It’s not about the technology! Or is it?

New experiences, behaviours and techniques come along from time to time. As children, at school, there was always the latest “craze” whether it was for conkers or marbles or assegais (remember those?). As adults, at work and at play, we call them innovations, whether they are new materials, techniques, goods, services, fashions or whole new experiences.

“Social”

At the time of writing (early 2011), one significant “craze” is for “social media”, “social networking”, “social” anything, or, even, simply “social”, … as if we were not social or, at least, sociable before! It’s all the rage. Now we (yup, that includes me) are calling it “social communication” and just round the corner, allegedly, is “social commerce”. It’s fun, it’s different, and it’s a substantial change in something or other, … but in what?

Yet, it is so easy to be distracted by the technology; the new, shiny and different something or other: in this case, broadly, it is the publication of, previously private, electronic communication of text, audio, video, etc. and the new models for managing the relationships involved; and it is better for a variety of reasons including, in the case of Twitter (the current social media early adopters’ short term communication channel), counter-intuitive ones such as being restricted to short messages!

It’s not!

Then comes the cry from the cognoscenti (not from the digerati, of course, they are having a ball!) that “It’s not about the technology!”. Of course, this is a loaded statement because, for many people, the immediate reaction is “so what is it about?!”.

Yet, the point is a serious one. It is, or at least I assume that it is for most of them, that the most important aspect is to understand the purpose of communication and that the fundamentals of communication have not changed. Let’s assume that they are correct, and I happen to think that, in principle, they probably are; if so, what do they really mean?

The book, which I have not yet read, on the subject apparently tackles this exact point by considering, for organisations, the relationship between marketers and engineers, which is central to the organisations management of innovation.

Innovation

Whenever innovative products (whether goods or services) are introduced into any field, things change. Some things get easier, some things get harder; some things are now possible, some things are no longer possible; there is often a steep learning curve; nothing about the purpose has immediately changed, and yet many things about the pursuit of that purpose are completely changed.

What are we to make of it all?

There is much more to be said, on other occasions, about the finer points of new products supplanting old products, about the “sailing ship syndrome”, about the radical difference in failure modes, about the retention of false constraints … there is a short article, or even six long ones, to be written on each of those!

However, the truth of the matter usually is that the cognoscenti are correct in the sense that the rate of change of our understanding of the challenges in any specific subject domain is usually much slower than the rate of advance of new products, especially when any specific product is going through its “tornado” (pace Geoffrey Moore) phase. This is not always true, as they may be coupled (a lot was learnt about supersonic flight in combination with the development of the jet engine), but that is less common.

It is!

Yet, my stance is that, I happen to think that it is about the technology! Self-evidently, if there had been no change in the technology, then we would not be making such a fuss about it, because we are agreeing that the actual requirements have hardly changed.

Recently, Trey Pennington (an open minded thinker and generous listener, if ever there was one) mentioned to me that he was writing a chapter on “It’s not about the technology!” for his book “Spitball Marketing”. When I suggested that maybe it frequently is about the technology, his response was not to disagree, was not to agree and question whether the chapter was appropriate, but was to do the open thinking and generous thing and to suggest that he’d better also write another chapter on “It is about the technology!”. Thank you, Trey!

So what has changed? What has changed is that the technology has enabled activities that were not available before. Rather than being about the actual technology, this is about the fit between the capabilities of the technology and the requirements of people; it is about the applicability, application and usage of the technology.

Anyway, this seems barely to be scratching the surface of the issue.

Two sides (cultures?)

Suffice, for now, to say that I have happily foolishly (if that makes sense) selected this as a topic for a short talk in April. I seem to be making a habit of talks on these two-sided topics: innovation “is”/”is not” manageable at the EEDBC September 2010 meeting in Honiton; innovation management is strategic/tactical at the BrightIdea user meeting in Zürich; innovation “is”/”is not” random at the Random One meeting in Exeter; and now it (i.e. innovation, I think) “is”/”is not” about the technology.

Ho, hum!

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9 thoughts on “It’s not about the technology! Or is it?

