“Liberated Companies – How to Create Vibrant Organizations in the Digital Age” will be published at the end of this month. The book begins with turning a question that many company leaders ask on it’s head:
It’s not what technology can do for a company – it’s what companies can do to no longer stand in the way of technology.Tweet
I hope you like the following excerpt.
Chapter One: The Trajectory of Technology
So, you tell me that you are taking your company digital? I want to hear your idea of technology, not that you introduced this or that app… – Paraphrased from Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1891)
To devise an organizational design that works well in a world increasingly dominated by technology, one has to understand two things. First, we must grasp the essence of technological progress, the direction in which it is leading us—in short, we must understand the “wants” of technology. Second, as technology and humans become ever more closely intertwined, we must ask: how do humans and technology flourish together? Let’s save the first question for later and answer the second question first.
Old truth: technology is just a tool
A hammer, a coffee machine, or a smartphone app is a tool, a technology that we are using. Humans use these tools to manipulate the world around them, to get results. Natural problem-solvers that we are, we look around for the best tool to assist our efforts. If the tool is available, we simply need the skill to use it, and our lives will be easier. The basic thinking of many people in business is similar: tools help to solve problems. All we need to do is to make a tool available to workers and train them how to use it.
But is this really true? Of course not. For as long as technology has existed, the relationship between tools and people has never been a one-way street. Humans invented and used tools, and their use shaped human culture. No technology was ever inconsequential to human mindsets, values, social systems, even the rise and fall of empires. Anthropologists even divide cultures according to their tools: Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Age of the Sail, and Information Age, to name a few. The impact of tools doesn’t have to be as dramatic as gunpowder or printing; even the inconspicuous coffee machine intervenes in the way we structure our day, determines where and when we gather, takes up a prominent place in our homes, changes our biological mode of operation by drugging us slightly, and sends many of us into fits of rage when dysfunctional.
Tools have shaped us into what we are today. There is every reason to believe that with ever more technology available, the more and more we are shaped by it. As Marshall McLuhan is often attributed to have said, “We shape our tools and thereafter tools shape us.”
Even more true: technology as a maker of decisions
People in companies have already lost control over many things they used to do. In the information age, companies have delegated many tasks to complex systems, be it in production, distribution, accounting, or sales. These systems are so complex that no single person knows what the systems are really doing. Even teams of experts often struggle to make sense of the sheer complexity of modern systems—a fact that is clearly visible in the high failure rates of modern software projects. Humans have set up these systems, but are they fully in control? Are they making the decisions? Our control is limited by design because we want the machines to take over our work, to automate much of what is happening. The algorithms humans have set up mesh with other algorithms to produce the outcomes that we want, and we tend to understand less and less of their inner workings and true complexity. Still, we choose to rely on them out of necessity.
How much will we be in control tomorrow? Certainly less, as artificial intelligence becomes more pervasive in the workplace. The more we utilize technology, the more that technology will make decisions for us: today, it simple deterministic decisions, those that can be easily automated; tomorrow, more complex decisions, those requiring judgment. Without experts to act as translators between business and technology—be they engineers or highly specialized functional experts in logistics and accounting, for instance—modern businesses could not exist today. Yet even experts are limited in their ability to control, as it takes five things to be in control of complex systems.
This is a five-point recipe for making solid decisions about complex matters. The better an organization is able to apply this recipe, the more it will prosper. The trouble is that hierarchical companies find it hard to apply this recipe effectively, for the following reasons:
Major power differentials between people are systematically detrimental to making sense of complex systems, and this defect has grave consequences. As technology becomes increasingly complex and important for the survival of companies, conventional hierarchical companies will be less and less able to benefit from technology.
New truth: technology as a co-worker
As Kevin Kelly mentions in his book, What Technology Wants, “technology is an independent force in itself. Nobody is in control now and humanity will be less in control tomorrow. The technium is already whispering to itself.”
