Do we still have typing pools?: Why culture trumps technology even social media

Screenshot of "Garys Social Media Count"

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Dan Slee posted an interesting and provocative post with predictions about the future of social media in local government.  I thought I would give my response and my prediction at the end.

Overall, I tend to agree with him that social media will change local government, but not in the ways suggested in his post. For the most part, culture trumps technology. In many ways, technology simply reinforces rather than changes cultures within organisations.  As such, this is a general post about technology, innovation, and culture and is not reflective of any organisation or culture.  The comments are speculative and designed to develop a discussion rather than analyse how any particular organisation, including my own, works.

I would imagine that after the advent of the PC many organisations retained typing pools. Even today, it would not be unheard of for organisations to keep such institutions. Why? The technology is there for people to work differently, but the culture and the incentive to work differently do not exist. Even today, in the age of voice recognition software that would allow one to capture dictation or PDAs that allow people to enter the data directly, there will be services or organisations that rely upon typists.

The reason for this is that they have not seen the need to change. Some may use the typing pool less, but others will use it. Why? Because people hate change and the established ways of working, which give a return on investment and a certain measure of success, do work. Even if the success is sub-optimal, the success remains tangible and real to those who seek to defend it.  In these situations, the benefits from change are not manifested in the new technology so the culture does not need to change.

What may change this is if senior managers, from the CX down, adapt and adopt new ways of working. However, even that is not a certain success because of the cultural issues (the generational issue (not related to age) about the systems and practices by which they succeeded. One can also see this as cultural path dependency. For example, if someone was successful with a Mac, they are unlikely to switch suddenly or voluntarily to using a PC. Therefore, if they are exposed to social media, say twitter and blogging, they may take it up as a novelty, they may even see it has its uses, but neither of these will be sufficient to change them or the organisation. They will need to see how these are applied, how they can improve performance, deliver results, and lead to the promised changes. All of this is very unlikely, as the senior managers do not have time to innovate and to “play around” with tools when they are trying to deliver efficiencies and performance results.

None of this is to say that senior managers are uninterested or resistant to social media or tools that will improve performance and outcomes. Instead, it is to say that institutional and cultural constraints will trump technology each time. For example, the idea that social media will become embedded assumes too much latitude and flexibility within local government at this time. Again, this is not to say that local government is inflexibility or resistant to change, far from it, instead it is to say that culture is risk averse. As such, the organisation or services will resist having an officer blogging or tweeting about work. Yes, there may be an information channel, but what the public want are opinions and explanations and these are usually fraught with political (both party and organisational political difficulties). Organisations want to control their message within their services and communities so I do not see 2012 as a year it will become embedded and bullet proof. For this reason, JFDI will continue.


The reason JFDI will continue is that organisations still have not mastered the art or the culture of internal communications. To the extent that JFDI or a “skunk works” exists (beyond those that are purposefully created) exists, is because internal communication is limited. By that I mean, organisations that culturally have a weaker internal communication system will be one where innovations occur through JFDI. This is a speculative hypothesis without any evidence (yet) to support it.  I would say a JFDI culture is more likely to occur because people do not know of other innovations or know how to connect that innovation across the organisation. They are more likely to seek forgiveness than permission. I would suggest that if an organisation has an internal social media platform, like Yammer, it could more easily share and innovate. In those organisations, the JFDI gets reduced because the innovations can gain traction because it is being communicated (and supported) more widely. In those organisations, I would suggest that the incentive to innovate exists. However, that returns us back to the original point: culture. Organisations, if they are to embrace and embed social media, will need to have the culture that creates the incentive for initiative.

Social media, by its nature, requires initiative and innovation to succeed. In doing so one must have create incentives to encourage initiative and innovation in local government. However, innovation and initiative requires an appetite for risk and local government, by its nature is risk averse (to varying degrees.) To the extent that it is risk averse and centrally controlled, there will be less incentive to innovate. Moreover, if the senior management, from the CX down, are focused on performance and delivery, they too will have less incentive to innovate even if they wish to encourage initiative and innovation.

In the end, I think changes are coming, but the urgency has not yet been created for the success of social media and its potential for transforming local government. I think digital will have a bigger effect in the ways that it replaces work. My prediction is that 2012 will see the first large scale approach to using algorithm-based systems to replace any services that have forms and judgements about those forms within their work. To the extent that forms are the basis for the work, such as benefits or planning applications, the more likely they can be replaced by algorithm-based systems that need fewer people. In much the same way that algorithms are, reducing the need for large number of attorneys to plough through documents looking for information under discovery motions, so the same will apply to other paper based systems. Organisations can outsource such work to smaller firms and cut their overhead while delivering the same service.  In doing so, they deliver the results, it is less risky, and it fits within a cultural framework that is understood.


To that extent, I think digital will transform local government but not in the ways we expect.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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1 Response to Do we still have typing pools?: Why culture trumps technology even social media

  1. Pingback: Monologue vs. dialogue: The myth that governments need more or better communication. | Thoughts on management

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