Fear, Frustration and Hope in a Covid19 threatened Digital World


Photo by CDC on Unsplash

We live in unprecedented times. With Covid19, we are in a global war with an invisible enemy – a war in which we are both potential victims of, and foot soldiers for that enemy. We all live in fear for ourselves, and even more so for our families – our parents, children and grandchildren, as well as for all those who are more exposed and at risk to this unseen yet ever-present enemy.

At a time like this we need strong, decisive and transparent leadership at all levels. Leadership that must also be compassionate and comforting in helping us understand that we are all in this together, and that collectively we can and must play our part in beating this enemy. Here, in Canada, and in our province, British Columbia, we are seeing that, as we are generally across Canada. But this is a global war with an enemy that moves fast and silently, and respects no borders and no-one, and that can be anywhere at any time. At a time like this, it is immensely frustrating that we are not seeing a collaborative global response to this global enemy. Instead, from many leaders across the world – some more so than others – we have seen, and are seeing: Denial instead of action; Delay instead of speed; Secrecy instead of openness; Division instead of unification; Competition instead of collaboration; putting Self-Interest ahead of the interest of the people, and (largely driven by that same self-interest) putting National Interest instead of global interest…and the list goes on.

In what we once referred to as the IT space, but what is now increasingly becoming an all-encompassing digital world, we have suffered from similar failures of leadership for decades. We have seen, and continue to see many billions of dollars spent on technology with all too often little or no value being delivered as a result of those expenditures.

In this current crisis, it is frustrating to see the inability of aging technology systems – systems that have been neglected for far too long, to respond to critical needs in an agile and timely way. We are experiencing the result of years or decades of little or no investment in maintaining and updating our technology infrastructure. Where new investments have been made, they have all too often failed to deliver the expected value – assuming that value was even clearly defined at the outset, which is generally the exception rather than the rule. These investments are often made without clear understanding, ownership and accountability from the business or organizational leadership, and without inclusive and ongoing engagement of those who have to use and live with the systems and applications resulting from those investments.

But there is also hope. During this crisis we have seen, and continue to see the ability of organizations and individuals in all sectors to pivot to new ways of delivering their products and services. As Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, summed it up, Social distancing rules have brought forward the adoption of a wide range of technologies by two years. A comment echoed by Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai predicting a “significant and lasting” impact from the forced move to online work, education, shopping, medicine and entertainment.

In the case of healthcare, digitally-enabled services that have been discussed for years or, in some cases decades, have been delivered in a few weeks. Manufacturers have retooled their production to produce respirators and Personal Protection Equipment. Distilleries have switched production from liquor to hand sanitizer.  In response to a request from local hospitals, Quinn Callander, a 12 year old boy scout in Vancouver, Canada answered a request from the local hospitals for a device to help relieve severe pain from pressure and friction of wearing masks for long periods. Working with his 3D printer, and by prototyping several designs, he developed a simple but effective “ear guard” strap. In just a few weeks, he has produced 1,700 such straps, a volunteer group he is part of has made an additional 5,000 straps, and he has made the design available for others to download[1]. Across America, makers of all ages and skill-levels have thrown themselves into helping to alleviate the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Some are actually making masks, shields and gowns. Others are collaborating on designs, and making those designs public. Still others are trying to figure out how to get PPE to those who need it most as quickly as possible. These charitable tinkerers provide ground for both a deeply American sort of hope—strangers doing as much as they can, wherever they can, for the good of their neighbours—and despair, at the colossal federal failure that inspired them[2].

An article in the April 25th edition of The Economist under the heading “Creative Disruption” discusses the pandemic “liberating firms to experiment with new ideas”, and being to do so at breakneck speed, and without huge financial outlays. But, as evidenced above, it’s more than that. It is actually liberating organizations of all types, and in all sectors, as well as individuals of all ages across the world to do so. As Michael Waters said on April 30th in the Financial Times, “The pandemic is working on all the main levers that affect the pace of digital adoption: consumer behaviour, business processes and government regulation”.

