The Role of IT as Conversation Designers

The Role of IT as Conversation Designers

If you are in an executive role then understanding what IT does, what it can do, and where it is going, is a core part of your job. IT is not the business of the IT department. It is the business of the business. And that reality is now becoming more foundational than we have previously imagined. Looking at a “bricks and mortar” retail chain that has not come to grips with the impact of social media on the purchasing behaviours of their market is just one tragic glimpse of the scale of change.

Social media are just part of the challenge. More generally, the lines are getting blurry between people and machines, and between them and the digital stream that flows between, and that both now rely upon. And in that mix, everything has a voice. Everything speaks[i] – the human stakeholders, the market, the internet of things, and even the (big) data itself. Now IT is being asked to be the facilitator of the dialogs, the provider of new channels for talk, the interpreter of the conversations, and ultimately the speaker who determines the future.

“…an organization’s Information Technology (IT) Department and Chief Information Officer (CIO) not only play a vital role in the organization’s overall operation, but in devising the organization’s communication dynamics and knowledge sharing culture. No longer are IT professionals only to be concerned with maintaining an organization’s technical infrastructure. With the current shift to a knowledge sharing, collaborative work environment, they must focus on establishing social networks that generate knowledge, promote learning and enable innovative decisions be implemented.”[ii]

But the stakes are ever higher and the learning curve relentlessly steep. When IT introduced platforms that enabled e-mail exchanges, departments might still have been called "EDP" and the "IT guy" was a middle management techo. No one thought to consult "him" (as it invariably was) about how to use the new capability well – nor would he have known how to answer! People used email indiscriminately for transactional stuff like arranging meetings (and usually succeeded), and for complex and fuzzy conversation spaces, with some catastrophic confusion to follow. And not so long ago,

“A study carried out among 28 companies having implemented an ERP shows that in only 24 % of cases did the strategy focus on the human dimensions and change, while in 36% of cases, the process retained was primarily technological.” [iii]

Not so long ago. But not acceptable now. No longer is a rift between “technology” and “human dimensions and change” desirable, permissible, or sustainable`. In fact, the rift is becoming impossible – and indiscernible.

“What is transpiring is momentous, nothing less than the planet wiring itself a new nervous system. If your organization is not linked into this nervous system, you will be hard pressed to participate in the planet’s future. To be more specific, amidst the texting and Twittering and Facebooking of a generation of digital natives, the fundamentals of next-generation communication and collaboration are being worked out.”[iv]

The shift now is advanced and irreversible – IT has moved from project managers of technology insertions to facilitators of the very stuff of organisations – the conversations of business.

“As is easily observed, in most cases employees are knowledge workers. Because of this, the role of the CIO and the IT Department are strategic. While it is important that the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) promotes an organizational culture that values knowledge and learning, and the Human Resource Management (HRM) Director develops leaders that enable knowledge sharing and creative thinking, the CIO must envision and implement a human-centric information systems infrastructure that can be the technical backbone for the organization’s communication and knowledge generation avenues.”[v]

In many ways, IT has been being groomed for that role for a long time. Working in digital media, of all the engineering disciplines, takes one closest to playing with language, as was made obvious by Winograd and Flores in "Understanding Computers and Cognition"[vi] twenty five years ago. I don’t think Agile can do as much as its evangelists claim – I’ve seen what it takes to build a naval destroyer. But nevertheless, lightweight software development and project management has paved a new path in human-centric IT. Arthritic, ponderous, exhaustive progress by documentation is replaced by fast conversational iterations where the fundamental technology is talk, not paper. Unsurprisingly, the lessons from Agile are steadily making inroads into other managerial contexts. So IT is no stranger to the insights that can be drawn from language – indeed, IT seems inexorably drawn to insights from language (see, for example, the works of Paul Pangaro, Terry Winograd, and Nicholas Negroponte).

While IT is on the road, and making significant progress along it, the new demands are a new order of magnitude in challenge. IT is being asked to go where no enterprise function has gone before. They are being asked to work with the absolute DNA of human cooperative endeavour – our conversations – the way we talk together to get work done. What will CIO’s and their strategic collaborators in HR and Operations need to reach for in order to speak usefully in this space. Or will they be as flatfooted as the 1990’s techo being asked how to use email?

“One of the dangers with the enormous advances made in technology is to confuse the transmission of information with effective communication. Technological advances enable us to have ready access to a huge diversity of complex information. But this is not communication. When humans coordinate their activities for the mutual accomplishment of tasks, communication has occurred. Technology can facilitate this occurring, and indeed technology can provide the opportunities for conversations to occur more readily. But it is not the technology itself that coordinates human action – it is the human use of the technology, and this occurs through conversation. Human interaction, via the medium of conversation, is necessary for the coordination of action”[vii]

A solution will need to have a significant set of features to have the required flexibility and scope for these challenges:

• It will need to scale across all conversation systems – from the sole worker’s “conversation within their own head” (eg a solo plant operator, a roaming broker, or a remote maintainer), through team based conversations (eg care delivery “microsystems” in clinics and hospitals), business functions, to product development and planning systems. (At first glance this seems a big ask, but it is in fact what we have had delivered by process based improvement models such as TQM and Lean).

• It will need to encompass the features of a complex adaptive system. Because it is trying to address human interactions while retaining their ingenuity and emergence, the approach will have to have the “requisite variety” (Ashby’s Law) for that scope[viii]. Only a complex adaptive system has those properties.

• It will need to keep pace with the future that is yet to come. If those who study the dynamics of the future such as the Kondratieff cycles are correct, we are barely beginning the harvest of the possibilities created by the IT “great surge”[ix]. What kind of capability can be a platform technology for the pending phase change?

It’s hard to speak of benefits when confronted with necessity. When an evolutionary corner is turned because the old environment is uninhabitable and when a new species emerges to thrive in the new habitat, we don’t think of "benefits". But we are usually admiring of the adaptation. A capacity to move with this new generation of IT challenges is not an optional extra that some businesses will choose because of the “benefits”. It is the necessary path that surviving businesses will have walked to the new environment.

And stunningly, the answer is not far from us. It lies in mastering conversations themselves:

“As a distinct social activity, management is so heavily rooted in the use of language that one may wonder why it has taken so long for scholars to recognise it. … Issuing commands and directions,

engaging in conversations, influencing others, negotiating, discussing and debating, strategizing, representing the organization to stakeholders, all of these activities involve the use of language par excellence. Yet it is only in the last ten years at most that management and organizational

scholarship has taken language seriously.[x]

The reason is that the closeness of language to our work, its everyday nature, and its growing focus in management studies, do not make it any easier to work with. They do mean a new capability must be learnt. But the capacity for forming new knowledge along pathways that are made up of custom-designed conversational processes – processes that weave in digital tools, social media or lumps of equipment – is now possible. The Knowledge Development Pathway characterises the requisite set of conversations for humans to cooperate in pursuit of purpose. Based in the core capacity of humans to handle complexity in language – as they always have – the KDP forms a fractal, complex adaptive system , a scaffolding for the Requisite conversations.

“It is possible for an organization to learn and grow, but only if it creates conditions

that help generate new language. Using new language, an organization may create new paths to productivity, and regenerate itself. The conversations necessary for generating new language and new opportunities do not come naturally.”[xi]

They do not come naturally. But they can be built.

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.

Change Conversation


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