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Technology governance duties for the 21st century decision-maker
Technology in its fullest understanding is the capability that leads to outcomes, whether tangible or intangible. For this to happen, typically, certain skills and procedures are required. Looking at technology from this particular perspective, at least nine epochs are distinguished in the history of technological progress. At first, there were basic stone tools, then fire, followed by speech and art both serving as expressions of ancient realities, then, in comparison to the earlier epochs followed in relatively quick succession the Industrial Revolution, steam and railways, electricity, steel and heavy engineering, oil, the automobile and mass production, information technology, and convergent technologies. Seen on the continuum depicted below, though, early advances in human history are closely associated with these technological developments.
Yet, it was the dawn of the printing press towards the end of the Middle Ages which spurred the Renaissance, and which eventually led to the first recognizable techno-economic revolution of the modern age. Better known as the Industrial Revolution, this era was characterized by the mechanization of the cotton industry and the construction of canals, waterways, waterwheels and turnpike roads. More importantly, though, was the change these developments brought to early financial markets. For example, with breakthroughs diminishing, the innovation cycle turned downwards, and economic activity declined, creating recessionary conditions. Yet, financial capital proceeded along its own trajectory, leading to over-invested markets and inflated pricing of assets, an era which became known as the so-called “canal mania”. A great proportion of these investments was, however, financed through introduction of the practice of 90-day open and revolving credit, and upon devaluation followed the first and inevitable financial market crash. With idle capital in the hands of the rich, technological innovations into new frontiers manifested, slowly picking up over the next fifty years and eventually leading to the era of steam, investments in railways, ports, depots, city gas pipelines and worldwide shipping, destructing entire value chains dating from the Industrial Revolution.
In this manner, the history of technology can be seen to be in a stepdance with that of financial markets, with every successive technological epoch when at its peak of development accompanied by a market crash. For the last approximately 100 years, these cycles are best identified with the change-over between Fordism and mass production, on the one hand, and information and communication technologies (ICT’s) on the other. In fact, ICT’s have been serving as a catalyst for robotics onto the factory floor, and most recently also for the change from ICT’s to mechatronics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) data science and convergence. Over the years, though, certain key trends associated with technological progress became clear. They are as follows:
- First, the size, height and footprint of technologies continue to increase beyond imagination, proven by bigger container ships and aeroplanes, higher buildings and dam walls, and space-age scientific experiments like the International Space Station, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the Large Hadron Collider. Technology also becomes smaller and increasingly manifest at nanoscale. Think about gene sequencing and its applications in the medical and agricultural industries.
- Second, every technology epoch is characterized by a different principle of operation. A sequence of capabilities can be conceived of, starting with manual effort, followed in sequence by fire, speech and art, mechanics, steam, electricity, internal combustion, electronics, mechatronics, and lately concluded by the convergence of mechatronics, biotronics, AI, virtuality, and infonomics.
- Third, technology becomes more accurate and efficient. From the crude capabilities of stone tools to pinpoint accuracy of laser, of GPS navigation and of digital capabilities in general, there is a steady progress in accuracy and efficiency.
- Fourth, technology becomes increasingly complex, and understanding thereof less accessible to the layperson.
- Fifth, due to conflation of these characteristics, technology also becomes more expensive, yet more omnipresent.
As a result of the ingrained complexity of technology, and the steady usurping of human labour first by robots, then by ICT’s and lately by AI, questions arose about the nature of technology. Thought leaders in this arena consequently came up with various theories, frameworks and conceptual tools in order to help society master the basic tenets of technology, to increase technological literacy, and indeed to expand the philosophy of technology. Among luminaries from the recent past or still active, and to which recognition is due, are names such as Gunther Ropohl, Rias van Wyk, Aaron J. Shenhar, Joca Stefanovic, Gerard Gaynor, Val Dusek, W. Brian Arthur, and Kevin Kelly. From among the many examples of concepts they created, two notions deserve introduction in a compilation like this, i.e. the concept of a hierarchy of technologies, and the method of Strategic Technology Analysis (STA):
- First, technology can be seen to operate at various scales, and together these scales can be conceived along a hierarchy such as depicted below:
According to this conception,  technology can be a basic material such as a paper page, or it can be a complex array of widely dispersed systems which function towards a common mission, such as an electricity grid, the Large Hadron Collider earlier mentioned or indeed the so-called military industrial complex. This hierarchy, however, renders exchanges about technology systematic, accessible and intelligible.