Today, most companies are already so complex that decisions are made by a mixture of humans and machines. In companies like Amazon, Google, Netflix, and Facebook, most day-to-day business decisions are made by algorithms in real-time. Have you ever tried to talk to their “customer service people”? Overwhelmingly, the product itself, in the form of some specialized algorithm, is in charge of customer interactions—and those algorithms are doing their job extremely well. Much better than the customer service peoples of cable or telecom companies usually do.
People inside technologically advanced companies tend to work more on maintaining and experimenting with algorithms. The algorithm becomes a co-worker—one that is extremely skilled in specific functions. Humans specialize in those things that they are more adept at, such as the holistic perception of contexts and setting purposeful directions. AI researchers have concluded that humans in the digital age will be an asset to any company, as they supply a certain form of specialized intelligence. Supplemented by all the multiple forms of intelligence that AI has to offer, the human-algorithm team can achieve much more than either can alone. Take chess, for example. There is no human on earth today who is able to beat modern chess programs. However, in tournaments where humans are allowed to play assisted by AI, the combination of human and machine tends to beat AI that is not supported by humans. There may, of course, come a point in the future when human interference in chess AI will no longer increase but may actually impair performance, but business is much more complex than chess—its rules are much more fluid, and its streams of information are much more ambiguous. In the context of businesses, human intelligence and machine intelligence are likely to have a productive relationship for a longer period. If humans and machines are more and more equal co-workers, the companies that benefit will be those that manage to create a work environment that fosters this cooperation.
Today, we work and live with companies that are a reaction to the challenges of the industrial age, and the work-environment design that best suited industrial technologies was bureaucracy. Bureaucracy replaced charismatic domination with legal domination, replaced haphazard arrangements with standardized processes and a clear hierarchical way of making decisions that was focused on analytics, efficiency, consistent outputs, and reduction of waste. At the time of its invention, bureaucracy was considered an antidote to bad management. Max Weber, a German sociologist credited with “inventing” bureaucracy, wrote in 1922 that “organizations are shaped by the relentless march of technological and managerial reality.”
Today we face the relentless march of the algorithm. There is so much benefit inherent in algorithms that we adapt our beliefs, behaviors, values, and social norms) to them, personally, socially, and in companies. According to Max Weber, technology puts us in an “iron cage”: we are defined by technology and will be redefined every time technology changes. In the industrial revolution, the “iron cage” trapped individuals in systems of efficiency, rational analysis, top-down control, and digressional power. Now, with the rise of dematerialized digital technologies and artificial intelligence, we feel the need to adapt our ways once again in order to catch up with technology.
If technology is rapidly evolving and technologies are quickly becoming obsolete, today’s challenge for humanity is not to align itself to any single new technology, but rather to find a method to keep evolving its cooperation with technology continuously and forever. Companies need a work design that is so sensitive and adaptable that technological and social innovation at the workplace occurs naturally and permanently. It is not enough to understand individual technologies: the internet of things, social media, 3D printing, virtual reality, block-chain, self-driving cars, big data, cloud systems, or AI, to name a few emergent technologies of the last decade alone. To overcome the challenge of building a design for human, social, and technological cooperation that is able to flourish in ever more technologically driven times, we need to understand what technology wants and how a company can serve these needs best.
Company leaders often ask: What does our company want from technology? How can technology help our company to be more competitive? To answer these questions, companies engage in all kinds of futuristic ideation workshops, creative sessions, company visits, and pilgrimages to Silicon Valley or coastal China. They declare success if they have identified or implemented or invested in this technology or that start-up. This is naïve.
The really important question to ask is: What does technology want from companies? This is an unusual question. Can technology “want” something? There are some thinkers, like Ray Kurzweil, who predict that a “singularity” will occur around 2045—a point where machines become sentient to such an extent that they will be able to self-construct. A point where the power of the kingdom of technology outstrips the power of the kingdom of biology, to which we humans belong. That point will be a point of no return for the human race—a singularity.
