Digitial Capital Week (#dcweek) is well underway in Washington and yesterday I attended a half day of sessions on the new media. During the morning panel on social networks and the new media with representatives of National Geographic, USATODAY, NPR, and Aviation Week (just too cool that Orville Wright was an original subscriber to the magazine), the NPR rep noted how difficult it was for NPR’s small operation to keep up with the speed of change in technology. He cited specifically mobile apps and how NPR has chosen to support a limited range of apps because it simply doesn’t have the resources to keep up with all the technologies, particularly if they’re going to have to be updated several times a year.
OK, I thought, NPR seems to be assuming there is a certain pace to human events that is natural and well-ordered. Well who made NPR or any other company for that matter the judge of the best pace for human society, I snorted? (Politely, to myself.) No one of course; NPR was simply hoping for the continuation of a pace convenient to its structure. At that moment it became clear to me at least that the pace of normal human life, with digital and internet innovation as its new metronome, now overwhelms the structure of the great majority of organizations.
(I know I have a few readers outside the US, so I guess I should note that NPR stands for National Public Radio, although the NPR official at the panel said they now refer to themselves just as NPR to reflect the growing range of their activities, such as on the internet. After listening to their news broadcasts and shows, I’m persuaded the acronym actually stands for National Pessimists Radio, but I digress…)
It’s commonplace to speak of the rate of change as being too fast for organizations but the phenomenon attains a different quality when we realize that it is the pace of normal life that now exceeds organizational capacity. Mobile apps are a great example of this. Many of these apps are being tweaked by gifted amateurs. (At the panel, NPR noted its first iPhone app was created by one of its avid listeners.) These individuals don’t think of these adjustments as change initiatives, the way industry or government would. Adjusting a feature often is not that much more significant for them than deciding to have lunch at 130 pm vice noon. WordPress, which hosts my blog–thank you, announces changes to its platform so frequently I hardly notice.
Legacy, 20th century organizations are designed for quite a different rhythm of life. Any change in software code must be tested against the entire cascade of code lest some catastrophic consequences ensue. (For the person living to digital rhythm, you simply tackle these anomalies as they present themselves.) The assumption that implementation must wait until the system is completely tested dictates an operational rhythm with many, looong pauses. And of course, hierarchical and/or authoritative management philosophies always assume the process can be safely stopped for the management intervention that theoretically improves quality. For legacy organizations, pace and quality are to a certain degree in opposition to each other. In digital life, pace and quality are paired; quality occurs as a result of keeping up the pace.
I often saw this dynamic in my government career. Every change effort was attacked by the “first tell me how will the whole new system work” question. And when we finally set off on a new change effort (Cue Angels and Trumpets), it took so long that by the implementation date we were already behind at least three technology cycles, even if we had been cutting edge at the decision point ten years earlier. The structure of government is particularly ill-suited to keeping up the pace. Just think of lengthy Congressional hearings and the marathon journey of legislation.
Organizations did not always lag the pace of normal human life. During the Industrial Revolution, factories powered by the new machines so accelerated the pace of life that many feared the human physiology would collapse under the pressure. As the British history section on the BBC website notes:
The Victorians had become addicted to speed and, like all speed crazy kids, they wanted to go ever faster. Time was money and efficiency became increasingly important…With greater speed came a greater need for industries and businesses to make more and make it quicker. Steam made this possible and changed working life forever. Gone were the days when work was dictated by natural forces: steam engines were servant to neither season nor sunshine.
An example of this I bet we’re all familiar with is this great scene from I Love Lucy, which is by the way the first I Love Lucy clip that pops up on YouTube. (For years I had a tshirt that read “Forget Lucy, I love Ethel” I loved that shirt so much I wore it to death, but I digress…)
But now the dynamic is completely reversed. Organizations hold the keys to very old machines and processes. But for most individuals under the age of 40, the digital pace is the natural pace. (Seems to me that the internet makes us dumb arguments of Nicholas Carr also have at their heart this unease with the new pace. Before I can take any of these arguments seriously, someone has to prove to me that there is some inherently desirable pace for human activity. Until then, I accept what is.)
This issue of pace also has implications for the John Hagel/John Seely Brown insight concerning how individuals and organizations today must learn to interact with knowledge flows rather than managing knowledge stocks. I believe organizations, just like Lucy and Ethel in the video, underestimate the pace at which the flow of knowledge will come at them. For sure they overestimate the ability of their existing structures to keep pace with that flow. And unlike Lucy and Ethel, it does you no good to eat the knowledge. I believe many of them will learn over time that the only way to keep pace will be to break down their organization walls and rely instead on their community of supporters. The NPR representative chuckled at the idea of someone outside the organization creating their first iPhone app but I think NPR would be able to support many more mobile apps if it embraced and developed this phenomenon into a new business model. Successful organizations of the future will share leadership responsibilities with their community of trusted supporters.)
(One last aside. While researching some references to the Industrial Revolution I ran across this very lovely piece about the pace of life in industrial countries on the BNET website. (It appears to have originally been published in the journal American Demographics.) The research looks to be about 15 years old but the piece has some great data and is also great fun to read. I think it would be a useful research project to update this work in light of the new digital culture.)