- Second, Strategic Technology Analysis is an approach for evaluating technologies on the basis of their intrinsic characteristics. This approach uses powerful concepts such as technological entities, technological potency, technological anatomies and taxonomies, and social and environmental (ecological) acceptance of technologies, in order to promote understanding of the intrinsic capabilities, functional outcomes and stratification of technologies.
Often, technology comprises the core offering for businesses, with supporting services comprising the rest of the value chain. These businesses are seen as technology-intensive. Typical examples of this would be businesses in industries such as telecommunications, food, mining, furniture, textiles and pharmaceuticals. The opposite category comprises businesses which are not technology-intensive, where technology is functional in supporting services only. In their turn, these businesses offer services such as finances, education, health and entertainment, and they typically rely on IT as powerful enablers. Technology, therefore, is omnipresent, and comprises increasingly more of the typical asset base of businesses. Due to the intrinsically formative forces associated with the Internet, digitization, Big Data and information assets, technology, of course, is often invincible from its powerful workings, and at this time is also the enable of data science and information economics, better described as the monetization and management of information.
While the aforementioned offers a broad overview of the outlines of technology, from the distant past to the present, there remains a key question to be answered about the role of technology in contemporary society. Specifically, the question arises as to what extent technology controls society, unless there are still observers believing that society remains in control of technology? This question deserves thorough contemplation and is a treatise of its own. This question does bring to bear, though, the issue of technological literacy, considering that all societies, all countries and indeed all businesses today to a more or lesser extent depend on technology. Specifically, unless levels of technological literacy are dramatically increased among political leaders, industrial leaders and public commentators, the potential exists for technology to entirely usurp human willpower within the next thirty years, which leaves only one generation still with the opportunity to respond with systematic intervention programs.
On the other hand, even for benign applications, technology should be better understood for its intrinsic characteristics and its endless potency. So, technology in its various manifestations must also be adjudicated for its environmental, social, and governance (ESG) impact. This duty too requires of decision-makers across the spectrum a certain level of technological literacy in order to effectively steer governance and oversight of technology strategies, technology investments and business operations relying on technology. Today, the tangible footprint of technologies must be assessed from origin, (through) processing or manufacturing, to supply, use and disassembly thereof. The intangible implications of technology, furthermore, require insights into the workings thereof, they require ethical perspectives, financial acumen, labour relations and even international relations, given that ICT functions seamlessly across borders and legal jurisdictions.
Future-focused leaders, therefore, beyond business acumen also strife to become technology-fluid. They realize that technology is all-pervasive and powerful, and that the current transition to robotics, artificial intelligence and quantum computing require of them to render technology a top priority on their governance and oversight agendas. They actively pursue strategies and operations to ensure that their technology assets have been sourced responsibly, that the workings thereof respect the privacy and dignity of all living things inasmuch as environmental health, and that once retired these technologies are fed back into the recycling streams representative of their industries. They evaluate technology for its relevance, appropriateness and functionality, with relevance interrogating immediacy of need and of utility value, with appropriateness interrogating fitness for purpose, and with functionality interrogating outcomes with efficiency and sustainability gains. They wholeheartedly pursue Integrated Reporting in order to inform all stakeholders of their attention to detail, inclusive of technology impacts.
Future-focused leaders also remain conscious of immediate technology priorities, such as the need for digital governance, among others involving considerate social media strategies, thorough data and privacy protection principles and practices, and exploration of data monetization strategies. Furthermore, in particular at this time, future-focused leaders pursue protection of Intellectual Property (IP) as the valuable intangible asset base it really is, reconsidering acceleration of digital projects exploiting such IP, and steering their organizations and their human capital carefully yet purposefully through the fog of the technological horizon, and the current Covid-19 crisis, combined with the recessionary conditions to follow in its wake.
 Shenhar, A.J., Van Wyk, R.J., Stefanovic, J. & Gaynor, G. 2004. Technofact: Toward a fundamental entity of technology. A new look at technology and MOT. Paper delivered at IAMOT, Washington, DC.
 Van Wyk, R.J. 2000. Technology: A unifying code. Cape Town: Stage Media Group.
Dr Ferdie Lochner heads up Independent CTO comprising of a small virtual team of experts collaborating in order to present to the market an ecosystem of CTO services and associated non-executive oversight roles focusing on technology strategies and decisions. Having served for thirty years as a public servant and academic, Ferdie took early retirement to launch a new ecosystem of services directed at technology strategies and decisions involving non-executive roles and Chief Technology Officer roles.
Virtual Business Leaders have to Feel, Think and Behave differently
Dr Chris Heunis, TBi – Team Building Institute, May 2020
In these unprecedented times, our quest for certainty is being challenged by ambiguity. The world – and our understanding of organisational leadership – is changing.
