Tech, humans and organisation design

Tomorrow there’s an Organisation Design Forum (ODF) discussion on Organisation Design Trends and Implications.  Panel members – I am one – have been asked to consider the question ‘What’s the big deal about technology and organisation design?’ together with four related questions:

  • Does technology impact the theory and practice of org design, and if so in what way?
  • What are the implications for the designer?
  • Can optimally functioning organisations be designed by AI?
  • Tech has the possibility to augment human capabilities and also replace human capabilities via robotics and AI.  How might organization designers impact this evolutionary process in a positive way…versus being limited to the clean-up activities as organizations shrink and/or people are displaced?

I can’t answer any of these questions off the top of my head so, knowing they were coming – but only about a week ago – I’ve been seeing if I can form a point of view by reading on the topic.  The difficulty is – where to start?  Tech and humans are the stuff of endless consulting company papers.  Look, for example at Deloitte’s,  Intelligent interfaces: Reimagining the way humans, machines, and data interact  where we learn that ‘Thermal imaging technologies can detect changes in shoppers’ heart rates. A variety of wearables ranging from today’s smartwatches to tomorrow’s augmented-reality goggles capture a wearer’s biofeedback. Smartphone data captured in real time can alert retailers that customers are checking online to compare prices for a specific product, suggesting dissatisfaction with store pricing, product selection, or layout.’

Accenture leaders Paul R. Daugherty and H. James Wilson, authors of Human + Machine, ‘show that the essence of the AI paradigm shift is the transformation of all business processes within an organization–whether related to breakthrough innovation, everyday customer service, or personal productivity habits. As humans and smart machines collaborate ever more closely, work processes become more fluid and adaptive, enabling companies to change them on the fly–or to completely reimagine them. AI is changing all the rules of how companies operate.’

What’s striking about the language of Deloitte and Accenture is the impersonality of it.  Where is the human experience, emotion and feeling that is integral to tech deployment in organisations?  How will humans feel when their work processes are changed ‘on the fly’?   The human/machine interface is the critical element in answering the ODF questions.  But humans, with all our complex emotions and responses, don’t show up in a rich, human way in articles and white papers on digital and tech transformation.  They are secondary to the work processes and the tech.

Making an assumption that humans will continue to be part of organisational functioning, I’m wondering how we can elevate their status in discussions, so that designers are not concentrating only on the tech systems, structures and processes but also on the humans and their feelings.

What’s captured my interest are people who look at the human/machine interface both curiously and critically from perspectives that I am unfamiliar with.  From the handful of material that caught my attention comes a common thread – that we will be dangerously exposed if we focus on the machine over the human.

There’s a book Robots and Art: Exploring an Unlikely Symbiosis, that is a collection of chapters by various people.   Amy M Youngs’ chapter ‘Embracing Interdependencies: Machines, Humans and Non-humans‘ opens with the abstract:

‘As a creator of interactive, constructed ecosystems, I discuss my artistic practice as a way to experience self as interdependent and to re-engineer relationships between humans and other species. Technologically enhanced mirroring, participation, re-programmed elements and designing for non-humans are examined as techniques that entangle the audience within the fabricated systems. Re-configuring the human participant as one element enmeshed within a system that equally includes technology, industry, waste streams and other living things, I work towards new models of collaboration and shared world building.’ It’s powerful in its statement that ‘technology is no longer thought of as a rational, controllable element. … We are in it, not necessarily in control of it.’

This point is taken further by Jamie Susskind in his book Future Politics where he says ‘Relentless advances in science and technology are set to transform the way we live together … We are not yet ready – intellectually, philosophically, or morally – for the world we are creating.’

In the hard to read, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ Donna Haraway explores the relationship between tech and humans, saying ‘By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism – in short, cyborgs.’  I found an interview with her which was easier to grasp than the manifesto. The interviewer says ‘If we’re going to build a humane techno-culture, instead of a Kafkaesque nightmare, we would do well to listen to what she [Haraway] has to say.’  And what she says is:  ‘Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us. We’re living in a world of connections – and it matters which ones get made and unmade.”

Then I came across the piece ‘Hunting for life in the machine’ the by-line reads ‘Get it wrong and living with smart machines will be hell’.  The piece looks at the work of designer Yamanaka Shunji whose ‘projects include beautiful prosthetics and life-like robots that re-examine the relationship between humans and machines.’  (See image above).

Beyond the warnings we organisation designers can learn more about the tech/human interface from designers in other fields.  Designer and weaver, Anni Albers talking in 1937 says ‘Life today is very bewildering.  We have no picture of it which is all-inclusive. … We have to make a choice between concepts of great diversity.  And as a common ground is wanting, we are baffled by them. … For we are overgrown with information, decorative maybe, but useless in any constructive sense.  We have developed our receptivity and have neglected our own formative impulse.’  Albers commentaries on her  lifetime of weaving materials that  bridged the technology/human interface hold insights for organisation designers that are as applicable now as they were then.

