Thursday, February 03, 2011

Belshaw's World - technology: never a dull moment

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 26 January 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

Just because I could, I have added a photo of Helen in Copenhagen.  I make no apologies for this indulgence!

Helen Copenhagen Last week, we saw eldest off on her journey to Copenhagen via London. She will be studying at the Copenhagen Business School for the next six months.

This will be her first time away from home for an extended period, and her father will miss her.

Her mother tracked the plane to London via computer. Then, after Helen arrived in London, we spoke to her via Skype video link up. Each day since, we have had a video chat.

The idea of a video phone was one of the staples of science fiction. Today, we take Skype almost for granted. Yet the first attempt to introduce a video phone actually failed.

Cast your mind back to the distant days of the 1980s. Then the Japanese telco NTT trialled a video phone. The test was a complete failure.

The barrier was a cultural one. Japanese women, the target group, happily chatted by phone for extended periods. However, once they started using the video phone, they would only call their friends when fully made up. This was just too much of an effort for normal day to day life!

Technology gives, but it also takes away.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the New England countryside was quite heavily populated, with a hierarchy of stations, farms, localities, villages and towns.

This was a populated world in which people moved and chatted across a local landscape. Local life centred on individual communities within a relatively easy day’s ride.

The internal combustion engine changed all this. It made things like shopping at bigger centres easier. More importantly, the spread of cars and lorries actually wiped out entire local industries.

On the farm, crops like oats that had fed the horses ceased. In the town, activities such as buggy building and repair, blacksmithing, all declined. Extra jobs were created servicing the new motor vehicles, but they were not sufficient to offset the jobs lost.

The end result was a progressively depopulated country side.

A fair bit of my professional work over the last thirty years has involved new technology in one form or another. I am not a technologist. My focus has been on the business, management and policy implications of the technology.

During that time I have learned two main things.

The first is that the application, the acceptance, of new technology, is generally slower in the short term than the enthusiasts expect. However, once a new technology takes, its growth is usually faster than people expect.

In the words of an old dance step – slow, slow, quick, quick, quick.

The second thing I have learned is that, like the internal combustion engine, the economic and social affects of the technology can rarely be foreseen. Our technology moulds us in ways we often barely understand.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a view that the pace of technological change was accelerating. The time taken for knowledge to double was shortening all the time. Technological and organisational life cycles were constantly shortening.

These views became deeply embedded in management theory and writing. Organisations must become flexible, responsive, able to adapt to a world of constant and accelerating change.

At one level, the popular nostrum was correct. Information was doubling in ever shorter time horizons. Applied technology measured by things such as patents was also accelerating.

At a second level, the popular nostrum was dangerously misleading. While we were getting better at specific applications, the rate of new technological discovery was actually in decline. Worse, the side-effects were starting to become clear.

As early as 1987, writers such as UNE’s Perry Morrison were warning of the dangers of growing systemic complexity. With complexity came increased dangers of failure, of unforseen results.

To give you a simple example of what I mean, consider the problems both Airbus and Boeing have had with their latest offerings. The A380 is flying, but Boeing’s alternative offering has yet to enter service.

Perry had a special focus on complex defence and aerospace systems, but his arguments also apply to organisations.

In the defence arena, people often talk about communications, command and control. These are central to the operations of complex defence systems.

The same terminology applies in management. Instead of organisations becoming more flexible, the new technology has been used to centralise and control. Flexibility has been replaced by command and control.

This divergence between language and reality is not unusual. But that’s the subject of another column!

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