Innovation People Logo t: +44 (0) 1977 611251 < Back to News

Technology: Master or Servant

The year was 1985 (give or take a year or two) and I was reading the work of Jacque Ellul who argued that the progress of technological development is inevitable. - I forget which book it was, but if you wanted to follow up Ellul’s thinking, you could pick up a copy of his The Technological Society (1964). – The individual book doesn’t matter so much as his basic argument that technological development is inevitable.

Ellul, a French philosopher, sociologist and theologian who was born in 1912 and therefore lived throughout the major conflicts in Europe in the 20th century and worked in a world dominated by the philosophical tradition, Modernism. A modernist view of the world being that dominated by arguments for rational process and the squeezing out of the variables people, with all their complexities and uncertainties can bring.

Coming back to Ellul’s thinking 30 years on, I encounter what he was speculating and interpret it on my own terms as I invite you to consider how humanity, especially in developed economies is the servant of process rather than its master.

His argument wasn’t limited to technology in terms of things or digital solutions or whatever. His argue was essentially about rational processes, the creation of standardised routines and process improvement that inhibited or diminished the human factor.

I know what he means.

Believe me, I am not going to argue against process improvement and all those techniques that business deploy in their operational context. I am going to argue for the place of the individuals contributing through their own judgment, discretion and innovation. I will go further and argue for the development of operational contexts that actively promote difference and development rather than always seeking to standardise processes.

Let’s start with the standardisation of processes and innovation over improvement. It is our argument the increasing the standardisation and development of improvement processes inhibits innovation and does not facilitate it. This viewpoint is put based on ten years of research and development, that includes careful consideration of process improvement techniques.

On the basis of our work, improvement and worthy incremental development comes through great improvement processes, but innovation develops through playing to the strengths of individuals and through connecting people around a clearly articulated vision and mission.

I came across someone recently who was struggling to think through the development of the mature organisation they were charged with leading that was dominated by processes for this and that. They had brought in various consultants each of whom had an abundance of techniques. I met this person just after they had attended a senior leaders’ consultation at which the facilitator had said consultants had been using the wrong techniques for the past 20 years.

I know what he means.

Of course the comment is an over statement and over simplification. It can’t be true that all consultants have been peddling for 20 years is without value and maybe detrimental.

However, sadly the facilitator has a point.

Technology and technique and process improvement in the end will not foster the innovation required in times of change and uncertainty. They will not facilitate the development of people. They certainly will not enable innovation of themselves.

Ellul wrote this, “Technique has taken over the whole of civilization. Death, procreation, birth all submit to technical efficiency and systemization.” Yet there is the clearest evidence that innovation actually comes from creativity, intuition and connectivity between people. It does not come from rational process. There is no evidence that it does.

I will not argue against the place and significance of technological advance. That is not what I believe. What I will argue for is both balance between Improvement and Innovation and the establishment of technology as servant not master. • Improvement V Innovation: The clearest evidence is that to stress process improvement inhibits innovation.
• Servant V Master: Where humanity becomes the servant of process, resilience is inhibited.

So I invite your consideration of your own operational context. Do you have the balance right?

Over the past number of years, I have had the privilege of developing some technology to help in assessing the balance of both. Perhaps you would like to consider your own balance between technology and humanness and improvement and innovation?