We are seeing examples of outstanding leadership coming from everywhere and anywhere, but not, in all too many cases, from those in “official” leadership positions in the public and private sector. The challenge ahead, when the Covid19 crisis is brought under control, to whatever extent that may happen, is how to keep the momentum, and not slip back, as The Economist article says, to our comfortable traditional world of  ‘“analysis paralysis”, an affliction caused by top managers having pored over the same irrelevant case studies at business school.’ We need to tap in to that outstanding, yet previously unrecognized leadership that is everywhere and everywhere. This will require rethinking, or blowing up previous models of leadership and management

We need to ask ourselves, when the crisis abates, are we going to fall back to the traditional world of ineffective leadership, bloated inefficient bureaucracies, and disengaged employees and citizens, or are we going to learn from the crisis and move forward together to a better world. A world in which leadership is a behaviour, recognized, nurtured and rewarded throughout an organization, with leadership at the top playing a role akin to some combination of an orchestra conductor, and an air traffic controller. A world in which: Bureaucracy, a term coined roughly two centuries ago is no longer fit for purpose when today’s employees are skilled, not illiterate; Competitive Advantage comes from innovation, not sheer size; Communication is instantaneous, not tortuous; and the Pace of Change is hypersonic, not glacial. A world in which employees, as in the case of China’s Haier, are engaged as “energetic entrepreneurs, and an open ecosystem of users, inventors and partners replaces formal hierarchy”[3].

[1] Source: Fast Company, April 9, 2020, “This 12-year-old invented an ingenious solution to one of the biggest problems with masks”

[2] Source: The Economist, April 30, 2020, “America’s Makers and tinkerers turn their hands to PPE

[3] Source: The End of Bureaucracy, Gary Hamel and Michael Zanini, Harvard Business Review, November-December 1918 Issue

A New Age of Digital Exploration

The first question you may have here is what do I mean by “digital exploration”? Is exploration being disrupted by digital, or does digital require exploration? The answer is yes to both. Although the focus of this piece is on the latter, my thinking about it was triggered by the first. In 2013, my son, Jeremy, was named one of National Geographic’s “Emerging Explorers of The Year”. This was not for grinding trudges dragging dugout canoes through tropical areas, although that was to follow, but for his work in data visualization – translating unimaginable blurs of information into something we can see, understand, and feel—data made human through visualizations that blend research, art, software, science, and design.

img_2788aAs a result of this, and meeting another National Geographic explorer, Steve Boyes, Jeremy became one of the four leaders of the Okavango 2014 expedition (that’s him on the left) – the first ever live-data expedition  across Botswana’s amazing Okavango Delta. Like the expeditions of old, they were pushing into the unknown, in search of measurements but, unlike previous expeditions, they used a set of open-source tools to develop a system that puts every piece of data collected onto the web, in near real-time, for anyone in the world to use and share. This data included wildlife sightings, water quality measurements, and the four leaders’ exact GPS location, heart rate, and energy consumption.

As I reflected on this expedition, and how it was positively disrupting exploration, I went back to thinking about how our use of technology has evolved and continues to evolve. I started to question how I have been describing this evolution. I have described, as depicted in the image below, three stages of evolution: the automation stage, which I characterized as the appliance era; the information stage, characterized as the rewiring era; and the transformation stage, characterized as the rebuilding era.

Slide1

I have always felt uncomfortable with the term transformation – a much over-used and abused word. When the initial version of this image appeared in The Information Paradox, almost two decades ago, it was being used to describe the implementation of ERP, CRM, SCM etc. While these were certainly complicated endeavours, and often required significant organizational change (a requirement usually recognized too late and poorly managed), they were primarily about integrating information, and making it more accurate, accessible and timely. There were  proven practices available to do this, although, they were all too often not adopted, or adopted too late. They did not essentially change what organizations did – they just did it differently and, hopefully, better. It certainly involved major organizational change, but was hardly transformational.

Since that time, there has certainly been real transformation in a number of industries, including entertainment, media, communications, retail and consumer goods, financial services, automotive, as well as around the edges of others, but we are now seeing this happening, or at least the potential for it to happen, across all industries. Indeed, across all organizations, public or private, large or small. This is taking us into unknown territory – moving beyond a complicated world to a complex one. One in which :

  • Technology itself, how technology is delivered, how it used, and by whom are changing at an ever-increasing pace;
  • Everything and everyone will be connected, anywhere, any time;
  • Technology is increasingly embedded in everything we do, and in ourselves;
  • Everything is becoming “smart’ – phones, cars, houses, buildings, cities, etc.;
  • Robots, cognitive computing and machine learning play an increasing role;
  • We are becoming increasingly embedded in everything technology does;
  • Data is available about everything;
  • Analytics are available to anyone; and
  • Everything is available as a service.

