The Two Sides of Change LO11834

Fred Nickols (
Sun, 12 Jan 1997 11:52:24 +0000

Responding to LO11797

Tony DiBella, in replying to LO11701 (Speed of Change), wrote:

>The concern is that technology changes rapidly, while people do not.
>There are some underlying assumptions here that I do not share.

>How can technology change by itself? How can technology change independent
>of the people who create build, maintain, and use the technology?

In direct response to Tony's questions, I'll agree with the answer they
imply; namely, technology doesn't change independently of the people who
"create, build, maintain, and use" it. But technologists, as such people
are called, constitute a small portion of society. The rest of us have to
adapt and we sometimes resist. On occasion, we refuse to go along with
the program.

I think the issue at the center of things here is the long-standing
concern that "sociological change lags technological change." In other
words, we as a society are better at "creating, building, maintaining, and
using technology" than we are at adapting, modifying, and creating social
mechanisms. In terms of our ability to manage socio-technical systems, we
score high on the technical side and low on the social side.

By way of example, it is my not-so-humble opinion that we have greatly
improved our ability to design and develop sophisticated computer-based
information processing systems, but our ability to successfully roll them
out (i.e., implement them) doesn't appear to me to have improved one bit
during the past 25 years. The personal computer (PC) is probably one of
the more significant technological developments in all of history (I rank
it right up there with the clock, the printing press, and electric lights
and motors). We are still wrestling with how to adapt our organizations
to its advent (and there is a real possibility that client-server schemes
with mainframe servers will take us back to the era of dumb terminals).

I've been working with technologies of various kinds since 1955, when the
Navy trained me as a fire control (weapons system) technician. That was
"hard" technology. Later, "softer" technologies such as educational and
instructional technology, and human performance technology, would occupy
my thoughts. In both cases, technological change moves faster than the
sociological variety. When I first joined the Navy, missiles were new
and, for the most part, gun mounts were manned and manually loaded. As
time passed, the loading was mechanized. Now, if my observations aren't
deceiving me, there are no people in the modern-day gun mounts. They have
been engineered out of the equation.

Technological advances made possible, if not practical, the downsizing,
the great corporate slaughter of this decade. Our ability to effect that
change is unquestioned. Its social effects and consequences are yet to be
fully determined. And therein lies one of the key difference between
technological and sociological change. The former is short-term, right
now, get-it-on change; the latter is long-term, delayed, wait-to-see-
what-happens change.

The end result of all this is that we interevene in our social systems by
way of their technical subsystems for the sake of improvement there
without really knowing what the long-term social consequences will be.
When they turn out to be negative, and coupled with resistance from the
people who see them that way, the interventionists cry "foul" and lodge
complaints about resistance to change. The fact of the matter is that
they muffed the intervention; they did not adequately deal with the social
side of things. (The case just described is quite apart from the kind of
intervention where the use of technological change is a deliberate and
calculated means of forcing sociological change. In this latter case, the
risks and consequences are known and part of the intervention.)

Personally, I don't find the speed or rate of change very interesting.
After all, once everything is a blur, everything is a blur. I'm more
interested in issues like the following:

how to successfully introduce technological change, usually
in the form of an innovation of some kind

how to effectively use technological change as a way of
inducing sociological change

how to drive technological change with sociological needs
and requirements

how to keep sociological and technological change in sync
(or at least keep tabs on where they're out of sync)


Fred Nickols


Fred Nickols <>

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