Game-changing technology

A post at Orgtheory got me thinking about how to address the ‘new-new’ in organizations. As TF notes, the ‘question to answer ratio’ is rather high. I had some thoughts on when a technology goes from being a ‘shallow’ change to being a ‘deep’ change.

To wit, some proposed features of a game-changing technology:
1) It creates value (in the form of new tools, new ways of doing things) that a constituency is able to mobilize
2) It alters an underlying object/activity, even as it does not alter the surface object/activity
3) It creates new objects or activities not able to be accomplished without the technology
4) It alters the institutional logic(s) available to make itself more central

Let’s take them one by one. The first is that the technology creates a new tool or new way of doing things that can be taken up by a constituency. I can think of some problems off the bat (e.g., that constituencies may be created as well as mobilized by a technology), but let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good here. In the case of a powerful constituency, the technology will be picked up and run with – in the case of a weak constituency, it provides an opportunity to dislodge those in power.

Even more concretely, let’s look at financial services and electronic trading (from which my thinking springs). There have been technological changes since futures proper began trading in the 1870s, including new economic theories of risk (around the 1910s, consolidated in 1922 Knight uncertainty); telephones, which replaced telegraph; electronic displays, which displaced blackboards, etc. But automated trading actually allowed an already-increasingly powerful constituency – institutional traders in large trading firms – to embrace the technology, take advantage of its capabilities, etc.

2) the technological change alters an underlying object/activity, even as it does not alter the surface object/activity. Seems pretty abstract, though it’s pretty close to what Lis Clemens talks about in People’s Lobby – that radical change is most palatable when it conforms to existing institutional forms. Case in point, both the telephone and the internet can be considered a ‘phone call’ at the surface level, but these are fundamentally, qualitatively different objects. Similarly, electronic ‘prices’ and open outcry ‘prices’ almost masquerade as the same thing, though the underlying components, structure, and activities embodied in the two prices are totally different.

Maybe this matters so much because it sneakily allows the new technology to insert itself into the old frame, and then change it from within. If you think of cars as horseless carriages, it creates a viable cognitive, organizational, cultural pathway for cars to insert themselves. Their fundamental differences often become apparent some time later.

3) the technology creates new objects or activities not able to be accomplished without the technology. So, once you have electronic backends, it suddenly allows you trade across geography and across products in a way that open outcry can’t (or can’t easily). Ian Domowitz made this point some time ago, arguing that one of the main effects of electronic trading would be to create standardization of clearing, which would then create a sort of pseudo-global exchange. He wasn’t totally right about the convergence, but in combination with VAR as a theoretical way to commensurate products using risk, kabang, you have hedge funds that can cherry pick exchanges and investments literally all over the place.

Or less finance-wise, think about what the internet and MP3 allows you to do to music that couldn’t be done with analog.

Finally, 4) the technology alters the institutional logic(s) available to make itself more central. So suddenly, you are either outdated or even negligent if you are not using risk-mitigation as a large multi-national corporation.

There’s a ton to say more about this, but I just want to start with some positive answering rather than raising more questions…

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