This increasingly complex world is moving us to  the next stage of evolution in our use of IT – exploration, as illustrated in the images below.

Slide1This first figure adds the exploration stage to my original three. This is a somewhat different and more fluid stage, as what emerges from the exploration stage could become a combination of automation, information, and transformation type uses of IT. In the next image I take a degree of licence in  integrating the four stages with the concepts of David Snowden’s Cynefin Framework – an analytical, decision-making framework based on understanding the nature of the systems you are working with – simple/ordered, complicated, complex or chaotic, and selecting the appropriate approach and practices to manage them.

Slide2The first three of the Cynefin system types: simple/ordered; complicated; and complex are  mapped to the four stages. Automation, and some basic examples of the information stage map to simple/ordered. Some of the more integrated information and simple transformation map to complicated. Broader transformation and exploration map to complex. The mapping again draws on David Snowden’s work in positing that best practices are appropriate for the simple/ordered systems, proven practices can be selected based on analysis and/or expert opinion for complicated systems, and new/novel practices emerge during the exploratory era.

Slide3While, as proven and best practices emerge, the nature of systems may change, i.e. they may become a combination of simple/ordered, complicated and complex, this last figure shows that when we attempt to apply best practices to a complex system, the result is the fourth Cynefin system type – chaotic. In today’s complex digital world, while proven practices are emerging, most of what we are doing is still very much exploratory in nature.

 

 
As organizations move into the digital world, they will still have simple/ordered systems, although most of these may be XaaS in the Cloud, and complicated systems, some/all of which may also be in the Cloud, but an increasing amount of what they do will be in the complex space. In this space, it will not just be just practices around delivery of products that will be emerging, but also new models of how work is organized, managed, lead and governed. It is, or should be becoming clear that our traditional industrial-age, top-down hierarchical control-oriented approach to leadership and management is simply not cutting it, and certainly won’t do so in a digital world. The engagement level of employees with their organizations is abysmal – ranging between ~13-30% (and its not much better for managers). This is sometimes attributed to generational differences, particularly the rise of the “millennials”, and is certainly not helped by the rising disparity between C-Suite pay and that of the median worker. However, I don’t believe that the aspirations of millennials are any different than mine were when I started work over 50 years ago.

What has changed is the global and social context within which we live and work. We are more globally aware and socially connected, and have 24/7 access to pretty much unlimited knowledge, information and expertise. We are exposed every day to how other organizations are already embracing technologies, including social, mobile and analytics, enabling greater engagement and two-way communication with and between employees, and orchestrating self-managing teams who can work collaboratively in a much more agile and responsive way with limited but relevant and appropriate oversight. Organizations who are “democratizing” their approach to leadership and governance – letting their people use their brains again.

We know what the future of work could be, but don’t see that anywhere close to being universally realized. The challenge ahead is to break out of the straightjacket of more than a century of hierarchical, siloed industrial age mindsets at work which are controlling, mistake-averse and “know it all”. To evolve them into mindsets that are enabling, learning and willing to try new things and fail. To move to a more agile and inclusive approach to governance, leadership and management. A value-focused, data and analytics driven, agile, sense and respond approach that transcends functional and organisational boundaries, and engages employees, customers and other key stakeholders – locating accountability and decision-making at the most appropriate level (based on the principle of subsidiarity), while supporting decisions with broader and more knowledgeable input.

All this is will require a fundamental rethinking of how digital businesses are governed and managed, and the capabilities that are required to ensure and assure that the use of technology contributes to creating and sustaining business and societal value in the digital world Replacing current top-down, hierarchical and siloed processes with leadership across and beyond the C-suite with leadership capabilities recognized, nurtured, and empowered throughout organizations. It will all be part of a new era of digital exploration and transformation.

Does this mean that we have to throw out everything that has come before? No – but we do have to question everything? We do have to look at everything with the understanding of “what could be”, not “what has been”. We have to be careful here not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” – this must all be done without losing sight of the fundamentals of governance as described in Back to the Basics – The Four “Ares” and A Value-Driven Framework for Change.