Combating the Dark Side of Technology (Part 2)

by John Hagel

Combating the Dark Side of Technology (Part 2)Earlier this week in Combating the Dark Side of Technology (Part 1), I made the case that we’ll only be able to overcome the dark side of technology by re-integrating passion and profession. But this is only the first step. If this is all we do, we’ll be doomed to lives of frustration and discontent.

Institutions as Obstacles

Here’s the problem. We live in a world of institutions that were built in a different era – one that relentlessly sought to suppress passion in the name of predictability and efficiency. And when I say institutions, I mean all of our institutions – corporations, schools, NGO’s and government.

It’s no accident that only 11% of the US workforce is passionate about their work. This is a sign of great success. This is exactly what these institutions were designed to do – suppress passion. It starts with our schools that seek to prepare us for all the other institutional environments seeking people who can reliably follow instructions and execute in a predictable manner. Think of our current institutions as powerful chisels, relentlessly chipping away at our edges until we fit neatly into the tightly defined roles that our institutions have create.

If we’re fortunate enough to connect with our passion and find a way to pursue it professionally, our institutions will work tirelessly to put out the flame of passion and squeeze us back into the programmed roles that the institutions designed for us. We’ll find the passion slowly but inexorably squeezed out of us or we’ll find ourselves marginalized, forced to flee institutions (and the sad truth is we can never truly be free from the institutions that shape the society around us) or hiding on the edges of institutions that treat us with suspicion and disdain.

Taking Innovation to a Higher Level

If we truly want our passion to flourish, we’ll need to change all of this. We’ll need to be innovative at an entirely new level. Rather than focusing narrowly on technology and product innovation, we’ll need to broaden our horizons and engage in institutional innovation, imagining and then crafting an entirely new set of institutional arrangements based on a fundamentally different rationale for institutions. We’ll need to begin the long march through our institutions and redesign all aspects of them from the ground up.

We need to challenge the most basic rationale for why we have institutions to begin with. Our existing institutions were built on a rationale of scalable efficiency. It was easier to coordinate and scale transactions if they occurred within a single institution, rather than spread across multiple institutions. And efficiency in relatively stable environments required predictability. This in turn led to increasingly fine-tuned systems driven by standardization of work, tight specification of activities and tight integration of activities. Risk undermined predictability so these systems became very risk averse.

It’s no surprise that these systems sought to squash passion – passion leads people to take risks as they embark on new quests, passion drives experimentation and tinkering, and sometimes even bold leaps, that undermine tightly integrated systems, and passion drives people to connect in unexpected ways that are not carefully programmed in advance.

Passion drives us to learn faster in our never-ending quest to achieve higher levels of impact within our chosen domain. But our institutions today are driven by scalable efficiency, not scalable learning. In fact, scalable efficiency (at least as traditionally defined) is profoundly hostile to scalable learning – how could anyone really learn in an environment that is highly risk averse, standardizes all activity and tightly specifies every step that must be taken?

What would institutions look like if their core rationale were scalable learning? What if the reason we’ll come together in institutions in the future is that we’ll learn faster as participants in these institutions than we ever could on our own? These are the questions that should focus and drive our efforts to craft a new set of institutional arrangements.

Scalable learning requires passion. If we’re not truly driven to achieve more of our potential, we’ll never learn as rapidly as those who are. Rather than being optional, or worse, something to be viewed with suspicion, passion of all the participants becomes a pre-requisite for the success of the institution.

If we take this seriously, we’ll have to re-think all aspects of our institutions, starting with a systematic redesign of our work environments to accelerate learning. We’ll need to design and deploy scalable pull platforms that can help all of us to draw out people and resources when we need them and where we need them to support our questing and connecting dispositions. The Power of Pull develops this opportunity much more fully.

It’s only in this kind of environment that our passion will find fertile ground to take root and truly blossom, enabling us to achieve more of our potential. Without it, we’ll be relegated to the margins, viewed with suspicion and confronted on a daily basis with efforts to contain, if not extinguish, the passion that we have so carefully nurtured.

Getting From Here to There

But, how do we create such institutional environments? Certainly part of the answer is to build entirely new institutions from the ground up. But does that mean that all is lost for our existing institutions? Not at all. Every institution, no matter how hard-wired and set in its ways has the capacity for change.
But it won’t be easy. We’ll need to resist the temptation to challenge our institutions head on and persuade them of the need to change. Our institutions have great strength, with powerful antibodies specifically designed to suppress any efforts to change them.

Rather than confronting the core, we’ll need to start on edges that have the potential to scale rapidly, driven by the exponential forces that our re-shaping our economy and society. By designing alternative institutional arrangements on the edge and harnessing the capabilities of new generations of digital technology, we’ll quickly be able to rapidly scale these edges and demonstrate the power of new institutional forms in drawing out the potential within all of us to achieve ever higher levels of performance.

Over time, we’ll be able to pull more and more of the people and resources from the core of our established institutions out to the edges as they rapidly scale. This is a much more promising approach to change than conventional efforts to push change into the core. Before we know it, the once-powerful cores will become increasingly marginalized and fade into irrelevance as the edges become the new cores of a very different set of institutions.

But Why Should Institutions Care?

OK, so far, I’ve made the case that we need institutional innovation to create environments that catalyze and amplify the passion that resides within all of us. That’s certainly important for us as individuals to overcome the dark side of technology. But what’s in it for the institutions?

In a world of mounting performance pressure, this is the only hope for institutions to survive and thrive. You see, the old model of scalable efficiency is irretrievably broken. What used to be highly efficient becomes hugely inefficient in a world marked by growing uncertainty and unanticipated disruptions. The paradox is that the only way to get scalable efficiency in our current and future business environment is precisely by shifting our focus to scalable learning and adopting a fundamentally different set of practices and institutional arrangements.

If institutions get this right, they’ll be able to tap into powerful collaboration curves where we’ll learn faster, and achieve ever higher levels of performance, as more participants join in. We’ll shift from institutions trapped by diminishing returns in performance to ones that finally are able to grow and thrive through increasing returns.

Bottom Line

If we are to escape the dark side of technology, we need to do more than tap into the passion that resides within each of us. We need to take on the difficult challenge of transforming our institutions to nurture our passion and amplify the impact of our actions. We need to transform institutions so that, rather than representing barriers to passion, they become catalysts and amplifiers of passion.

But we’ll never succeed if we try to take this on as isolated individuals. We need to come together in movements. This is a third piece to the puzzle. We’ll need it to support us on our journey from the dark side to the frontiers of opportunity created by the Big Shift. Stay tuned – there’s more to come.

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John HagelJohn Hagel leads a major research center in Silicon Valley and writes extensively on evolving forms of innovation. His most recent book is The Power of Pull, his personal blog is Edge Perspectives, and his Twitter handle is @jhagel.