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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book: The Technology Takers – Leading Change in the Digital Era

Q&A on the Book: The Technology Takers – Leading Change in the Digital Era

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Key Takeaways

  • Technology takers adopt the latest technology and adapt their business processes to exploit its capabilities.
  • Most organizations can maximize business value creation by becoming technology takers.
  • Effective technology taking challenges managers (not just those in IT) to continually learn new technologies and consider their possible applications.
  • Technology taking requires continuous innovation and a new approach to change management.
  • Technology strategy and governance cannot be delegated to IT; technology strategy and governance is an organization-wide responsibility.

The Technology Takers – Leading Change in the Digital Era by Jens P. Flanding, Genevieve M. Grabman, and Sheila Q. Cox explains how organizations can achieve competitive advantage through their speed and flexibility in adopting technology. It prescribes a change management approach for adapting workplace behaviors to market-dominating technology to maximize its benefits.

InfoQ readers can download an extract of The Technology Takers.

InfoQ interviewed Genevieve M. Grabman and Sheila Q. Cox about what technology takers are and how to better create value with technology, the benefits that such an approach can deliver, and what digital-era skills companies need to invest in to build the workforce of the future.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Sheila Q. Cox: I am a pioneer in the field of organizational change management and technology-driven business transformations. And a few years ago, I was convinced that the classic principles of change management applied to all technology projects, whether that project was SaaS or custom development, waterfall or agile.  Several months into a technology implementation, I recognized that a different approach to change management was now required. And no one was writing about it.

Genevieve M. Grabman: As a policy and risk manager for public organizations, I’ve experienced first-hand what happens when organizations fail to consider the policy implications of technology. I wanted to help leaders recognize that technology enables new behaviors - and not all those behaviors are in line with an organization’s mission and values. Clear guidelines must be established early to stay out of court and keep clients happy.

InfoQ: For whom is the book intended?

Grabman: It’s intended for business executives in large and small organizations, both public and private. Particularly those who have been content to delegate all aspects of technology to the technology department. I have noticed high profile companies get into trouble when they failed to consider the policy risks of the digital era.

Cox: It’s a book for IT executives who are so busy dealing with technology issues that they don’t have time to address human issues, who know that technology alone does not deliver value, and who want to prepare their organization to capitalize on new technologies, and aren’t sure where to start.

InfoQ: What are "technology takers"?

Grabman: "Technology Taker" is an analogy to "Price Taker," which was Jens Flanding’s idea that led to the book being written. A price taker is a simple concept from classical economics theory: a player in a policy or business strategy game is constrained by the core features of a given market space. The player must adapt to the price or technology the market offers.

Cox: Technology takers achieve competitive advantage through the speed of implementation.  They are not bogged down in custom creation; instead, they adopt the best tech available and adapt their workplace behaviors to that technology.

InfoQ: What changes are needed to enable organizations to better create value with technology that’s available?

Cox: Having pursued a technology taker strategy, digital era leaders recognize that while the overall mission and values of an organization remain constant, staying ahead in an environment of constantly changing technologies requires highly adaptable behavior. No one has the luxury of detailed to-be state definition (a la waterfall development). Instead, an organization must be prepared to bob and weave and continually change by adapting to or "taking" new technologies.

This organizational culture shift cannot be accomplished through a temporary change management team focused on training and communication for a single "transformation" project. Instead of relying solely on outside consultants, savvy technology taking organizations create a permanent Change Management Function (CMF) and build their capacity to continually change.
This new CMF is headed by a member of the senior leadership team and performs many activities that were previously conducted by change management teams, strategy teams, project management teams, and executive coaches.

InfoQ: What does a technology takers strategy look like?

Grabman: Our book’s argument, in a nutshell, is that success is found for those evince high rates of technology adoption and and behavioral adaptation. The technology-taker strategy is an explicit choice among what we have coined as the "maker, taker, tinker, or tailor" options for technology adoption and behavioral adaptation.

An organization could choose to be a technology maker and, in addition to meeting that organization’s mission, invent its own technology. Or an organization could be a technology tailor and customize an existing technology so that it fits only that organization’s particular needs. Those who opt out completely from using modern tech are technology tinkerers. And organizations and leaders who decide to use the leading technologies of the day and to adapt themselves to the requirements of those technologies are technology takers.

Leaders need to determine the extent to which they will adopt market-dominating technologies and manage related change in their organizations. Making this choice requires using a continuous set of five change management plays:

  1. Envision: To make technology-taking a possibility, seek a leadership vision and support from a new change management function
  2. Govern: Establish governance structures to guide adoption of an adaptation to digital-era technologies
  3. Engage: Sponsor, mandate, and advocate for change at all levels of the organization
  4. Equip: Invest so people are equipped with technology skills for the future
  5. Measure: Measure managers; shift from merely observing the digital era to embracing and participating in change

InfoQ: How do technology takers ensure that value is generated?

