07 June 2007

The Future of Business: Developing Next Generation Soft Technology

Most attempts by business to understand the future rather seem to miss the point. They come across as technology plays, predictions about which breakthroughs are likely to come to fruition and how they'll parlay these into products. This is fine if you are head of a research lab, but has less obvious application if you are tasked with other management positions. If your job is to head up a business or function, you're likely looking - if indeed you are looking at all - at the wrong kind of technology.

Some should focus on the evolution and change in hard technology - changes in cars, computers, drugs, and telephones. Most managers should be focused instead on soft technology - changes in culture, behavior, roles, beliefs, and organization. It's true that in practice these two, the hard and soft technologies, play together. It's also true that any one individual is likely to focus on one dimension. Thanks to roughly a century in the evolution of the formal role of scientists and engineers, we have clearly defined the tasks associated with the development of hard technology. By contrast, roles for developing soft technology are less clearly defined. Indeed, what plays catalyst for the shift in public opinion or new practice often seems unpredictable and random. Of course, so is the development of hard technology, but that doesn't stop societies from investing hundreds of billions into its development.

Most management types should be looking at the future of organizations, work, and society. It is not that they should remain willfully ignorant of the hard technology, but often there is little that a CEO or VP of, say, Human Relations can do about furthering the next generation of web development software. They can help to develop the organization.

There is so much that can be written about this, but I will for now limit myself to this. There are a variety of questions that anyone in management - from small business owner to CEO - can ask, questions that intelligent and imaginative people scattered throughout the organization can answer more creatively than me. Managers should be regularly asking these questions.

1. How do we more fully engage our people in work? What work place designs, chunking of tasks, and communication protocols should we use to encourage focus?

2. How do we clarify consequences? What can we do to more clearly link the work of the individual to the value created by the organization?

3. How do we more clearly tie together individual effort, longer term consequences, and organizational performance? Are there lessons we can draw from market economies?

4. Are we prepared for the devolution of power and decision making as accords with self-adapting complexity and market dynamics that might follow from designing a system that allows individual initiative in place of central controls? What are the consequences of creating such a system? How would we make this operational? What are the practical obstacles to moving in this direction today?

5. Are our people motivated by a vision of their future? Do they see this organization as a place of possibility or are they even interested in realizing their own potential? Why or why not? What would we have to change about our organization to allow a critical mass of our employees to realize their potential?

6. Who in the organization is tasked with coaching our people towards the realization of their potential? What is the lost revenue resulting from our lack of interest in this?

I would argue that seriously pursuing questions such as this could be the catalyst for developing new organizations, for creating the next generation soft technology. If your business is hard technology, you are likely focusing an enormous amount of energy on creating the next generation of your products. If you expect to remain competitive as a senior executive, you should be just as focused on creating the next generation of soft technology.

1 comment:

David said...

I find it difficult to believe that no one has responded to this by now. This is a compelling idea although making it a reality may be constrained by human limitations, which in turn makes investment in helping everyone realize their potential moderately risky. I watched a very good interview with Bill Gates and he spoke at length on how amazed he and Paul Allen were that no one saw "the future" for PCs the way they did. He left his Harvard classes to create software for PCs thinking if he didn't do it someone else would. He said no one ever came close. It was two years before anyone became similarly involved. By then they had the upper hand. I just finished reading the bio on Einstein and it's pretty clear those kind of ideas about the universe wouldn't have come from group interactions. I know you're not advocating replacing the "gifted" visionary or the head man and some organizations like MSFT and Google seem to be developing soft technology as well as hard products? Comments?