Designing and leading technology enabled organisations – a response

Last Monday (22 July) Nick Richmond, European Organisation Design Forum (EODF), UK Chair, published a blog on LinkedIn ‘Top 3 Organisation Design Leadership Insights’.  He then challenged me (among others) to share my top 3.

The challenge came about because the EODF’s conference theme this year (October 25 and 26) is ‘Designing and leading technology enabled organisations’.  Nick was asked by the conference Dean to share some of his thoughts on this theme – hence his blog plus his challenge to others.  He offered 3 insights:  invest for success, innovation is messy, keep your eye on your ‘why’.

Typically, I began by asking myself some questions:  What do we mean by technology enabled? Are there any organisations that are not technology enabled?  What’s special about designing technology enabled organisations (as opposed to non-technology enabled ones)?  What’s different/the same about leading them? What do we mean by leadership in technology enabled organisations?  And so on.

I got stuck instantly in trying to answer the questions – I couldn’t think of a single UK organisation that isn’t tech enabled in some way.  Technology is almost globally pervasive, ‘The  2018 Global Digital suite of reports from We Are Social and Hootsuite reveals that there are now more than 4 billion people around the world using the internet. Well over half of the world’s population is now online.’

I started again, generating a hypothesis: That technology enabled organisations bring new and unexplored territory – we have no idea how to either design or lead them (and it’s pointless attempting it through any of our current paradigms/frames of reference).

That pointed me in a direction (not true North), more likely north-north-west , and I retrieved the digital maturity model we used in one of my previous organisations, and which helped identify the technology enabled stage we were at and determine which stage we aspired to.

There are many of these types of digital maturity models e.g. Deloitte’s TM Forum’s (remarkably similar to Deloitte’s),  digital leadership  (with 5 levels),  Forrester’s Digital Maturity Model.  They serve to ‘evaluates how well user companies have incorporated digital into their operating models and how effective they are at executing on digital initiatives’.  (Let’s not get hung up on the semantic differences/similarities between ‘digital’ and ‘technology’)

Looking at these, when I think of ‘technology enabled’ in terms of my hypothesis, I am thinking beyond the maturity model ‘levels’.  I’m thinking technology enablement is more on the lines of stuff you read in sci-fi where we are forced to think, as Doug Johnstone, reviewing Ted Chiang’s sci fi book  Exhalation, says, ‘how technology can change the way we think about truth in deep, meaningful ways’.   (Try substituting ‘truth’, in this quote, for other words – ‘leadership’, ‘organisations’, ‘morals’, ‘ethics’, etc.)  and how ‘humans interact with technology’.

From this somewhat disjointed musing, my first insight is – we are woefully underprepared and under-reflecting on the speed and penetration of technology and what the implications of this means for designing and leading organisations.   Anyone in organisation design must keep up with a multitude of technology developments across multi-disciplines (and/or read sci-fi).

Designing technology enabled organisations looks easy if you decide to follow one of the maturity model methodologies.  Forrester’s four levels of digital maturity offers a 3-point ‘action plan’ for each level. You determine your current level by completing a survey.   If you find you are at level 1 and want to progress to level 2, you follow the 3-point ‘action plan’ which comprises:  1. Instil some digital DNA,  2. work outside-in, 3. hack yourself.  Hmm – I looked up an article on Business Bullshit by Andre Spicer and pondered over a submission to Lucy Kellaway’s corporate guff award.

Designing technology enabled organisations is not easy and neither are we in control of designing.  Global Information Infrastructure Commissioner and CEO, Karl Frederick Rauscher, is one of many voices warning of the developing technologies [that] ‘continue to be disruptive, creating new paradigms of economic growth, political liberty and citizen action’. Read his Scientific American piece.  He makes the point that: ‘Concerns regarding how powerful companies may choose to design new technologies are justified, given that their primary interest is to maximize profits for their shareholders. Many of them thrive on not-so-transparent business models that collect and then leverage data associated with users. Tomorrow’s big tech companies will leverage intelligence (via AI) and control (via robots) associated with the lives of their users. In such a world, third-party entities may know more about us than we know about ourselves. Decisions will be made on our behalf and increasingly without our awareness, and those decisions won’t necessarily be in our best interests.’  (See also, Jaron Lanier’s work).

My second insight is – we are attracted to easy looking methods/approaches and a feeling of being in control.   We are not in control and easy looking methodologies are not a good investment of resources.  Instead first broker organisation-wide discussions, encouraging critical thinking to explore the trade-offs you are willing to make, the risks you are incurring, the moral and ethical implications of your journey down a technology designed organisation – try and find out how the technology is designing the organisation and what this means. (Read a short article: Inside the black box: Is technology becoming too complicated?)

Earlier, I said that we had no idea how to design or lead technology enabled organisations.  A research article considers ‘five technologies are transforming the very foundations of global business and the organizations that drive it: cloud and mobile computing, big data and machine learning, sensors and intelligent manufacturing, advanced robotics and drones, and clean-energy technologies.’ The authors say, ‘these technologies are not just helping people to do things better and faster, but they are enabling profound changes in the ways that work is done in organizations. …  Savvy corporate leaders know they have to either figure out how these technologies will transform their businesses or face disruption by others who figure it out first.’

As we get more data driven organisational decisions who will lead on data interpretation and analysis, challenging the data, over-riding ‘the computer says’ to make human driven interventions, etc?   Take employee monitoring as an example: ‘A 2018 survey by Gartner found that 22% of organizations worldwide are using employee-movement data, 17% are monitoring work-computer-usage data, and 16% are using Microsoft Outlook- or calendar-usage data.’  What are the leadership decisions around encouraging employee monitoring, interpreting the results of monitoring, making ethical and moral decisions on its introduction and use …  If we are still thinking as leaders being those in a hierarchy with positional power, then are we confident they all have the skills, knowledge, and aptitudes to have informed discussions on technologies?

My third insight is – traditional positional power leadership is not going to work in technology enabled environments.  People who have informal as well as formal influence, are technology savvy, think critically, and are aware of, and thoughtful about, the social, moral, ethical dilemmas, and are aware of the possible technology enabled futures they are facing will likely lead organisations and they should be encouraged to do so.

What are your three insights around Designing and Leading Technology Enabled Organisations?  Let me + other EODF colleagues + anyone else interested know.

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