Down Pit

The coal mining industry of post-Second World War Britain might not be the most obvious of places to seek ideas for how to address contemporary issues of digital transformation but, hey, go with me.

The coal industry in the 1940s had barely changed since the turn of the century. Although coal was a primary source of power for a number of industries (and domestic use as well), the processes of extracting it from the ground revolved around TNT, pick axes and brute force. It was hard, dangerous work, to a large extent untouched by methods of automation.

In the austerity of the post-war United Kingdom, something needed to be done. Technology would be the saviour of this low productivity. And so the newly-formed National Coal Board started to invest in technology. In particular, the technology surrounding a technique called Long Wall Mining which had been industrialised in the United States.

Long Wall Mining was still dangerous, but it promised much greater levels of productivity through greater automation of processes, specialisation of task and new tools.

What happened? Productivity fell off a cliff. And not in the ways that you might expect whenever a change is made to operating practises. The new technology, the state of the art, wasn’t delivering the benefits that had been promised.

What happened? Well, despite investing heavily in the machinery needed for the Long Wall techniques, surprisingly little had been done to change anything else. From shift patterns to job roles to softer things like the ways in which miners communicated with one another (people, we shouldn’t forget, who frequently trusted each other with their lives), the new technology had been introduced with little consideration of any other factors.

To some extent this sounds ludicrous to modern ears. And yet – all too often – with the introduction of new technology today we see exactly the same thing happen: selection of best of breed technology; justifying business cases built on best case analyses; an assumption that the technology is the hard part and people will just fit in around it; at best disappointment, at worst front-page headlines of profligate spending.

That we know so much about what happened in the 1940s and 50s coal industry is down to the work of researchers from what became the Tavistock Institute. The conclusions that they drew became codified in what they called Socio-Technical thinking.

The world is, according to a wonderful analogy coined by the philosopher Karl Popper, made up of things that are like Clocks and things that are like Clouds.

Clock-like things might be complex, complicated, but they are knowable. If something goes wrong with a clock (or a coal-mining machine or a computer system), you can investigate, gather data, and eventually narrow down the issue until you can decide on what needs to be fixed. The work of engineering is often to distill the world down into boundaried, clock-like things.

The trouble is, as the founders of Socio-Technical thinking realised, the world (and the challenges that we mostly face) are much more like Clouds. Clouds are chaotic; as you reach out to investigate a cloud it changes a shape around you. You can investigate and gather data, and will probably end up more and more confused. To address the problems of Clouds, you need to start doing things. There’s no point in formulating a perfect plan to address a Cloud-like problem because by the time you get to deliver, the world will have moved on, changed shape again.

The world of Agile software development has kind of stumbled upon some of this, but our ability to use such techniques outside of the world of certain types of software development still seems limited. In fact, Agile, cloud-like approaches are most likely to be used today by organisations to deliver Clock-like systems, with the associated likelihood of failure from looking only at the technology.

We need broader approaches to organisational change that start from a principle that we don’t know what the answers are until we start doing things. That empower individuals to help shape those approaches, because it’s only the people in an organisation, doing the work, understanding the challenges, that really can deliver the changes necessary for change to be effective. The reaction to a world of Clouds shouldn’t be to view everything as a Clock. It’s about making changes in ways commensurate with that uncertainty, unpredictability, and continual external pressure.

I’ll be talking about what we can learn from the work of Socio-Technical Systems next week at Digital Shoreditch and Surrey Software Meet-up. You can find more information at http://stamplondon.co.uk/occ

One Comment

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  1. richardprichard May 6, 2015 — 1:28 pm

    Reblogged this on Planning Advisory Service and commented:
    The preparation of plans is approached like a clock but should really be appreciated as a cloud ?

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