  1. I like what you’ve written. I especially like this paragraph:

    “So what has changed? What has changed is that the technology has enabled activities that were not available before. Rather than being about the actual technology, this is about the fit between the capabilities of the technology and the requirements of people; it is about the applicability, application and usage of the technology.”

    This makes allot of sense to me, John. Thanks.

  2. Yes I think that the idea of “Fit” is going to be huge – using the machine model have we not distorted much of what surrounds us? Modern buildings are alien. Industrial food is alien to our bodies, to the animals and to the planet. Much of technology is alien – it separated home and work etc.

    New ways are creating a better fit = real happiness

  3. I agree, Robert, and apologise to having somehow missed your comment, until now. Improving the fit (i.e. the match or alignment), between any technology (the supposed “solution”) and the requirements (the perceived “problem”) for which it is used, benefits us all.

    Before the arrival of technological products, presumably, the fit was perfect (or non-existent), because there is nothing to fit! Although, I have no idea how far back one would need to go to find that state of affairs. As we introduce technology, to take advantage of its advantages, we find its disadvantages distort (as you accurately describe it) the fit.

    However, there is a dilemma. In the presence of infinitely capable technological solutions, would we be able to choose those which fit perfectly and, as I think you and I assume, return to a perfect fit? Or, would we have distorted and blurred the requirements beyond all recognition and completely lost the original model? If the boundary between the “problem” domain and the “solution” domain has been completely removed, we may end up living in a wholly artificial world which some might argue has already occurred (you even suggest some evidence for it).

    So do we go forward or do we turn back? One’s stance on the relationship between the “fit” and the advance of technology seems to be an important factor in considering this substantial question.

  4. I am starting to see the idea of “Fit” as a fit to our nature.

    I see that we have strayed in the machine world to buildings that do not fit – organizational designs that are machine and not human – food that does not fit – goals that do not fit

    if I am right then the way “home” is to use what we know of nature and our nature to design for a better fit to our nature and to nature.

    So I now do not eat any processed foods – grains or dairy – all “new” – I have not only lost a lot of weight but all the visceral fat I look and feel 30 years younger. My diet is aligned with Fit. I work from home – my work and personal life are one – a fit. I have a tribe of both family and friends – we all pitch in to help each other – I do not work for an abstract machine organization that looks after only itself – So I am once again in reality a hunter gatherer – fit.

    See what I mean? We don’t have to live in a cave to have this fit. As at the Renaissance when people looked back at the Classic World – they used the ideas that had bene forgotten to remake their own world into the beginnings of our modern world that is now also way beyond its sell date.

  5. Thank you for describing these examples, Robert. I saw your recent post about diet and the importance of avoiding processed foods.

    In terms of the distinction between going forward and going back, this would seem to fall firmly in the category of going back, or even “going retro”. Presumably, there are debates as to what constitutes “processing”, etc. and the implications of large numbers of people taking this approach, as well as many other issues. No doubt there are potential advantages for all of us in this approach.

    However, you also raise a different issue, that of relationships with others, whether personal or professional, family or friends, and use the term “abstract machine organization”. The dietary issue is largely about our bodies, but these seem to be about our minds.

    So what is happening to the “fit” with our natural relationship structures and communication mechanisms? Is the best way to improve the “fit” also to go back in this area, to abandon computers, television, telephone, etc.. If so, how far back do we go; do we abandon writing altogether?

    Or are current developments in communication technologies and habits taking us forward? Are email, the web, social communication, etc. a “better” fit with our nature than previous technologies? For example, there seems to a trend towards increased use of the telephone for booked calls, which is less interruptive; and there is an increasing interest in storytelling as a means of communication over electronic media. Or, maybe, all this is masking the use of increasingly unfit technologies.

    My sense that the technologies are allowing the fit to improve, but I am aware that the side effects of many technologies are not appreciated for some time (not forgetting radio waves from mobile devices).

    Thank you, Robert, for sharing your interest in this topic.

  6. I don’t think I am saying go back – I have found that social media has helped me find a tribe and has enabled me to choose where I live – I am saying be thoughtful about how you live and use the new to get you to a better place and fit.

    We had to “go to work” in “Cubicle” We don’t now and the new tech has enabled this.
    We can have a full life where we live and work – hey we might even grow our food there too…

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