Taking weaving into a different sphere,  Weave: the Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute ‘is building connection where there was no connection, creating relationships where there were no relationships, weaving thick neighborhoods where there were thin neighborhoods.’  It is a version of Facebook but without the mediation of technology and with greater human benefit.  (A research project designed to test what happened when people turned off their Facebook accounts for a month found that ‘Leaving Facebook boosted self-reported happiness and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety).

I read Singapore’s Digital Government Blueprint.  In the centre of it is the strapline Digital to the Core + Serve with Heart.  I liked that apparent intention.  But I wonder – is it feasible to design organisations that combine a tech-human exchange that is intellectually, philosophically, and morally thought through – digital + heart?  Let me know.

Image: Ready to Crawl,  Yamanaka Shunji

Business and digital transformation

There’s something in the power of three that is a call for action.  In this case to do something about three questions I got more or less together on ‘transformation’ Well, not quite together.  The first one I got almost a month ago and did nothing about, but yesterday two more arrived thus invoking the power of three.

The first one was: ‘Do you have any good links to Business Transformation Programmes reading or anything you’re doing that would serve as an intro.  I think it will be recommended that we buy in some consultancy but my instinct is we can probably do it ourselves with selected support?’

Yesterday, I got: ‘What’s the difference between digital transformation and business transformation?’

Also, yesterday (from a completely different source) came: ‘We are currently doing a strategy/org design project for the IT function of a pharma company. We are not finding relevant/compelling org design/operating models to help them move to the next level as the company takes baby steps towards digital transformation. Any suggestions or sources for such information?’

Before launching into a response, I looked to see if I’ve written about transformation before.  Yes, five times – the first time was in 2010:

I scanned what I’d written to see if I still agreed with my past self or not, and what links and info I could glean from those blogs on the three questions.  In re-reading these I felt as if between 2010 and now the ‘transformation’ field has risen to bandwagon status but may almost be at its peak. I’ve just seen the first article (probably of many) explaining ‘Why so many digital high-profile digital transformations fail‘.

In one way it seemed redundant to write another blog on the topic but I’ve found that there’s always a learning or development of ideas in the thinking/writing process and in a way, I can hardly avoid transformation.

I’m writing this in Dubai.  It’s an immersive transformation experience.  Every time I come I see the city transforming.  The latest new thing is the Dubai Frame – an edifice/experience showing a glossy version of the past, present and future of this transformation  from desert village to global player in 50 years.  A quick look at the Smart Dubai website or skim of the World Economic Forum article, ‘How digital technology is transforming Dubai’ gives a feel for the scale of the transformation ambition.

In this city of transformation, I’m wondering whether there’s any agreed organizational definition of ‘transformation’.  What do people mean by the term – what is the common ground on its usage?  Scott Anthony, in an HBR article, has a good stab at answering this.  He describes transformation as:

  • operational – doing what you are currently doing, better, faster, or cheaper
  • core – doing what you are currently doing in a fundamentally different way
  • strategic – ‘This is transformation with a capital “T” because it involves changing the very essence of a company. Liquid to gas, lead to gold’

As he points out ‘Defining what leaders mean when they drop the word transformation matters, because these different classes of efforts need to be measured and managed in vastly different ways.’

For my first questioner – the one who asked for an intro to business transformation a good intro step would be to have the discussion on what leaders mean by the word.  Once they’ve agreed, then some choices can be made on whether to proceed with support from external consultants or on a DIY basis (or mix of both).

The second question was ‘what’s the difference between digital transformation and business transformation?’  Jaret Chiles comes up with a suggestion that met with approval from the group I’m working with this week. He suggests that:

  • Business transformation encompasses the cultural shift and business processes driven by changing market demands; i.e., the company’s culture of change and business drivers.
  • Digital transformation encompasses the tools and processes implemented to support business transformation; i.e., applications.

Confusingly though, some organisation’s use put ‘digital’ and ‘business’ together to form the phrase ‘Digital Business Transformation’.  IMD a management school, for example, has a Global Center for Digital Business Transformation and a report from Deloitte that caught my eye ‘Strategy, not Technology, Drives Digital Transformation’ – partly because I believe this should be the case, but often isn’t –  has a section in it titled The Culture of Digital Business Transformation.   Maybe putting Digital+ Business together is right in the cases where businesses are transforming through the application of digital technology.

The third question was about operating models for digital transformation.  Operating models are another much discussed topic but a series of 6 articles on Digital Transformation from Insead Knowledge helps by starting with discussing a 10-point framework (operating model?) for digital transformation.   Alongside the framework comes a recommendation for describing it the process as a digital ‘journey’ and not a digital ‘transformation’, again a hint that the word ‘transformation’ has had its management-speak day.  (Other articles in the series include resistance to digital change, culture and supporting structures).