The chances are high that technology will become more independent in the future. Machines are becoming sentient in unexpected ways—it may not be that machines will trump the general versatility of biological human intelligence in the coming years, but machines are already coming up with alien forms of intelligence that make them superior for many specific applications. Recommendation engines determine what we buy, filter algorithms determine how we perceive reality, navigation apps shape the way we experience geography. The sheer numbers of proliferating specialized forms of intelligences are replacing more and more areas where our generalist human intelligence once reigned. Over time, the area where we use our human intelligence will become increasingly focused. This process has already begun.
What I am getting at here is something else. We know from systems theory that complex systems develop emergent properties, which are behaviors that are revealed on an aggregate level but cannot be observed in any single component of the system. The system of biology, as an example, always moves towards greater specialization of species in a process of evolution determined by its inherent characteristics. The biochemical algorithms surrounding DNA shape the trajectory of biology, pointing toward what biology wants.
The system of technology can be visualized in the same way. Instead of biochemical realities, technology is based on the physical and mathematical realities that the world is made of. The laws of physics and mathematics are the algorithms that technology uses to progress. At first, that may sound outlandish. After all, if my computer bothers me, I can cut its power supply. But I can’t unplug the whole system of technology, everything that surrounds us and that is manmade. No one can unplug the internet. And the more the internet of things becomes a reality, the less it will be possible to disconnect physical reality from virtual reality.
More shocking and significant is that we do not want to unplug technology because we are already a part of it. The American author Kevin Kelly, who is known as the philosopher of Silicon Valley, has devoted most of his adult life to thinking and writing about technology. Kelly uses his own definition of technology, the Technium, which he defines as “the accumulation of stuff, lore, practices, traditions, and of choices that allow an individual human to generate and participate in a greater number of ideas.”
The Technium is made up of technology and humans. Our current culture still holds onto a human-centric view of the universe—a view that puts the rational human mind in control of technology. But in academia it is generally accepted today that no human, no institution, absolutely no one is in control of technology. Technology is an independent force that worms its way forward as a result of technical, social, political, psychological and commercial forces. It is a system that has inert wants, just as biological evolution has. The wants of technology have been making themselves felt for decades and can only become more prominent over time, especially after artificial intelligence becomes sentient.
Today, many companies are lumbering slowly along the technological highway, only to be smashed by Amazon, smashed by Airbnb, smashed by Netflix, smashed by online pure-plays with their data and algorithms. It can be argued that these major successful companies today do not stand in the way of technology but are simply traveling on the same trajectory as technology. What if we could find a way of organizing a company where the use of technology proliferates naturally? Where the technological, social, and commercial spheres establish self-reinforcing feedback loops and evolve together? That company would be on the same trajectory as technology—and it would be a very powerful design for a company indeed.
To sketch a work design of the future, more is needed than just looking at today’s technologies; sn understanding of the inner workings of technology as a whole is required. So, what does technology want? Kevin Kelly has discerned a number of directions that technology works towards that together make up what he terms the “trajectory of technology” (Table 1). Let’s go through this list and consider its implications for the work design of a company.
Technology wants efficiency
Technology loves efficiency. The more efficient a technology gets, the more it begets other technologies. Take electric cars, for example, which only became a mass-market option with more efficient batteries. Or virtual reality, which was invented in 1989 but became viable only when high-resolution smartphone screens became cheaply available in the 2010s.
Humans are in love with efficiency, too. Efficiency has been our faithful companion since the industrial revolution, and it won’t leave us now that we have passed into the digital age. Efficiency is clarity; it is rational and comforting in a world of uncertainty. Efficiency gives us a problem to solve. Dealing with the brother of efficiency—effectiveness—is much more tedious. Effectiveness, which is about choosing what to do rather than how to do it, comes with too many options and is less rationally computable for us than efficiency. It is not only humans’ laziness that lets us seek efficiency; it is technology itself that seeks efficiency. The quest for ever more efficient solutions is one we share with technology. Companies will continue to seek efficiency today and tomorrow. The change is that there will be much more potential to find efficiencies as technology has more and more to offer over time. Therefore, the way work is done in companies—their “work design,” a term we will use extensively throughout this book—needs to adapt more and more often. Organizing must become more of a process of evolution and less of an incremental exercise.
