Digital Economy Dispatch #090

29th May 2022

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Fear of Digital (FOD) and Facing Up to the Dark Side of Digital Transformation

I’m scared. Seriously. I am properly spooked. Are we peering over the edge of a digital precipice? I’ve not experienced anything like this. Wasn’t it all supposed to get better with digital technology at the vanguard of a new age of prosperity and peace? Instead, many of my conversations lately have taken a very dark turn. Rather than seeing the positive impacts of the rapid deployment of digital ways of working, people are questioning whether we are heading in the right direction. A Fear of Digital (FOD) we’re all experiencing to some degree. Is digital transformation contributing to the problems we face today as much as it is part of the solution?

My journeys in technology over the past 40 years have taken me to many far-flung corners of the digital world. I uncovered the mysteries of arcane software architectures in the large military systems of the 1980s. I blundered my way through photolithography in the design of complex hyper-dense hardware chipsets in the 1990s. I couch surfed in Cupertino in a tech startup during the dotcom craze of the 2000s. And pieced together enterprise strategies using distributed object-oriented solutions that brought us agile development and microservices in the 2010s.

Now, I am embedded in the digital economy of the 2020s ushering a brave new world of technology-driven change to deliver business efficiency, bring together humanity, and opening up new opportunities for all. But somehow it doesn’t feel like that.

One

“I don’t want to do this anymore”. In one form or another, it is a comment that I’ve been hearing a lot lately. For some it is an expression made in desperation as they struggle to cope with the day-to-day challenges they face. For others it is an expression of shifting values and a feeling that they should be devoting their time and energy to something that matters more to them after the shock of the past 2 years.

We are finding that digital transformation programs are taking a big toll on the mental health and wellbeing of workers in digitized workplaces. A challenge that has been exacerbated during the recent pandemic. This is now being seen as a major crisis for employers. Its consequences may result in significantly higher costs for all organizations to investing in improved HR practices and tools to ensure workers are supported, additional time away from stressful work-related activities for key workers, more training for those in leadership positions to identify and intervene to prevent people-related issues, and much more. As these issues become better understood, there is no doubt that this will requires significant on-going attention from every organization to maintain a healthy and productive workforce.

Techno-stress is a concept that has been a concern for many years. Its impacts have been studied and reviewed in many different contexts. Yet, it is now being highlighted as an emergent phenomenon closely related to the pervasive use of digital technologies in today’s fast-paced environment. In general, such analyses show that it affects both professional and private life leading to a reduction in job and life satisfaction and damaging to business productivity. It is often associated with the occurrence of psychological and behavioural disorders.

In my discussions with a wide variety of people involved in digital transformation programmes, experiences of increases levels of stress frequently form a dominant theme in the conversations. For some it is surfaced in specific events or activities that illustrate the dilemmas the faced in carrying out work tasks, manging their teams, coping with the changes to the workplace, or just getting on with daily life.

But for others digital disruption is creating a deeper, more fundamental concern. Essential questions are being raised about their role and purpose, their ability to adapt to a changing world, and the kind of future they see for themselves and their families. These are unsettling times for many people trying to understand how digital transformation will alter how they see the world.

In practical terms, I see several sources of Digital Techno-Stress:

  • Digital Overload: Pressure to work more due to technology and its continual information flow. Digital technologies connect us all the time to streams of data about our work, our lives, our relationships, our health, and more. Surely this demands continuous monitoring, detailed analysis, and frequent action?
  • Digital Invasion: The inability to escape work or to separate different aspects of our lives. Being always connected and always up-to-date becomes an obsession. So many of us spend hours in front of a computer screen or glued to a mobile phone. How can we manage this need to always know, to be available at all times, and to make everything fit?
  • Digital Complexity: Taking the time and effort needed to figure out how to use digital technology. With so many digital tools and technologies at our fingertips, we need to master their capabilities and be able to adapt them to our circumstances. Yet, they are constantly being upgraded and new digital solutions appear all the time. How do we stay in control of a digital world that seem intent on moving faster than we can keep up?
  • Digital Insecurity: Feeling like your job, skills, and experiences are threatened. As digital technologies improve, they are increasing in scale and sophistication. They seem destined to exceed our capacity to understand them, and to be capable of replacing more and more of on-going production and decision-making activities. So, what does that do to someone’s sense of self-worth, and how does that change the way we see individuals and the future of work?
  • Digital Uncertainty: Fast paced digital technology change leading to wasted effort fixing bugs and updating work practices. Every day it seems as if there are changes in the digital technologies we use and the processes we apply to adopt them. Not only does this create confusion, but it also introduces potential for errors, mistakes, and incompatibilities. And we all have faced far too many digital technology disruptions to believe that these changes will go without a hitch. What can we rely upon and how do we create resilience in a digital world?

Is it any surprise that we now face “a mental health crisis like no other” as we adapt to the challenges of a digital world and emerge from the challenges of global pandemic. It is now everyone’s job to look out for the for each other and to build our personal and organizational support systems to help see us through this very difficult time.