Rediscover the essence of corporate leadership in unusual circumstances.
Now that we are becoming familiar with the great equaliser, COVID-19, we will appreciate the true value of leadership and whether current leaders are leading in the true sense of the word. Being the CEO, a member of Senior Management or having sacrificed everything for the proverbial corner office may have given us the idea that leadership constitutes power, leverage and control – in short, a position in a hierarchy. However, this version of leadership has changed and the leader’s ability to truly lead, influence and communicate is now being tested.
Our space has shifted, interdependent relationships is the commodity of the future.
Transforming organisational culture
How do we transform culture remotely? Order, control, respect, discipline and obedience were subtly introduced and maintained by the physical layout of our ‘executive monuments’ to strategically influence and enforce behaviour, benefitting those who understood the rules of ‘getting ahead’ by ‘playing the game’. This analysis may seem harsh and perhaps debatable. Perhaps this scenario was an unintentional reality, but what one cannot deny, is the fact that our ability to influence, to motivate others to ‘move’ is now being challenged.
Feel, think and behave
These are behavioural principles that are the ingredients you may require as leader to survive in the virtual world.
The concepts of feeling, sensing and experiencing conjure up associations with heightened awareness. To feel, suggests an optimal engagement of our senses. Now that we are limited to telephone and video conferencing, understanding, or feeling the state of mind of others will become a critical skill. This is a skill we can all acquire, although for some of us it will be easier than for others. Before we can delve into the “how” of this, we first need to understand the “why”.
Managing and motivating from a distance requires one to be honest and brave enough to acknowledge one’s own vulnerability and that of colleagues. A new appreciation of equality is emerging, my breath matters, washing my hands matter, staying home and changing my ways matter; basic rules that apply to all of us. Those that serve, became overnight heroes (health care workers, cashiers at super markets, farmers, etc.). Being vulnerable is perceived to make us weak and strategic if we want to hide the obvious, but, when vulnerability is acknowledged we become human and above judgement. Once your vulnerability is acknowledged, you will rise to higher ground and evolve from dependency to interdependency. The challenge the virtual leader faces is to get team members to acknowledge and appreciate vulnerability as the underlying principle of interdependence. In other words, as current CEO or Manager you have to be humble and truly seek to understand those you lead, not the other way around,… the tide has changed.
Thinking – how
The above taken into account, we are now ready to explore, how does one create a spirit of interdepence?
We are quite aware of the fact that our behaviour affects the way others see us and will affect buy-in. What leaders may not know is how their way of thinking (style of thinking) affects behaviour. The Palestinian writer Edward Said, in his 1993 collection of essays, Culture and Imperialism, suggested that nobody today is purely one thing and he called upon us to recognise that, “It is more rewarding – and more difficult – to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about ‘us.’”
Let us take a closer look at how one can effectively lead remotely. The physical and mental aspects of one’s reality influence each other. Each of us have tendencies derived from our accumulated experiences, which manifest in the way we see and experience our reality. Reality constitutes interplay between our inner world and the physical world. We have all developed thinking patterns as we confront ourselves with possibility, followed by probability and taking action. This culminates in habits and styles of thinking. Awareness of this dynamic process between mind and brain determines a degree of presence. The first step to understanding others, and leading them, start with self-understanding – in other words, understanding how your style of thinking can assist you to create and environment of trust and hope.
When hope is present, action follows. The above confirms that a business leader’s success is determined by his or her ability to influence others by understanding how his or her thinking preferences affect others.
How do you find the right words to get the message across? How do you get colleagues on the other side of the world to understand your message, so that they will execute tasks effectively? Now that you have a clear understanding of your own thinking preferences, you are ready to “seek to understand”. You have to be brave enough to reach out.
Virtual team management demands the ability to apply convergent, divergent, critical and feeling-based thinking. The business leader has to deliberately pay attention to the world of his or her audience with an open mind to direct energy and information, from their internal state, deeply into his or her own world. The biggest challenge is to let go of the feeling that you know everything, or that you control outcomes. The virtual world demands trust and the willingness to embrace vulnerability. Leading in a world of uncertainty may take you into directions no one can predict: discomfort, a lack of control and even feelings of incompetence.
Now, more than ever, the higher purpose of the organisation, business, company, firm, or industry, steered by strong virtual leaders, will be respected and understood: to collectively achieve a shared goal to the benefit of all, in a fair and compassionate manner.
Dr Chris Heunis is the CEO of the Team Building Institute in Pretoria, South Africa. He is a behaviourist, and believes that the success of business leadership starts with being mindful of the needs of others.
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