Cox: Following our playbook helps to ensure that value is generated. Of the many to-dos of technology taking, two are critical to generating value. First, senior leadership must agree upon a business case for technology taking. This business case does not look simply at the ROIs for new technologies. This is an organizational strategy to create and maintain competitive advantage. An innovative portfolio approach is required.  This strategy is owned by the top leaders – they are responsible.

Second, the Change Management Function (CMF) must be staffed, budgeted, and empowered to work directly with senior management. Mindset and behavioral changes begin at the top. The CMF is charged with developing proactive change management interventions that enable technology taking innovation and value-creating opportunities.

InfoQ: What benefits can a technology taker approach deliver?

Cox and Grabman: The benefits are:

Enhanced Customer Experience

The balance of power has shifted between companies and customers. Customer demands have changed, not due to direct competitors, but due to customer experience in other industries. The global dominance of smartphone processes has caused consumers to expect choice.  

For example, faced with shifting consumer demand, McDonald’s has started eliminating its proprietary technologies for over-the-counter and drive-up window ordering. Customers can now use self-service technology to customize their McDonald’s hamburger – instead of going across the street to the competition.

Improved Decision-Making

Technology-taking managers have access to real-time data about business operations. Coupled with effective analysis, these data can help managers test assumptions and develop new hypotheses.

Scania, a truck manufacturer, recognized the importance of data in transportation. In Europe, a truckload of 60% capacity is typical. Scania has built an international database to improve fleet management by tracking speed, fuel use, engine performance and driving technique, enabling their clients to improve fill rates and reduce costs.

Value Creation

New digital era companies can spring up, seemingly overnight, by adopting new e-commerce models. Those wedded to older, less-flexible business models struggle with higher costs, slower reaction times, and eventual market share loss to more agile and modern competitors.

Tamara Mellon learned the luxury shoe business at Jimmy Choo, which sold its shoes wholesale to high-end retailers. When she started her own shoe company, Mellon embraced a new, digital-era, direct-to-consumer business model. By using real-time data about individual consumers, her company can react quickly. And the investment community has taken notice, as have millions of loyal customers.

Risk Mitigation

The digital era poses unique risks to organizations and also offers tools for effective risk management. Adaptation to new tech limits the risk of disintermediation. Organizations prepared to compete in today’s market will be able to do so and will not be left on the digital dust heap like Kodak or Blockbuster.

The massive data breaches Desjardins and customer data abuse at Facebook are cautionary tales of the failure of adequate governance in the digital era, however. Strong, unitary organizational governance can control the data and privacy risk specific to cloud-based technologies. Using these modern technologies allows organizations new, innovative ways to monitor their workers’ compliance with policies, procedures, and laws.

InfoQ: What digital-era skills do companies need to invest in to build the workforce of the future?

Cox: Our research indicates that companies should look at investments in the following areas:

Technical Skills

Companies need to recognize that they cannot possibly train their workforce on all the technical skills required. By the time a training organization identifies a technical skill requirement and begins to provide courses, that skill is already starting to become passé.  Instead of trying to bring everything in-house, companies need to focus on providing opportunities and budgets for employees at all levels to seek their own training.

Management Disciplines

Three new management disciplines are required. Managers need to:

  1. Recognize that keeping skills up-to-date is part of the job. Attending a class cannot be treated the same way as taking time off.
  2. Explicitly measure whether employees are learning and adopting new technologies. This includes both their skills and their attitudes.
  3. Be role models by personally demonstrating their willingness to learn. They must be willing to be beginners, rather than avoiding all areas where they are not expert.

Foundational Skills

Whatever the technologies that are being taken, companies will need to invest in foundational skills that are sorely lacking, including: research, statistics, data analysis, data presentation, logic and critical thinking. For example, too many managers don’t understand that a hypothesis cannot be proved, only disproved. Technology takers unearth ways to create value through effective data analysis. Look at data incorrectly, at too high levels or too low levels of aggregation, and it’s trouble!

Note from the editor: Jens Flanding was not available for an interview at the time of publication.

Note from the authors: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors’ alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of the authors’ past or present employers or affiliations.

About the Book Authors

Jens P. Flanding is a political scientist, a management consultant, and United Nations System Staff College faculty for designing and managing organizational change. After training as an economist at Royal Holloway College and McGill University, he worked as a management consultant with Deloitte's strategy and operations consulting practice. Dr. Flanding has master's degrees in policy and research and a doctorate in political science from the London School of Economics.

Genevieve M. Grabman is an attorney and expert on strategic planning, governance, and risk management. Based in Washington, DC, she has advised public, private, non-profit, and United Nations organizations and helped draft and pass organizational policies and procedures, national laws and regulations, and international treaties. Ms. Grabman holds a master's degree in health policy and management from Johns Hopkins University and earned a Juris Doctor from Georgetown University Law Center.

Sheila Q. Cox is a Harvard-educated speaker, change management consultant, and technology adoption specialist. Combining hands-on experience in information systems implementation with an in-depth understanding of organizational, team, and individual behavior, Ms. Cox founded Performance Horizons, a change management firm. Ms. Cox helps management teams build innovative cultures and successfully adapt to change.

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