensive and capable mobile computing devices and internet connectivity.
    Automation of knowledge work: Intelligent software systems that perform knowledge work tasks involving unstructured commands and subtle judgments.
    Internet of Things: Networks of low-cost sensors and actuators for data collection, monitoring, decision making and process optimization.
    Cloud Technology: Use of computer hardware and software resources delivered over a network or the Internet, often as a service.
    Advanced Robotics: Increasingly capable robots with enhanced senses, dexterity, and intelligence used to automate tasks or augment humans.
    Autonomous and Near-Autonomous Vehicles: Vehicles that can navigate and operate with reduced or no human intervention.
    Next Generation Genomics: Fast, low-cost gene sequencing, advanced big-data analytics, and synthetic biology. ('Writing DNA')
    Energy Storage: Devices or systems that store energy for later use, including batteries
    3D Printing: Additive manufacturing techniques to create objects by printing layers of material based on digital models.
    Advanced Materials: Materials designed to have superior characteristics (e.g. strength, weight conductivity) or functionality.
    Advanced Oil and Natural Gas Recovery: Exploration and recovery techniques that make extraction of unconventional oil and gas economical.
    Renewable Energy: Generation of electricity from renewable sources with reduced harmful climate impact.

    One of the significant impacts of the technologies is that the nature of work will change and 'millions of people will require new skills'. (See a good NY Times article for a discussion on this.)

    Viewing work as one of four types helps clarify where the technology applications are having an impact. Most jobs have a mixture of the types and so in many jobs aspects of it are being replaced by technology whilst other aspects, for the moment, are staying the same. The four types of work are:

    • routine and repetitive work – for example on an assembly line
    • in person (face to face ) work – for example a doctor or a receptionist
    • knowledge and data work – for example a software code writer or an academic researcher
    • artisan work – for example a sculptor making piece

    But think how things have been changing in the last few years in each of these categories. Take routine and repetitive work: many industries are introducing robots. Taiwan's Foxconn Group is one company that between now and 2015 plans to introduce (even) more robots into its workforce: one million of them by 2015, up from 100,000 in 2010 and 300,000 in 2011. Here's the advanced robotics disruptive technology at play.

    How many hotel receptionists, traditionally in person work, have been replaced by self-service check in? The UK's Premier Inn, for example, has replaced its reception counter with self-service check in almost throughout the chain. This is an example of the internet of things coming into daily life.

    The world of knowledge work is leading to many new and different jobs being created. Apps developers, for example did not exist a few years ago. Now oganizations routinely employ them (and their skills are in relatively short supply at this point). They use cloud technology – another of the items on the disruptive technology list.

    3D printing is changing the face of artisan work. For example, fashion designers can produce one-off pairs of shoes, dresses, and accessories using the techniques. 3D printing is on the list the McKinsey report discusses.

    In all four types of work the impact of technology applications is driving massive organizationally design and development challenge and opportunity.

    What is the likely impact of the technologies on your organization?
    Think about your own organization. If you have been with it more than two years what evidence have you already seen that the technologies are making a difference to the way work is done? How many of the twelve disruptive technologies are present in some form in one or more of the types of work your organization has?

    Although details of the future of work are unclear it will without any doubt be very different from what it is now. Here's one example. Right now automobile manufacturers are testing driverless cars (the autonomous vehicles listed as one of the twelve disruptive technologies) with the prediction that they will be on public roads within 10 years. Now start to think through the implications driverless cars would have on your organization. If you employ drivers you may not need to do that. If you offer parking space you may not need as much (driverless cars are better at parking than humans!). If you operate on several sites you may save money by ferrying more people between sites in driverless cars, and so on.

    The writer of an Economist article talking about the impact of driverless cars on work adds to the list above noting that among other things:

    • That electronics and software firms will enjoy strong demand for in-car entertainment systems, since cars' occupants will no longer need to keep their eyes on the road.
    • Bus companies might run convoys of self-piloting coaches down the motorways, providing competition for intercity railways.
    • Taxi, lorry drivers and all others whose job is to steer a vehicle will have to find other work.
    • Driverless cars will be programmed to obey the law, which means no traffic cops or parking wardens
    • Driverless cars will not need driver insurance-—so goodbye to motor insurers and brokers.
    • Autonomous vehicles will mean few accidents and so much less work for emergency rooms and orthopedic wards.
    • Roads will need fewer signs, signals, guard rails and other features designed for the human driver; their makers will lose business too.

    Clearly, a driverless car scenario is only one among many that would have an impact on the jobs people currently do, the jobs that emerge to support the driverless car industry, people's work patterns, social interactions, and organizational policies and processes. Notice too that driverless cars would impact not just work associated with vehicles and travel but work in many other spheres. So a technology that might seem unconnected to an organization might, in fact, have a profound effect on it.

    How can you develop your organization's capability to use the technologies effectively?
    The role of organization design and development practitioners is to encourage organizational members to look ahead and see what is coming on the horizon. Often the business people are too focused on the day to day matters to think carefully and in good time to make necessary design and development changes to stay competitive:

    "When necessary, leaders must be prepared to disrupt their own businesses and make the investments to effect change," the McKinsey Global Institute's report's authors write. "By the time the technologies that we describe are exerting their influence on the economy in 2025, it will be too late for businesses, policy makers, and citizens to plan their responses. Nobody, especially businesses leaders, can afford to be the last person using video cassettes in a DVD world."

    An article from Accenture, Six Ways to Make Volatility your Friend suggests four organziational capabilities to design in and develop to manage the world exemplified by disruptive technologies. It's difficult to argue with their four: anticipating, sensing, responding, and adapting. The article expands on these and offers a 12-point checklist which is a good discussion starter.

    How is your organization meeting the challenge/opportunity of disruptive technologies? Let me know.