Be prepared for social change

Our mental models of how things work are often a barrier to our adaptation to new capabilities.  Digital disruption will stretch our thinking in many new ways.

When railroads were first invented they were designed to be a powered form of wagon for bulk goods.  Only later did people develop the potential for railway travel, changes in communications and accelerate the distribution of fresh foods and other consumer goods. The introduction of railway travel created significant social change, demands for new resources and infrastructure, and ultimatelyinnovation in business & society. After a start as a powered wagon, innovators changed the mental model of a railway developing its potential and its impact on society as a whole.

We are in the midst of digital mobile and social revolution that is so new and widereaching we can face the same challenges in adapting our mental models. Yesterday I attended the New Economy Conference in Melbourne. The audience and speakers who had chosen to attend the event were very aware of the digital & social transformations beginning to be realised.

A key theme of the day was the impact of digital, mobile and social processes in creating dramatic improvements in connection and speed of information sharing.  This has major ramifications for markets and for corporations as they see their offerings atomised to services, boundaries becoming porous and competition expanding in speed and global reach.  Even consumers are getting into the act of being producers through collaborative consumption. These ideas resonated strongly because they connect directly with the short-term transactional focus of our industrial age mental models of production, markets and competition.  They involve the exploration of relatively simple changes to current models (who, where, what, volume or speed).

Harder for everyone to grasp are the changes to social systems which come with these new technologies and the need for new physical, legal and social infrastructure.  To run their cross-continental networks, railroads needed and inspired new social infrastructure.  An example was that railroads required society to adopt a precise concepts of time to manage their schedules.  Railroads determined the implementation of the continental United States four time zones and largely became the arbiter of time in the communities that they connected.

There is already evidence that these broader social changes are being created. Work is shifting rapidly towards creative knowledge work in many parts of the world with new demands for leadership and organisation. The acceleration of social activism was discussed on the day and the consequences of eBay, the many task allocation and collaborative consumption organisations in changing natures of trust & work.  We also discussed the social infrastructure required to measure value creation and waste in a broader more human way than just dollars (and the odd bit of avoided carbon).  We need to innovate as hard in this social infrastructure as in that to support the transactions.

As much as we create new ways of transacting, we also need to create new forms of community to supply the social infrastructure to support the transactions.  We need to support the short term interaction with a social fabric that can supply a longer human relationship.  Just as the railroads need a precise sense of time, our new economy demands new precision in ideas like collaboration, work, trust, community and value.

When we think of the future of digital disruption, we need to allow both for how it will change the mental models we use every day but also how it may demand of us entirely new models, such as new concepts of organisations, jobs, reputation, social relationships and new measures of success.   Success in the new digital era will take both adaptation to a new transactional environment but also adaptation of a new infrastructure of community, trust and long term relationships.  New models of leadership and new social innovations will be required to achieve both.

Simon Terry @simongterry

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