Technology wants opportunity
Over time, technologies offer more and more opportunities to do things differently. The Amazon bookstore begot the Amazon marketplace, which begot Amazon Prime, Kindle Unlimited, and Amazon Dash, which begot Amazon Web Services, and so on. The peer-to-peer file-sharing technology underpinning Napster begot the streaming mediums of Youtube, Netflix, and Spotify, which begot advanced artificial intelligence used for recommendations, which begot social collaboration on videos and music with friends. Youtube, Netflix, and Spotify in turn became possible because of cloud technologies such as those offered by Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, and similar cloud services that offered server capacity on demand.
As options for technologies to progress increases, so too does the number of options companies have for solving problems. This is increasingly true not only for the design of products but also for the way companies do their internal work. In the 1990s, companies grew a nervous system for the processing of information, called enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, in the form of packages like SAP or Oracle. These core systems contributed a great deal to a company’s ability to go global and outsource work. Today, web technology has joined ERP systems as the backbone of internal and external collaboration, enabling real-time business and new forms of combining humans and algorithms into new creative solutions.
As we discussed earlier, humans are problem-solvers. Companies are always desperate for better solutions, and technology provides them. An organizational design that is to stand the test of the technological tsunami must ensure that people are aware of the solutions technology has to offer. The need for more opportunity is the same for technology, for companies, and for people: they all want more opportunities. It is up to the work design of a company to transform opportunity into benefits. If people feel encouraged to be on the lookout for new opportunities, can conduct experiments without fear of failure, and have the autonomy to decide on their own to include this or that technology in their daily work, the needs of technology and companies will be aligned.
Technology wants diversity and specialization
One technology begets another, but no technology will ever go away. They stick with us as part of the Technium, forever offering an option of how to do things. Even once-obsolete technologies may be rediscovered and suddenly become attractive again if they are combined with new technologies. The Technium never forgets.
More than that, technologies come in multiple variants. For example, they change form according to their area of application. Google’s search algorithms are both similar and different for searching pictures, videos, geographies, or medical scans. They are similar to and different from filter algorithms used by Facebook, Tinder, or Amazon. Every technology is adapted to the specifics of a situation and becomes ever more specialized, thereby increasing diversity.
The more diverse and specialized the technologies on offer are, the more decentralized and varied a company must become to make good use of the richness of the technological environment—more varied than can be supported by company hierarchies, which are designed to suppress variance, as we shall see in Chapter 2: The Corrosive Impact of Power Differentials.
Technology wants complexity
Technology is one of the main reasons why doing business is becoming more and more complex. Companies must organize themselves in such a way as to handle this complexity, but ever-increasing complexity cannot be controlled; it can only be worked with. Failures will be unavoidable, but research has shown that competent people who are in close proximity with technology, and who are authorized to make decisions, can prevent failures from becoming disasters. Two proven methods to increase a company’s ability to handle complexity are to let the people who are closest to the problem make the decisions, and to ensure that they are competent. Give them competence and freedom, then trust them to act.
Technology wants emergence and sentience
Handling the increasing complexity caused by technology is difficult—so we use technology to stay on top of it. Intelligent agents that keep technologies in check are already at work in every smartphone, every computer center, in cloud systems, in medical systems, or in routing algorithms at call centers. Companies specialized in this field are mostly hidden from public view but are worth billions of dollars. Take ServiceNow, a company that came from nothing in 2014 and is now valued at US$50 billion in 2019. Their business model is to provide companies with the capability to stay on top of their sprawling IT operations, no matter whether the workers are humans or machines.
