Technology in the Service of Humanity

May 26, 2018 • ILE LAB • Boaz Tamir

Many organizations discover the truth the hard way – You can’t develop true innovation without investing in human development

General, Your Tank is a Powerful Vehicle
It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect:
It needs a driver.

(Berthold Brecht)

I have a “premium” credit card that provides me with various perk which I am able to easily and comfortably redeem over the internet. One of those perks is two-for-one movie tickets. I recently tried to redeem that perk so I could spend time with my granddaughter, but I discovered that I wasn’t entitled to that second ticket because I hadn’t spent enough on that credit card.  I was short 50 ILS ($14).

When I called the credit company’s customer service, the courteous representative could only confirm what I already knew – that I was not entitled to the perk. She wasn’t able to use any of her own discretion to solve my problem.  I remained an unsatisfied customer and cancelled my “preferred” status.

According to updated views on management, “Innovation” is a necessary managerial tool. But what does innovation look like, and how can it be achieved?  Banks, insurance companies, public services and the defence and police forces are all proudly announcing the “digital revolution” which is meant to be a sign of “innovative management.”

Technology and innovation are not synonyms.  Indeed, it can be surprising to discover that, at times, they even contradict one another.  Technology defines an organization’s capabilities and technical possibilities, but in a centralized managerial hierarchical system, introduction of technology allows for long-distance managerial control, can lead to not investing in the development of the working people for the good of the customers.

Technology cannot provide a quick solution for every managerial problem, military or commercial.  In fact, obsessive use of tools for monitoring and control weakens the judgement of the teams working in the field and leads of the loss of operational flexibility and speed.  That’s how tactical problems turn into strategic crises.  An organization that sends a message of lack of trust in its front operation line cannot expect those same people to take responsibility and initiative and to solve problems in real time, and it certainly cannot expect them to be innovative.  In the absence of space for judgement and training in problem solving in the field, in order to cover themselves, workers will merely pass the problems on to the managerial levels. The manager, who may be experienced but is not close to the field, winds up being responsible for putting out endless fires and gives up on developing the abilities of his employees, fresh thinking, innovation and proximity to the field.

Actually, the priorities should be reversed:  existing technology is most often a proven solution to the problems of the past while the human spirt (and especially mistakes made during the learning process!) is the basis for improvement of an organization’s ability to deal with complex problems under conditions of uncertainty with regard to the future.

It is interesting to contrast these experiences with the conclusions of the research conduct by Oakland McKolloch1 regarding the battles to block the advance of enemy forces in the southern Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War. This research reveals that the decentralized teams of the armored corps divisions continued to operate even after the IDF’s tactical command (at the brigade and battalion levels) had collapsed.  It was the low-ranking commanders who changed the course of that war.

Placing the locus of control at the head of the hierarchical pyramid hurt the operational flexibility in the field, and it was difficult for the combat fighters to take initiative and use their independent judgement in unexpected combat situations. The lessons learned should serve as a caution to anyone who is dealing with complex systems in a chaotic situation.

It is in the very nature of innovation to deviate from the norm and disrupt existing patterns. The freedom to create, to attempt, to disrupt, to err and to fail is thus a necessary condition for the existence of innovation.  Fear of failure and of not meeting set goals – which is a synonym for a centralized, hierarchical system – represses innovation.

Creating a culture of innovation, in contrast to grabbing on to technological solutions, begins with the development of the human spirit, with all its dreams, fears, ambivalence and mistakes.  Development of the abilities of the individual and the teams to independently cope with surprises and obstacles and to solve problems in real time is a necessary requirement for efficient use of technology.

Until an intelligent robot that will be able to replace human intuition is built, and perhaps even afterwards, respect for the person and recognition of his unique contribution remain crucial to the creation of an effective organization.  Give your people space in which trust in theirs abilities can grow, and you will receive innovation in return.

1 Oakland McKolloch, Decisiveness of Israeli Small-Unit Leadership on the Golan Heights in the 1973 Yom Kippur War (2013)

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