It’s not about the technology! Or is it?

New experiences, behaviours and techniques come along from time to time. As children, at school, there was always the latest “craze” whether it was for conkers or marbles or assegais (remember those?). As adults, at work and at play, we call them innovations, whether they are new materials, techniques, goods, services, fashions or whole new experiences.

“Social”

At the time of writing (early 2011), one significant “craze” is for “social media”, “social networking”, “social” anything, or, even, simply “social”, … as if we were not social or, at least, sociable before! It’s all the rage. Now we (yup, that includes me) are calling it “social communication” and just round the corner, allegedly, is “social commerce”. It’s fun, it’s different, and it’s a substantial change in something or other, … but in what?

Yet, it is so easy to be distracted by the technology; the new, shiny and different something or other: in this case, broadly, it is the publication of, previously private, electronic communication of text, audio, video, etc. and the new models for managing the relationships involved; and it is better for a variety of reasons including, in the case of Twitter (the current social media early adopters’ short term communication channel), counter-intuitive ones such as being restricted to short messages!

It’s not!

Then comes the cry from the cognoscenti (not from the digerati, of course, they are having a ball!) that “It’s not about the technology!”. Of course, this is a loaded statement because, for many people, the immediate reaction is “so what is it about?!”.

Yet, the point is a serious one. It is, or at least I assume that it is for most of them, that the most important aspect is to understand the purpose of communication and that the fundamentals of communication have not changed. Let’s assume that they are correct, and I happen to think that, in principle, they probably are; if so, what do they really mean?

The book, which I have not yet read, on the subject apparently tackles this exact point by considering, for organisations, the relationship between marketers and engineers, which is central to the organisations management of innovation.

Innovation

Whenever innovative products (whether goods or services) are introduced into any field, things change. Some things get easier, some things get harder; some things are now possible, some things are no longer possible; there is often a steep learning curve; nothing about the purpose has immediately changed, and yet many things about the pursuit of that purpose are completely changed.

What are we to make of it all?

There is much more to be said, on other occasions, about the finer points of new products supplanting old products, about the “sailing ship syndrome”, about the radical difference in failure modes, about the retention of false constraints … there is a short article, or even six long ones, to be written on each of those!

However, the truth of the matter usually is that the cognoscenti are correct in the sense that the rate of change of our understanding of the challenges in any specific subject domain is usually much slower than the rate of advance of new products, especially when any specific product is going through its “tornado” (pace Geoffrey Moore) phase. This is not always true, as they may be coupled (a lot was learnt about supersonic flight in combination with the development of the jet engine), but that is less common.

It is!

Yet, my stance is that, I happen to think that it is about the technology! Self-evidently, if there had been no change in the technology, then we would not be making such a fuss about it, because we are agreeing that the actual requirements have hardly changed.

Recently, Trey Pennington (an open minded thinker and generous listener, if ever there was one) mentioned to me that he was writing a chapter on “It’s not about the technology!” for his book “Spitball Marketing”. When I suggested that maybe it frequently is about the technology, his response was not to disagree, was not to agree and question whether the chapter was appropriate, but was to do the open thinking and generous thing and to suggest that he’d better also write another chapter on “It is about the technology!”. Thank you, Trey!

So what has changed? What has changed is that the technology has enabled activities that were not available before. Rather than being about the actual technology, this is about the fit between the capabilities of the technology and the requirements of people; it is about the applicability, application and usage of the technology.

Anyway, this seems barely to be scratching the surface of the issue.

Two sides (cultures?)

Suffice, for now, to say that I have happily foolishly (if that makes sense) selected this as a topic for a short talk in April. I seem to be making a habit of talks on these two-sided topics: innovation “is”/”is not” manageable at the EEDBC September 2010 meeting in Honiton; innovation management is strategic/tactical at the BrightIdea user meeting in Zürich; innovation “is”/”is not” random at the Random One meeting in Exeter; and now it (i.e. innovation, I think) “is”/”is not” about the technology.

Ho, hum!