Technology will increasingly be running itself in the coming years. Indeed, it has already taken on a life of its own, and determining where sentience starts is an open-ended debate. Some think it starts with intelligent, self-organizing behavior that apparently works but that we are unable to fully understand. We will be using more and more algorithms and intelligent assistants over time. Kelly and others predict that the benefits we are able to give to our organizations will crucially depend upon our ability to collaborate with machines. A work design for the digital age must provide an environment where people can get acquainted with their new technological companions and quickly adapt to the fast pace of change.
Technology wants ubiquity and freedom
Technologies, even dangerous ones, spread no matter what we do. There is no way to control the very real problem of nuclear proliferation, for instance, but there are less dramatic examples. The so-called “washing nuts”—the fruits of the Sapindus saponaria—have been used by local communities in India for thousands of years, but they recently became popular in Western households seeking more sustainable ways of cleaning fabric. Demand for them caused prices to rise so much that Indian communities were forced to switch to “modern” washing powder. Any technology, old or new, spreads.
Companies align themselves with technologies’ desire for ubiquity by making it easy for technologies to both enter and flow forth from the company: they pull in technology by making it easy for people or units to observe and adapt whatever technology other people, units, or companies are using, and they also let technologies travel from the inside to the outside. Why should a company share its technologies with the outside? The more technologies change, the less a single technology represents a competitive advantage for any prolonged period. Technologies become stale if they are cut off from contact with the outside world; if outside observers cannot scrutinize a technology, if insiders cannot freely discuss its merits and opportunities, its full potential benefits will fail to develop. There will still be a case for secrecy in areas where technological progress is not fast—such as preserving the recipe for a vintage drink like Coca Cola—but in most other cases, openness and the freedom for technology to spread in all directions is a better choice. More and more options become available to an organization that is open to the spread of technology. Freedom begets options begets progress.
It takes an open organization to let technology proliferate. The primary mechanism for this is to make it easy for people at all levels to take a break from their close colleagues and explore other technologies “out there,” then come back and synthesize their findings at home.
Technology wants mutualism and structure
Technologies build (and rely) upon each other. A car’s navigation, parking, and voice control systems rely on its electrical systems, which in turn rely on the car’s mechanical systems. Technologies are mutually dependent, and the more advanced the technology, the more dependent it is.
However, there are two traits that a successful technology—one that spreads—must show. First, it must be reliable. Those technologies prone to breakage are unlikely to spawn new technologies or combine with other technologies to form more complex solutions. Second, its structure must be easy for those interacting with it to understand. Today’s phone apps, for example, are only so ubiquitous because they are built on very stable operating systems (ioS, Android) and developers can access the published library of Application Programmable Interfaces (APIs) released by Apple or Google. Another, more low-tech example is the way that a light bulb interacts with the electrical grid. It can only do its job because it can rely on a stable grid with well-described properties and because its socket conforms to mechanical norms.
In the digital age, work designs need to be geared towards creating combinations of human and technological activity. Therefore, they must cater to experimentation, playfulness, and local variation while still providing a high level of reliability.
Technology wants evolvability and beauty
The result of all of the above is that technology will necessarily evolve. Becoming both ever more efficient and increasingly complex, it will create more opportunities, greater diversity, and more specialized uses. It will show more forms of sentient behavior, will increase freedom, and will rely on and be relied upon by other stable, structured technologies.
Kelly argues that technological evolution and biological evolution are very similar. The specialization of species, the striving of all life forms to become ubiquitous, and the ever-increasing complexity of biological systems is not unlike the process of technological evolution that we have been exploring. The biggest difference between these two types of evolution is that biological evolution is much, much slower. Biological evolution is bound by the realm of biochemistry and scarce resources. Technological evolution is not bound by any material constraints; it is only limited by the laws of physics and mathematics. Technological evolution happens in a realm of abundance; biological evolution happens in a realm of scarcity.
The implications are quite shocking. There is no way that technological evolution will not outpace biological evolution. That means that humans will need to cut loose from their biological origins and humanity will need to come to grips with artificial forms of intelligence that will become ever-more superior. Humans and technology are players on the same team, however. It’s likely that they will become closer and closer entwined. In humanity’s fight to gain dominance over nature and biology, technology has always been our greatest ally.
