If you want a fascinating insight into how the 'Digital revolution' is showing itself to be the sixth great change in civilisation as we know it, then take a look at this article from Strategy+Business titled A Long-Wave Theory on Today’s Digital Revolution.
According to Historian Elin Whitney-Smith "there have been six information revolutions in human history. Each represents a major change in the organizational paradigm — a change in how people form themselves into groups. The first was among hunter–gatherers just before the invention of agriculture; second, the rise of counting and written language; third, the fall of Rome; fourth, the invention of the printing press; fifth, the electric information revolution that accompanied trains, telegraph, and telephone; and sixth, the digital information revolution that we are now living through".
Says Whitney-Smith, the lesson for leaders in all types of organisations appears profound - "they either ignore the new information technology and miss out on opportunities, or they fear the world it creates and try to co-opt it, shut it down, or control it. This generally fails, their fortunes decline, and a new group of dominant competitors emerges". So rather than resist change we should look to embrace it, because let's face it, none of the revolutions outlined above ever went away just because people didn't want them to happen.
Can't help but think of the world of retail, TV, newspapers, books, music and postal services, to see examples of how some industries have changed profoundly in the last decade and that's just the start. Any industry that thinks they are immune to the changes that the digital revolution brings is likely to find themselves looking a bit like the Roman Empire. Constant reinvention is therefore likely to be critical. Why? Because history tells us it always has been.
This quote by J.Paul Getty also provides good insight into what organisations need to be doing to be fit for the future. And its not about relying on what they know or are good at today - probably because that will be redundant tomorrow.
"In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy"
I reflected on this recently when a friend didn't get a job at a large telco because they didn't have industry experience! What I do know is they did have the rights skills and mindsets to have driven the necessary change that telco was looking for but without the constraints of what has gone before. Boom... is that a hole in their foot I see?
The Long-Wave theory article suggests that history is clearly telling us that leaders/organisations who move beyond what they know and embrace the latest digital revolution are the ones who will prosper (I loved the fascinating insight into why the USSR really failed - a reason in itself to read the article). Elin also highlights that the companies that will thrive are the ones with "massive line worker input" - those with the type of “open management” seen in the new business model of collaboration many of today's successful organisations are adopting (vs the old one of command and control).
Elin sums it all up by saying "In today’s world, the new wave of surviving organizations will also have a different structure. It’s not entirely clear yet what they’ll look like, but we know they’ll involve many more people at lower levels in decision making. In fact, in each new information revolution, decision rights have been pushed lower in the organization".
Companies that will survive the massive change underway will therefore be those that reorganise themselves and leverage the knowledge and talent held at all levels of an organisation, rather than rely on the flawed thinking that says senior managers should know all the answers. Sometimes senior managers are so far removed from their customers and the day to day workings of the business, that in fact they actually know less about 'what is really going on'. And frequently they are sheltered from reality by staff who'd rather keep them in the dark because they are afraid of the consequences of sharing the truth. Creating a culture that is inclusive and leverages the best of everything, is indeed the future of work.
Reorganising around the knowledge held at all levels of an organisation may sound exhausting but the alternatives don't look that flash - just ask Theodosius the Great, the last Emperor of the Roman Empire.
So I recommend you have a read of A Long-Wave Theory on Today’s Digital Revolution - it's a great slice of history and management insight all rolled into one.
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