What’s your view of business v digital transformation – where would you point people wanting an intro to business transformation or a digital operating model?  Let me know.

Image: Palm Jumeirah, and the World, Dubai

Curation of learning

Along with ‘pivotal’, the word ‘curation’ seems to be in vogue.  And it was ‘curation’ that I got curious about this week.  What exactly is ‘the curation of learning’ – a phrase I read in a role description for an L & D expert?  I visualized some type of art gallery or a museum of carefully arranged pieces of learning – a Janet and John book, a recording of a teacher dictating biology notes, an abacus, an extract from an on-line course, and so on.  The curator would invite people to come and look at these or interact with some of them if they offered that possibility.  Does a Museum of Learning exist somewhere?  (Yes – The Museum of Teaching and Learning).

This took me to a mental wander around a gallery in such a museum – what was I learning from it?  I learned that the artefacts are instructional tools or mediums.  They are not ‘learning’.   Learning is an outcome.  It is the development of an individual’s capacity or the development of a collective capacity if we believe in ‘learning organizations’.

Remember Chris Argyris’ work on single and double loop learning?  That came up this week too.  I was reading a piece that argued that the way we have developed leaders is entirely wrong for now.  The author, Nick Petrie, said that ‘the incremental improvements that we were making in [development] programs were what Chris Argyris would call “single loop” learning (adjustments to the existing techniques), rather than “double loop” learning (changes to the assumptions and thinking upon which the programs were built).’

This point of view was reinforced by an article by Linda Gratton, who says management is getting much more complex and includes and that we need very different management development.  Managers must learn, ‘managing virtually rather than face to face; managing when the group is diverse rather than homogenous; and managing when the crucial knowledge flows are across groups rather than within.’ Capabilities she says are required for this are how to build rapid trust, coach, empathize, and inspire.  She also sees managers learning new practices – team formation, objective setting, and conflict resolution.’

Other articles I read make similar points.  Summarised, they agree we need ‘new pedagogical models and approaches’ in order to develop new capabilities as a response to digitalization – ‘defined as the diffusion and assimilation of digital technologies into all aspects of daily life – [that] is transforming industries in general and learning and development in particular.’

What this new pedagogical model looks like is less clear but seems to involve a shift from instructional design (per the exhibits in my museum of learning and single loop learning) to ‘learning experience design’ which to me implies double loop learning.  In learning experience design ‘professional development goes from being an aggregation of distinct activities, to becoming a continuous journey guided by data-driven insights.’  This seems plausible but what does it mean in practice?  And does it help with my trying to work out what the ‘curation of learning’ is?

Digitalization gives a different perspective on the word ‘curation’.  And here is where ‘learning curation’ becomes meaningful.)  And, as I quickly found out it’s big business and there’s masses of activity around digital curation of learning.

In fact, I can’t think how I missed it, but on the other hand, given the various definitions of it, I can now label myself a curator of organization design learning.  Given that ‘the three key things a good curator does: filter content, add value and provide a place to access her collections’.

For a good introduction to content curation look at Robin Good’s page.

What digital curation does is a create a personalised selection of learning stuff.  It’s chosen by you, or a learning ‘provider’ if you’re trying to teach people something, or I guess by AI that chooses for you by examining your digital trail.   (See Harold Jarche’s blog on this).

Are we near the point now that If we want to go really digital on this we could have our digital assistants help us.  How would it be if they were the curators of our learning (at least in the digital media) – providing us with real time data on what we are paying attention to and re-directing or reinforcing us to help us learn in a double loop way.

However you get your feed how will you know that it right for you and meets the need?

One way is to develop our thinking skills and on this, I recommend Stephen Brookfield’s work.  He describes four critical thinking processes, all of which could lead to learning, or identifying what we need to learn from any situation we are in, and also judging the quality and value of anything we are ‘fed’.

  • Contextual awareness and deciding what to observe and consider. This includes an awareness of what’s happening in the context of the situation, including values, cultural issues, and environmental influences.
  • Exploring and imagining alternatives. This involves thinking about and imagining other ways of looking at the situation, not just the first thing that comes to your mind. It involves exploring as many alternatives as you can think of for the given situation.
  • Assumption recognition and analysis. This involves analysing assumptions you are making about the situation as well as examining the beliefs that underlie your choices.
  • Reflective scepticism/deciding what to do. This critical thinking approach involves questioning, analysing, and reflecting on the rational for decisions.

(See also, Robert Kegan’s 5 orders of adult development).

What’s your view of curation of learning, digital or otherwise?  Let me know.