Of course, with the limits of our planet so clearly visible, the time has come for us to stop fighting with biology. After all, we are biological creatures, and continuing to fight against biology is likely to get us all killed. It is time to change our ways through a better understanding of holistic ecosystems. Technology can be our ally if we stop using it to overpower biological systems.
How can a company align itself with a trajectory of technology that calls for continual evolution? The answer is simple: it needs to evolve, too. However, evolution is something totally different than the typical corporate transformation programs of today. A traditional change program follows a number of steps: (1) decide on a vision for the company; (2) assess the status quo; (3) determine the delta between vision and status quo; (4) create an implementation plan; and (5) execute this plan, which usually requires people to be trained, processes and systems to be established, and accountabilities restructured. Five years on, however, the company usually ends up with an outdated vision, implementation that has become bogged down, and a general sense of disillusionment. The classic change program, though rational and controllable, is a relic of the industrial age. It has four fundamental flaws that render it obsolete in the digital age:
1 Reliance on prediction. It assumes that the future can be predicted.
2 Assumption of no important unknowns. It assumes that this vision can be broken down through a rational process into an implementation plan.
3 Assumption of rational agents. It assumes that people at the top have the objective ability to sense what’s needed for both vision and implementation.
4 Assumption of relative stability. It assumes a period of stability after the change has been made so that all implementation costs can be recouped.
An evolutionary work design is quite different. It rests on the following four assumptions: 
1 Reliance on mental models: Multiple predictions are great for building mental models that prepare for the possibilities that the future holds.
2 Assumption of fundamental learnings. There are very important things to learn that we are not even aware of. A high-level yet meaningful organizational mission is enough to give direction to the evolution of a company. Visions become more like forecasts, repeated along the way, and less like directions.
3 Assumption of collective intelligence. Individual actors are even better if they support themselves. A company’s work design must be open and transparent so everyone can sense technological, market, or customer needs.
4 Assumption of fluidity. The future consists both of stability and change of any magnitude. We don’t know how long stability will last, nor do we know how fundamental a change will be. But we do know that we need to be prepared.
Biological evolution brings to life highly complex things that humans often call beautiful: zebras and giraffes on the savannah, a flock of geese in flight, meadows filled with flowers. In the same sense, technological evolution brings about beautiful things through its evolutionary drive: virtual worlds, beautiful tableware, sleek cars. The chances are that organizational evolution will bring about companies that we experience as beautiful, too. Places where people are free to invent, to heed their inner calling, to look after others, to contribute to the world with less fear of oppression.
As a very earth-bound North German, I need to add a caveat here. Evolution brings about many highly specialized things that we do not classify as beautiful: cockroaches, bed bugs, intestinal worms. There will also be ugly, exploitative organizations. However, organizational evolution will make sure that the safari will be much more colorful than ever before.
*** That concludes this excerpt of “Liberated Companies”. If you enjoyed it, consider signing up to this blog to stay connected.
 (Nietzsche, 1974)
 Adapted from (Silver, 2012). Silver describes what a good forecast is built upon. I think that this list is applicable to the management of any complex system.
 (Kelly, 2011)
 (Kelly, 2011)
 (Birkinshaw, 2012)
 (Weber, 2019)
 (Kurzweil, 2006)
 (Kelly, 2011)
 (Harari, 2016)
 (Kelly, 2011)
 To get an impression, skim through the AI Services offered by Amazon Web Services today. All these world-class algorithms are available today, for everyone. https://aws.amazon.com/machine-learning/)
 (Spears, 2010).
 (Pentland, 2014)
 Historian Yuval Harari believes the emergence of “super humans” is likely—that is, humans augmented with technology in ways that make them significantly less human. (Harari, 2016)
 (Raworth, 2017)
 The list is inspired by (Sanford, 2017).