The Essential Skill for Our Age

13Jan17

What has come to be known as digital transformation is a profound architectural shift in the way that the world works from top-down hierarchies to peer-to-peer networks. For over three centuries, the dominant metaphor that shaped the mindset of Industrial Age thinking was the machine. This mechanistic mental model was a useful guide for navigating the challenges of a relatively predictable world where the pace of technological change was slower than our human capacity to adapt to change. When the world is seen as a machine, it is natural that the architecture of our social organizations takes the form of top-down hierarchies, which explains why the typical organizational chart looks like a mechanical schematic. And as long as the pace of change is slower than our ability to adapt to change, mechanistic mindsets are practical tools for interpreting how the world works. Despite its obvious annoyances, the bureaucratic organization is an important—if not the most important—innovation of the Industrial Age because it solved the great challenge of mass production: how to efficiently coordinate the work of very large numbers of people. And, arguably, because it was also the economic engine that created the middle class.

However, one of the consequences of the sudden emergence of accelerating change is that bureaucracies are no longer practical tools for organizing large numbers for the simple reason that somewhere in the past decade, according to Eric Teller, the CEO of Google’s X research and development lab, we crossed the point where the pace of technological change now exceeds our human capacity to adapt to change. That’s why the transformation into a hyper-connected world is the most significant inflection point in human history and why the machine is no longer a workable metaphor for how the world works.

The genesis of this inflection point can be traced to a seminal event: the connection of all computers to the Internet. Once everyone was connected and the network became firmly rooted, the world and its problems suddenly became more challenging and beyond the solution capacities of linear mechanistic models. But more importantly, a new dominant metaphor emerged that’s a better fit for a connected world: the network. This morphing of social metaphors explains why this inflection point is more than a technology revolution; it is equally—if not more importantly—a sociological revolution. Digital transformation is clearly not a new iteration of the Industrial Revolution. It is a paradigm shift in how we view and solve problems when the world is changing faster than any of us can absorb in real time.

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