Have you ever wondered, while enjoying your Thanksgiving turkey, why the Pilgrims were the voyagers and Squanto the local expert, instead it being the other way around?
If so, read Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. It’s a remarkable book that attempts to develop a biogeographic theory of history. It’s well worth your time and mental energy, and not only because Diamond’s theory of why the last 13,000 years happened as they did holds valuable lessons for organizational design and business strategy.
But the lessons are there to be found. For example: Throughout history, many societies have voluntarily relinquished valuable technologies to their eventual detriment.
Take Japan. It once had more and better guns than any other country in the world, but by the time Commodore Perry arrived in 1853 they were gone. Guns had destabilized Japanese society, so they were banned. Their benefit — a more powerful military force– meant little to Japan’s Samurai rulers because of Japan’s isolation.
China once had a great fleet of oceangoing ships. But in 1433 A.D. a new faction took power and eliminated the fleet, probably to prevent potentially destabilizing contacts with other cultures. China’s political unity and isolation from the rest of the world meant the benefit of internal stability outweighed the cost.
European nations, in contrast, never unified, and engaged in a centuries-long competition that included development of military technology and expansion of trade. That both could destabilize their governments was outweighed by their importance for defense and expansion: Nations that invested in trade and military technology conquered those that didn’t.
The point of most technological innovations available to businesses is similar: to make them more competitive. Most also have the potential to destabilize the existing power structure. Is it any wonder monopolies often ignore technologies and practices that could make them more efficient?
Which brings us to you. As you ponder which new technologies to promote within your company, don’t become frustrated by organizational resistance. Remember, just because the technology might make the company more competitive, that doesn’t mean it’s attractive to middle managers and executives. For some, internal destabilization creates more risk than external competitiveness creates opportunity.
You need to know how to handle this contingent, but as CTO or CIO your natural allies are the other ones: Those who personally benefit when the whole company becomes more competitive.