Two

Another completely packed train to Waterloo. Here we go. Elbows out, headphones firmly attached. Off to the Big City. Extensive pronouncements about the death of commuting and the permanence of remote working seem to be rather exaggerated. At least according to my recent morning experiences.

We were told to expect that the grind of the daily commute was now dead. The accelerated digitization of the workplace meant that WFH was the norm, not the exception. Perhaps these pronouncements were a little too quick off the mark. The real answer is that we see a blend of working styles. Adapted to our lifestyles, we may well spend focused time at the home office and shared time with colleagues following the occasional morning commute. It is projected as a liberating force that bring hybrid working patterns for our varied circumstances. What’s not to like?

In fact, the move to hybrid working is creating significant disruption.

  • For individuals, there is confusion about whether working from home is supported or just tolerated leading to uncertainty about how the choice of working pattern will have implications for their career.
  • At the team level, collaboration and interaction with colleagues now seems to require remote and in person interactions, aligning on everyone’s schedules, coping with local and remote meeting attendees, and synchronizing work and home life to an increasingly unpredictable schedule.
  • At an organizational level it is creating uncertainty and unpredictability about staffing needs, office capacity, workplace support, and many aspects of on-going project planning, performance management, and cost analysis.

Approaches to address this confusing situation vary widely. Calls for “everyone back to the office” are inevitable. While others have made a more liberal “work where you like” announcement. One thing is for sure: This variety will be a major test of the adaptability of employers and employees alike.

Three

Several studies, such as those looking at large government initiatives, indicate that digital transformation programmes are not going very well. The most recent report highlights over 25 years there has been “a consistent pattern of underperformance”. It seems that commercial efforts often face the same fate. Enthusiasm for broad digital change dissipates over time and becomes a series of small scale successes presented as a broader shift in the hope that good ideas percolate through the organization. Unfortunately, without the right support, this rarely takes place.

Our experience with many digital transformation initiatives has helped us identify common failure patterns that must be avoided. In particular, the “boiling frog syndrome” that underlies many of these failures: slowly unravelling initiatives affecting multiple levels in the organization, until the initiative becomes unsustainable.

This syndrome is quite common and presents a recurrent challenge to successful digital initiatives. Richard Durnall, a principal analyst with leading global digital transformation organization Thoughtworks, observed that the substantive culture change inherent in digital transformation face a common order of failures, often in the following sequence:

  • The people break. Resistance to change is common with any new way of working. Agile, open team practices can deeply affect existing culture and values and result in strong pushback from disoriented individuals.
  • The tools break. Most business processes are not targeted at rapid delivery cycles and extensive experimentation in creating new products and services. Tooling can severely inhibit agile ways of operating if not aligned with innovative practices.
  • The governance breaks. The measures and metrics used to govern assume a traditional view of project progress and success. Adjustments are required to provide a balance between governed progress and the need for fast-learning cycles.
  • The customer breaks. Any rapid delivery cycle demands more frequent feedback from customers and other stakeholders. Getting the input needed to learn is essential. Yet many consumer-supplier relationships do not readily support such interactions, and when introduced, place added pressure on fragile customer relationships.
  • The financial controls break. Product funding cycles are frequently based on progress through various stage-gates such as “design complete”, and “first customer shipment”. In more agile delivery cycles, progress may be less directly measured, with flexibility required to continue funding activities with different risk profiles delivering functionality in small slices.
  • The organizational structure breaks. Eventually the organization’s management structure becomes stressed when empowered teams interact directly with consumers in rapid iterations of new product features. The command-and-control view of decision-making can be directly at odds with the shifting priority-based delivery model of agile teams.

Bringing substantial change to large established organizations is hard. The fall out is inevitable and predictable. Yet too few organizations seem to be ready to deal with the short- and long-term implications. Building support to manage these tensions is essential.

Toward a New Dawn?

Recent conversations on digital transformation indicate that we have entered a very difficult period where we often feel overwhelmed by the challenges that confront us to adopt digital technology appropriately and effectively, powerless to anticipate change, and constrained when asked to deliver meaningful results. A Fear of Digital (FOD) we’re all experiencing. Perhaps like me, you’re struggling right now to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a good time to reflect, take stock, and get ready for the next steps. We need to keep focused on overcoming what’s holding us back to build the support needed to help us move forward.

Digital Economy Tidbits

How GDPR is Failing. Link.

We took a big step forward in data protection with the GDPR regulations. But that was 4 years ago. Is it still fit for purpose? Some people think not.

Now, civil society groups have grown frustrated with GDPR’s limitations, while some countries’ regulators complain the system to handle international complaints is bloated and slows down enforcement. By comparison, the information economy moves at breakneck speed. “To say that GDPR is well enforced, I think it’s a mistake. It’s not enforced as quickly as we thought,” Robert says.

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