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, [1]  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[2]  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.  

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

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