How culture influences technological change Redux

Teenagers hands playing tug-of-war with used rope   In last week’s blog post, I talked about the importance of achieving cultural alignment within an organisation to support innovation adoption.  The focus of that discussion was on how innovation and culture interact within an organisation, but there was a post on Forbes this week that highlights that this interaction occurs at a number of levels.  And it’s no less important to the success of innovations in the market place.

The blog that highlighted this issue for me was entitled “VC/DC: The Accident-Prone Intersection of Innovation and Policy“.  In that blog, Larry Downes highlights that Silicon Valley regularly ignores the impact of lawmakers in the development of innovations, leading to clashes between policy makers and innovators.

In my last post I pointed out that cultural change at the level of entire economies is an important factor affecting the transition from one type of technology to another.  That is, innovations are usually part of a much broader ecosystem, including individuals, firms and institutions and policy makers and their attitudes to technological innovations can have a significant impact on the success of a new idea in the marketplace.

As Larry points out in his post, this is an issue that technology companies should be thinking about, but probably aren’t.  This comes across in a lot of the language used by innovators when they come up against regulatory barriers.  The regulator either doesn’t understand the (obvious!) significance of the innovation, or they cling to outdated models and ideas by denying the innovation suitable changes to regulatory regimes.  It’s an issue that companies like Uber are coming up against again and again as they expand their business around the world.

Generally speaking though, regulation reflects society’s view of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the marketplace.  Changes to regulation therefore take place at much the same speed as more general attitudes in society; that is, pretty slowly.  Perhaps the only thing that leads to rapid policy change are issues that are either catastrophic or abhorrent to the general public (for example, the global shift in policy on nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster).  Even significant issues like climate change only result in a slow change to the policy landscape.  So what hopes does an innovator have when asking for regulatory changes to support their idea?

Instead of railing against the injustice of current laws, innovators can influence the process by getting involved with policy makers early and often, as Uber is now doing in Washington.  That can be difficult in a start up phase where resources are limited, but the long term payoffs can be significant.  But it still takes time, and innovators shouldn’t expect rapid accommodation of their needs in policy instruments.  And even if the regulator accepts the case for change, any alteration will reflect a negotiated position which lies somewhere between the extremes of what parities to the negotiation might like (though more likely at the end of the scale preferred by the regulator!).

This is all a consequence of the fact that technology evolves faster than social attitudes and expectation do.  And when an innovation relies on social attitudes and expectation to change to support adoption, then the innovator has a problem.  The best course of action is to understand these influences early in the development process  and map out ways to deal with them – either through influencing the direction of development, by changing the innovation so it avoids the problem, or choosing markets where a different set of cultural forces help rather than hinder adoption.  Or a combination of all three.

If more entrepreneurs and innovators took this approach, then the intersection of innovation and policy might not be as accident prone as it seems at the moment. 



How culture influences technological change

Picture2The social nature of technological innovation is a fascinating and often overlooked area when it comes to discussing innovation.  I was reminded of this in a recent discussion and by a blog post.

The discussion was with Jill Connell over at the Hay Group.  Jill is involved in organisational change, and many of the factors that influence successful change programs also affect technology adoption – in particular, the need to develop modified cultures that are aligned to a new organisational direction and a technological innovation respectively.  What is really of interest though is where these two processes intersect.  That is, organisational change prompted by technological innovation.

One of the most common forms of this is the introduction of enterprise resource planning systems into an organisation (for example, SAP).  For those that haven’t been through this process, engineering a successful transition involves a lot of process redesign and socialisation of the idea amongst the future users of the system.  Inevitably this type of change ends up annoying pretty much everyone in the short term, although in the long term it becomes hard to imagine an organisation without the new system.

What this highlights is that the development of culture can lag the development of innovations.  In an organisational setting, this involves altering formal and informal rules, behaviours and expectations about a system and what it can and should do for an organisation (as well as how).  In analyses of technological change at the level of entire economies, similar processes influence technology adoption and the transition from one type of technology to another.  In contrast to organisational change initiatives, this type of transition is harder to organise, as no one has the centralised decision making authority that a CEO has.  None the less, cultural change is often as critical to the success of a technology as it is to a shift in the operation of an organisation.

You can take my favourite example of smart phones as an illustration of the point.  At an organisational level, transitioning to smart phones as a tool of trade would have been very difficult even five years ago, as general expectations about the role of smart phones in a business were still developing (perhaps with the exception of Blackberry phones and email as a service).  This idea is much easier for organisations to adopt now as the general culture around smart phones has evolved.  Similarly, the development of user expectations around smart phones was necessary for their widespread adoption.  After all, without a set of new expectations and user defined applications, the smart phone is just a phone and not really that smart.  The smarts come from users using the device, not the code or hardware resident in the handset.

The second thing that reminded me of this issue is a blog over at (see here).  In this article, Howard Finberg outlines eight tips for techno-evangelists.  In summary, these are;

  1. Understanding that technology is an ecological issue.
  2. A newsroom learns by example.
  3. The key issue in technology adoption isn’t hardware or even software or apps. It’s workflow.
  4. Techno-evangelism means finding a leader who will take risks, become a teacher, shoulder responsibility and be willing to go wandering in the “desert.”
  5. Looking at history can help you prepare for the future.
  6. No matter how much you try to be on the “cutting edge,” there always will be something newer and cheaper (or free) the day after the purchase order is signed.
  7. No matter how well you plan, the project will take six months longer.
  8. Computers, programs and apps crash. No matter how fast any of it works, no matter how nifty it all looks, technology is just machines, software and technology.

Summing those up, Howard is saying that technology is social in nature – it’s part of a larger social ecosystem; it requires learning as part of adoption; its defined by use, not by technology; past habits help define future ones; and it takes time to develop a suitable culture to support technological change.

If you’re in the business of driving cultural change, whether it’s induced by technological innovation or otherwise, it’s worth keeping some of these issues in mind.  And never underestimate the influence of culture in supporting or blocking organisation change and the adoption of new technologies.