The Future of IT-Enabled Change: Are You Ready?

Information technology is critical for innovation, but the IT-driven innovation of the future will be much more difficult than anything we've done so far.
April 4, 2007
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

As a leader, your challenge is: making your followers succeed. In part, that means getting them to execute what they've already learned to do (Ron Heifetz of the Kennedy School calls this "technical" leadership). Even more importantly -- in the long run and especially in recent years -- it means helping them learn new ways of doing and succeeding (what Ron calls "adaptive" leadership).

Your big challenge is thus innovation. It's inventing community policing, not just controlling response to 911 calls. It's inventing "anytime, anywhere" electronic service, not just controlling the traditional "you-come-to-me" office hours.

While information technology is critical for control as well as innovation, it has become perhaps surprisingly important for the latter. IT has become the major productivity-enhancing investment for the overall economy, including government. The well-known Moore's Law describes the doubling of IT processor productivity every two years since the 1960s. Less well known, Metcalfe's Law describes the productivity of IT networks growing as the square of their size (thus a doubling of size and cost increases usefulness by a factor of four).

But how is this power used? For most of the last two decades, leaders have used computer networks primarily for innovations that can be described as remote asynchronous service. "Remote" means that service producers and consumers do not have to be together in the same place; "asynchronous" means they do not have to be available at the same time. E-mail and web sites support remote asynchronous coordination. Services can be delivered "online, not in line." You can download tax forms from home at midnight ; you can even pay your parking tickets then (still painful, of course, but much more convenient).

For leaders, creating online services has been relatively easy because, fundamentally, only the delivery had to change, not the extended and interrelated steps involved in production. Further, only two groups had new work to do: the citizen/customers of government services and the people building the infrastructure. Coercion was not required, as both groups voluntarily thought e-services were in their interest.

The future of IT-enabled change, however, will be different. Changing service delivery won't be enough; the work of assembling resources, managing logistics, and producing and then supporting services will also have to change. It won't be enough to change how one hospital handles emergency room admissions; to share medical records securely we will need coordination across multiple programs within the hospital and indeed across the multiple hospitals, labs, medical clinics, insurers and overseers of the health care community.

We are moving from simply adding electronic delivery one program and institution at a time to fundamental redesign, with multiple institutions and entire industries/communities of practice as the basic units of change.

This kind of innovation will be much more difficult than what we have done so far. More people will be involved, from more functions and institutions, in larger and more complex and controversial projects. Many people will need to change the location and content of their work, and some will be forced to find new employers and new careers. Projects will often generate anxiety and, in some cases, powerful opposition. Leaders will not only be working with people in their own organizations -- where they have access to budgets, reporting relationships, and other tools of authority -- but with people from outside, where agreements will need to be negotiated on a peer-to-peer basis. Making tax forms available for download is clearly easier than getting hospitals and small medical practices as well as insurance companies to use and share newly designed electronic medical records.

So ... given that the future of IT-enabled change will be difficult, why go there?

There are two primary reasons. The first is that the benefits we can create as IT applications grow in scale are simply astounding. Remember Metcalfe: Networks that are twice as big are roughly four times as efficient; those three times as big are nine times as efficient; those 10 times as big are 100 times as efficient; and so on. If we evolve large "information utilities" -- much as the electrical power industry evolved over time to the utilities that operate today -- the economics driving IT-related reforms will be incredibly powerful.

Perhaps the more compelling reason, however, is the threat of being left out. Many jobs that were necessarily local 50 years ago can today be moved almost anywhere that offers a good Internet connection. Jobs and lifestyles are and will be changing on a global basis, and information-enabled reforms will be essential in responding to 21st-century challenges of population growth, aging, terrorism, energy shortage, global warming, etc.

How can we succeed? Much as we have in earlier eras, when changing transportation, communications and energy sources were used to reshape longstanding social, economic and political structures. What we can't afford now is failing to engage. We need wise and effective leaders, those who will mobilize resources for the adaptive leadership challenges of the larger and more disruptive IT-enabled changes that await us.

Are you ready?