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 Poynter.org (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.

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