Kane, Gerald C., Phillips, Anh Nguyen, Copulsky, Jonathan R., and Andrus, Garth R. The technology fallacy: how people are the real key to digital transformation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2022. x, 269 pp. ISBN 978-0-262-54511-2. $19.95
I had my doubts about this book when I saw the title, as it looked rather like a straw man: I don't believe that there has ever been any doubt that the application of digital technologies in organizations depends for its success on the leadership of the organization and the people who bring about the necessary changes. Digital technologies can hardly implement themselves, nor can they undertake work without human control. It would have been much more persuasive to dispense with the title and use the sub-title.
However, the book was originally published in 2019 and this is the paperback version, so one can assume that it was successful. And deservedly so: the book is based on four years of research, in the course of which more than 16,000 people were surveyed, giving the data a degree of validity that would be hard to surpass. The surveys were supported by interviews with "more than seventy-five thought leaders" in various major companies in the USA. This focus on the USA is understandable, of course: the use of digital technologies in US companies is obviously a crucial factor in the development of the economy. However, it does limit the applicability of the results to the USA and to those countries that have adopted similar organizational cultures. Whether they are applicable to the completely different cultures of China, Japan, and South Korea is another matter.
The book is composed of three parts: Part I, consisting of chapters 1 to 5 deals with the idea of digital disruption and argues that companies need to aim for "digital maturity" if they are to compete effectively. The digital disruption referred to includes such phenomena as the rise of Amazon and its impact on the retail world, Uber and other taxi-calling apps, and Airbnb and its impact on the holiday market. The authors found that 87% of their survey respondents believed that digital technologies could disrupt their industries.
Regarding digital maturity, the authors argue that organizations must manage the interrelationships among people, tasks, structure and culture, to take maximum advantage of digital technologies. Almost every new management idea over the past fifty years has said more or less the same thing in relation to those ideas, from management by objectives, to business process engineering, and almost all of them achieved little success, for a reason the authors touch upon:
C-level [i.e., chief] executives often portray their organizations as transparent, open to risk taking, and having high morale. But as you move down the organizational structure, managers rarely believe it and say that the level of trust is very low. (p. 40)
This exactly coincides with my own experience of interviewing in major UK companies: we hear one story from the executive level and quite a different story from the operational departments. This may be one reason why Utopian ideas of organizational change (like business process re-engineering) tend to fail: they demand a major shift across the organization with everyone singing to the same hymn-sheet. In fact, organizational change is more often achieved slowly and incrementally, involving a great deal of work on the part of executives and managers in gaining and retaining trust.
Part II of the book (Chapters 6 to 10) deals with achieving digital maturity and, appropriately, focuses on leadership and training as key elements. However, leadership seems to be associated only with the senior management of the organization, whereas, in fact, unless the qualities of leadership required at the top if the organization are distributed throughout all management levels, it is likely that the leader will not be totally successful in achieving change. Consider the need to motivate people and ask, How can the chief executive motivate people if he or she is a remote authority figure? The art of 'managing by walking about', talking with people in the operational departments and understanding what motivates them is essential. It is sometimes forgotten that middle managers can act as barriers to the transmission of information and ideas from the top of the organization and, equally, fail to pass ideas and problems upwards.
As regards training and continual learning in the organization it is rather surprising that little seems to have changed in many organizations since I did some work on information policies for Anderson Consulting (now Accenture) in the late 1980s (Wilson, 1989). One of common problems experienced by companies was the lack of appropriately trained people in the necessary IT specialisms. An equally common problem was the lack of effective training programmes in firms to import those skills. I am reminded of a focus group meeting in which the participants expressed surprise at how well informed one of their number appeared to be about the use of Excel spreadsheets. They asked how he had acquired this knowledge and he replied that his previous employer had an effective training programme on the subject, whereas the organization in which he now worked had not. In another study, ten years later (Owens and Wilson, 1997), we found that even in high-performing companies, difficulty in recruiting the appropriate people was the primary barrier to success in implementing information strategies. Not surprisingly, the authors of this book find that those companies that are most advanced towards digital maturity are more likely to be developing their employees skills than are the least advanced.
Chapters 11 to 15 constitute part III of the book, and these are devoted to identifying the characteristics of the digitally mature organization. The characteristics are displayed in a figure in Chapter 11, in a way that makes clear that the more advanced organizations are ahead of others on every characteristic. These are: "agility", i.e., an ability to change direction rapidly; an appetite for risk-taking; moving to a data-driven process for decision making; distributed leadership; a "passion of work" or "living to work" rather than working to live, [I would regard this as rather dangerous, as it would seem to foster the over-working culture in an organization]; and collaborative work-style.
This is a very soundly-based book on a subject that is becoming increasingly significant and, as the author state in their conclusion, unlikely to change in the future. Organizations that fail to reach digital maturity are likely to be failing organizations. However, I am rather surprised that so little appears to have changed since I did that work 20 to 30 years ago. I am also surprised that the authors gave so little attention (in fact almost none) to matters such as information management (at the personal and organizational levels), and issues such as information overload. Communication and information are at the heart of the digital change process and surely deserved consideration?
Owens, I. & Wilson, T.D. (1997). Information and business performance: a study of information systems and services in high-performing companies. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 29(1), 19-28 Wilson, T.D. (1989). The implementation of information systems strategies in UK companies: aims and barriers to success. International Journal of Information Management, 9(4), 245-258.
How to cite this review
Wilson, T.D. (2022). Review of: Kane, Gerald C., Phillips, Anh Nguyen, Copulsky, Jonathan R., & Andrus, Garth R. The technology fallacy: how people are the real key to digital transformation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2022. Information Research, 27(4), review no. R747. http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs747.html
Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.