Digital Disruption – Blocked or Accelerated by People

by Cai Kjaer

Advancement in technology has really disrupted things, but you only realise how much when you look back at where we were just a few years ago. Last week I found on YouTube a 1990 interview with a very young Steve Jobs (no turtleneck or round glasses, and before he was fired from Apple). He describes three stages of computing as he saw them at the time. The first had been the introduction of spreadsheets, which really transformed the ability for people to do quite complex calculations with no need for programmers. The second stage was desktop publishing that allowed everyone to write and publish documents from their own computers. The third stage Jobs talks about – with his usual intensity and visionary insight – was the ability to start connecting computers via networks, and enable people to communicate electronically.

Hearing it now in 2013 it is hard to imagine life before PCs, and I just can’t stop thinking how far we have come, and just how much our lives have been disrupted by technological advancements. But was it really technology that changed us? I don’t think so. We changed. We chose to adopt those technologies. Inventions need people to promote them, and without people embracing the advancements we’ll get as little value from them as you get from an unused gym membership. We are also the ones who can most effectively prevent disruption. As it is so beautifully put in the July 2013 HBR article ‘The Secret Networks of Great Change Agents’:

“…employees tend instinctively to oppose change initiatives because they disrupt established power structures and ways of getting things done.”

Disruption is not something we yearn for, and as the HBR article says we will do what we can to avoid it. It is very much people rather than the technology that bring about, or prevent, change. Fortunately, many organisations do manage to get things done – but how? For me the most precise and insightful answer comes from Professor Ron Burt in his highly acclaimed book on Social Capital:

“Accountability flows through the formal organisation of authority relations. All else flows through the informal relations – advice, coordination, cooperation, friendship, gossip, knowledge and trust. Formal relations are about who is to blame. Informal relations are about who gets it done.”

Just reflect over that for a few moments, and consider how much we are relying on the formal structure to get things done, when in reality the power lies in the informal networks. Understanding how these informal networks work can provide the key to predict how quickly a ‘digital disruption’ really becomes disruptive. Social Network Analysis (SNA) has helped us by making these otherwise invisible networks visible. Over the last 10 years SNA has started to move from research into main stream business, as demonstrated again by the recent HBR article. It is an exceptionally powerful method to uncover those influencers you need to get on board to fast track any type of change initiative.

With the rise of social media, inside and outside of the enterprise, people are now connecting and collaborating in even greater numbers. The informal, cross-organistional networks are increasing as the formal organisational boundaries are blurring. The the need to understand how organisations are wired through people connections is therefore equally increasing.

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