(Hype circles part 3) Disruption doesn’t mean replacement

In 2011, I presented a digital strategy to a board of directors in government for the first time. A few years previously, the board had decided to ditch printing things physically and put everything online for download instead. As a result, they expected all following conversations about publishing to be an all or nothing approach. Talking about publishing on social platforms like Facebook, or making content available through electronic book platforms was difficult, because each time you talked about them they would look puzzled and then ask ‘you mean this replaces the website?’. I had to explain that, no, the world where all their users chose one platform to interact with an organisation on was not only gone, but that each of the multiple platforms they could now use had different rules. This wasn’t, it’s fair to say, a straightforward conversation. 

It’s easy to laugh at the comments I got at the time, like ‘what do you mean you can’t stop people commenting on Facebook?’ and ‘why can’t people just print it out from their phone?’, but it’s an instinct we all have. It’s mentally easier to see a new technology as neatly replacing an old one, rather than building a new, differently sized building on the same street and disturbing the architectural harmony. Web replaces print, that’s fine; social media turns up but is only used by some people, that’s more complex. Phones didn’t stop people from reading things on desktop computers, they just added a whole bunch of different screen sizes and operating systems. 

A few years later, I was involved in a programme that delivered a new chatbot function to a government call centre. The projections for the usage of this exciting new functionality concentrated mainly on how many people would stop using the phone and use the chatbot instead. What actually happened? Some people stopped using the phone and used the chatbot, some people refused to use the chatbot and carried on using the phone, and some people who’d never used the phone started using the chatbot. It was the same as the conversations with the directors about social channels: it was not a like for like replacement, but a more complex set of changes. 

When we talk about technology being disruptive, part of what we mean is that it doesn’t fit into our existing models. It will live alongside what we currently have, awkwardly overlapping and abutting it. Parts of it will be better than what we have at the moment but there will be bits of it that will be worse than what we already have… and we won’t discover which bits those are until we’ve been using it for a while. Have e-books replaced physical books? Well, in my house they’ve replaced some books but not all books because I’ve discovered that I like being able to search and digitally annotate books I read for work, but I like reading physical books for pleasure. 

If we accept that technology disrupts rather than replaces then our view of our processes, what we do with our technology, also changes. If technology is a nice neat cut and replace, then our processes can stay the same: everyone’s happy. If technology disrupts then it disrupts everything, including our processes. New technology isn’t going to replace that existing process, or part of that process; it’s going to upend it.

The idea, for example, that generative AI is simply going to lift and shift an existing process and make it easier is tempting. But it’s not the case. To take one of many potential use cases, summarising lengthy information can sometimes help us and sometimes hinder us. We’re probably going to have to iteratively redesign our entire workflows, not to mention finally get our underlying data into good shape, to understand where best to deploy generative AI. All we can be certain about is that it won’t neatly slot into the world that existed beforehand: disruptive technology never does that.  

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