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June 10, 2017

Why Technology is largely misunderstood?

It seems to me that a there is a lot of misunderstanding about how to think about, manage and successfully design, plan for, implement and measure technology projects / programmes / initiatives. It’s probably why we still have very high rates of technology failure in the world today.

So I’d like to discuss how I understand technology as maybe that may be useful to other people. I refer mostly to information technology but the concepts translate well to understanding other technologies as well.

The Where?

Where do I think most people’s understanding is of technology?

I think most people and the organisations they work for don’t have a proper conceptual model in which to understand technology, it’s development and evolution. It’s why I think there’s a very high rate of failure in technology projects and initiatives since it’s hard to manage something you don’t understand.

To compound this lack of understanding most organisations internal structures, processes and policies make the management of certain technology components more difficult. They end up treating technology as a single static thing that needs to be managed as such. That maybe true of the simplest of projects but not of any project of significant size. At a certain scale these projects are made up of many dependent parts each changing and evolving at different rates.

We end up then relying too heavily on experience, gut feelings and intuition of “experts” (in the case of information technology it’s the IT departments) to get things done at strategic, tactical and operational levels with no way to tell whether the decisions and actions taken were:

  • good,
  • bad,
  • both good and bad,
  • neither good or bad

for the organisation.

The Why?

Why do I think it’s important to understand technology?

Technology is like having a super power; and everybody wants super powers. Super powers allow you to do things that you’d like to do that were previously impossible to do or very expensive to do. This is why people want technology. Think about having to clear a forest with just your bare hands vs an axe vs a chain saw.

The How?

How should we understand technology?

Technology is created by a process of discovering something and creating something from that discovery. Once created it undergoes a series of continuous improvement and change (aka evolution) driven by other people wanting it and other people who know how to create it supplying it, usually in return for something else e.g. money.

In detail;

If enough people find a technology useful enough, then over time it spreads. As it spreads to more and more people it is changed, improved upon and new uses and purposes are found for it e.g. consider a phone 50 years ago vs a phone is today.

Technology isn’t static it improves and evolves driven by market forces i.e. supply and demand. The more intense the competition the more rapid the improvement and evolution.

Eventually the amount of people using the technology will get to a stage where a market is formed of people who have the ability to supply the technology and people who don’t but want it anyway for their own uses…since people want super powers. The technology’s evolution then becomes comes under market forces, supply and demand. Manipulation of the market can affect the rate at which technology can improve and evolve. Evolution can either be slowed down or sped up this way e.g.

  • restricting access by imposing intellectual property rights will slow down evolution;
  • enabling access by adopting open approaches (open standards, open source code, open data etc.) will speed up evolution

This evolution can be categorised into 4 stages

  1. concept & hypothesis testing
  2. prototype validation
  3. mass produced product
  4. utility service provision

If allowed to evolve unimpeded it becomes increasingly cheaper, easier to use and more reliable as it grows taking on more economies of scale. At some later stage of evolution the technology becomes easy, cheap and reliable enough that it becomes easy for people to start mixing it with other technologies that are also easy, cheap and reliable enough to mix with it. So people begin to experiment with mixing these technologies (e.g. the modern day smartphone is made up of various technologies). As people mix these technologies they create new ones. These new technologies go through the same cycle as explained above.

Eventually a technology will become so cheap, so easy to use and so reliable that it is taken for granted (e.g. electricity). At this stage it is commoditised, is usually widespread and is provisioned as as a utility service.

The What?

So what? How does knowing this help you manage technology better in your organisation or my work. In the next post I will discuss this but below are some quick insights.

Quick Insights:

Adoption & Spread is commonly referred to as the diffusion of innovation.

Evolution is the process of improvement and change that technology undergoes as it develops. It is made up of multiple diffusions of innovation.

Practices evolve with technology. As people adopt a new technology their behaviour and the way they do things change as well e.g. Smartphones and the selfie phenomenon. It’s important to note that practice co-evolves along with technology. It’s why business process re-engineering is so crucial but often overlooked.

Convergence happens when a piece of technology reaches a stage where it is simple and cheap enough to mix with other technologies.

Market Forces, supply and demand competition drive the evolution of technology. The more competitive the market the faster the rate of evolution. Without this technology can regress e.g. Space travel technology regressing after the end of cold war due to the decline of competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Dependency Chains are important because technology is stacked and mixed with together with other technologies to create new technologies in a continuous cycle.

Anyway hopefully that makes sense to someone and they find it useful. Any comments would be much appreciated. The original article is published here http://www.ciiag.org/?p=437

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