Digital Transformation! It’s been a thing for ages in big legacy enterprises and government. (Universities — it’s coming for you, too.) And yet, it feels new. Consultants are probably in your organisation right now, creating digital transformation strategies.
But computers have been in the enterprise for a long time. For almost as long, people have been asking what it means to have computers in the workplace. Shortly after that we started to ask how computers will change how we work. One of the people who wrote about that in 1992 was Wanda J Orlikowski (who is one of my research heroes).
In the early 90s, Orlikowski conducted an ethnography at a management consulting firm. In this paper Orlikowski calls the firm “Alpha”. At the time of her research, Alpha was about to buy Lotus Notes. Notes is a bit like Sharepoint, except Lotus Notes came out in 1989 and Sharepoint was new in 2001. Some of you are probably aware that Notes is still in use today.
Orlikowski’s paper is called “Learning from Notes: Organisational Issues in Groupware Implementation”. It’s about what people in Alpha thought about why the firm had bought Louts Notes.
Let’s start at the beginning.
In the late 1980s, Alpha’s executives had decided that Alpha was falling behind. They thought Alpha could be use technology “more effectively”. They commissioned a study and appointed a CIO who was going to have “responsibility for the firm’s internal use of information technology”. Orlikowski calls this CIO role “a new a powerful position”.
This next part is worth quoting in full:
It was while reviewing communication software that the CIO was introduced to the Notes groupware system. As he remarked later, after a few days of “playing with Notes,” he quickly realized that it was “a breakthrough technology,” with the potential to create “a revolution” in how members of Alpha communicated and coordinated their activities, Shortly thereafter the CIO acquired a site license to install Notes throughout the firm, and announced that the product would be Alpha’s communications standard.
The CIO started telling Alpha’s senior leadership about how great Notes was. He told the executives that Notes “can help us manage our expertise and transform our practice.”
Alpha had adopted email “widely and enthusiastically” but when Orlikowski conducted her ethnography, Notes was in the early stages of rollout. At the main site that she had access to, Orlikowski started her work before Notes was installed and she was also there during the rollout.
Orlikowski introduces two concepts to help her explain how people use collaborative software in an organisation. (1) People’s mental models about the software and (2) the policies, norms and reward systems of the organisation.
Mental models about software
Orlikowski uses the term “mental model” in a way that needs a little unpacking. She doesn’t mean mental model the way Don Norman, does. She doesn’t use it the way Indi Young does. For Orlikowski, a mental model is the frame of reference “that individuals have about the world, their organization, work, technology, and so on”. In later papers, Orikowski calls this concept a person’s “technological frame”.
If a piece of software can be fit into your existing technological frame, then you’ll find it easy to understand. If a piece of software is too different to fit in your technological frame, it’ll be challenging. To make it useful, you need to incorporate new information into your technological frame. There are two ways to get this new information: communication and training.
The communication and training that Alpha employees had about Lotus Notes was… insufficient.
Many of them first heard about the CIO’s decision to standardize on Notes through the trade press. Others encountered it during Alpha’s annual management seminars that form part of consultants’ continuing education program. Most encountered it for the first time when it was installed on their computers.
A substantial part of Learning from Notes is made up of quotes from Alpha consultants and technologists. Orlikowski uses quotes in a really interesting way. She doesn’t give one quote as the paradigmatic example of something. She layers quotes on quotes so that you’re absolutely sure of the message she’s trying to get across. It’s very powerful.
To show how Alpha employees were unfamiliar with Notes before it showed up on their computers, Orlikowski gives eleven quotes. Eleven! Here’s a sample:
I first heard that the firm had bought Notes through the Wall Street Journal. Then your study was the next mention of it. That’s all I know about it.
I’ve heard that it’s hard copy of email … but I am not very clear about what it is exactly.
It’s a database housed somewhere in the center of the universe.
So far, so funny. This sequence of quotes lets Orlikowski make it clear that none of these Alpha consultants understood what Notes was, or they were supposed to do with it. They had “weak technological frames” and this was a problem because “people act towards technology on the basis of the meaning it has for them”. Because they didn’t understand what the technology meant for them they weren’t able to figure out how to make it part of how they did their work.
Norms, policies and reward systems
Lotus Notes is very explicitly collaborative software, or groupware in the 90s jargon. It’s built with the idea that it’s for knowledge sharing. Orlikowski found that the Alpha consultants were not excited about knowledge sharing. Alpha, like most management consulting firms, had a very competitive culture. It was every person for themselves. Orlikowski illustrates this In another stack of quotes. Here’s just one:
”The corporate psychology makes the use of Notes difficult, Particularly the consultant career path which creates a back-stabbing and aggressive environment. People aren’t backstabbing consciously, it’s just that the environment makes people maximize opportunities for themselves.”
The culture assumed by Lotus Notes wasn’t Alpha’s culture. Alpha introduced notes in a rush and nothing else had changed. The firm culture certainly hadn’t. The consultants “feared loss of power, control, prestige, and promotion opportunities if they shared their ideas”. There was also a real fear expressed by the consultants of being seen to be wrong. Putting your ideas out so other people could see them as they took shape was never going to happen.
What it means in 2020
I’ve been reading about digital transformation and change management lately.
It’s often framed in terms of heroic leadership. ‘To truly transform industry/government/universities we’ll need to set a strong, compelling vision for the need for change. Without this vision, our industry/government/university will be left behind, disrupted, and bad things will happen.’
Even when these heroic visions talk about the people who will live and work in the transformed systems, it feels like there’s something missing. Often, a digital transformation happens because an executive approves the purchase of an enterprise-scale software system. There’s an expectation that the new system will help the organisation change how it delivers value.
Orlikowski says, with great understatement:
When an organization deploys a new technology with an intent to make substantial changes in business processes, people’s technological frames and the organization’s work practices will likely require substantial change.
That is, enterprise systems neccessarily change the way an organisation works internally. It’s easy to forget that means that the people who do the work of the organisation will need to change how they work, too.
I think the lesson for 2020 from Orlikowski’s 1992 paper is that digital transformation efforts that only focus on “changing hearts and minds” are going to fail. Change needs to pay attention to the the work, and the way the work gets done. Heroic leadership is so 28 years ago.
Orlikowski, W. J. (1992). Learning from Notes: Organizational issues in groupware implementation. Proceedings of the 1992 ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work - CSCW ’92, 362–369.
Publicly available source