I was recently watching the talented comedian, producer and urban philosopher Jon Stewart joke on TV about how we don’t seem to have learned much from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Stewart said that in his research on 1918, he expected to find somewhat different remedies floating around. “I thought there was going to be some kind of old-timey, like, ‘Drink apple cider and mercury and that’ll be the elixir for your vitality.’” Instead, what he found was familiar advice: “Try to stay inside. If you don’t stay inside, wear a mask and socially distance.”
That got me thinking about what else could we learn from the past? Well, after some reading, it’s now evident to me that our forefathers weren’t as “old-timey” as we might imagine. (Either that, or we’re not as modern as we think.) Ahem! think positive – let’s assume our ancestors were really smart.
Anyway, what I found via my own 1918 pandemic research was that the emerging telephone was for a while the Zoom videoconference of the time, and that it eventually failed in that role. It was initially targeted as a way for people to stay connected with each other, and for students to contact teachers. It failed in this role, because this new technology had a very human weak link in its operation. Automatic dialing wasn’t prevalent, and the human switchboard operators who connected the calls worked out of tiny crowded cubicles that spread the virus like wildfire.
Interesting! I also read about the familiar theme of how fear, misinformation and the tendency to massage the truth were as potent a threat to lives as the biological peril itself. And then I came across a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health two years ago about the lessons ignored from 1918 that made my digital transformation spidey-sense tingle. It talked about how the three biggest threats to public health were all attitudinal – hubris, isolationism and distrust. It gave me pause because these are three organizational change management lessons that we also risk ignoring on digital transformation.
Hubris, Isolationism and Distrust?
The reason why the article resonates in the context of digital transformation is that both pandemics and digital disruption are first and foremost attitudinal challenges. The leaders who perform best under both circumstances are not necessarily those who are technologists but are change managers. Here’s why.
Hubris: Relative to pandemics, it is true that we live in the age of genomics, vaccines, antibiotics, mechanical ventilators, and other features of high-technology medicine that were unavailable in 1918. However, the issue isn’t in the availability of high technology, it’s in that it is unevenly distributed. Just because these technologies exist doesn’t mean that they are in the right places, in the right forms, and in the right quantities to win the battle. This is the same challenge with digital transformation. We think our organizations have advanced technology. We think we are digitally savvy. We think we have sufficient digital business models. However, the question we need to ask is – what’s our current record on our business outcomes of digital transformation? Only if we’re already sustainable market leaders thanks to digital, then and only then is our self-confidence justified.
Isolationism: When modern pandemics strike, we tend to believe that we can seal off national borders and escape the ravages of epidemics from other parts of the world. Not true. While cutting off global travel can help tactically, it’s not a sufficient plan of action against a public health crisis in an interconnected world. The equivalent issue on digital transformation is digital isolationism. Your tiny digitally-native competitor who thankfully operates in a remote country can no longer be ignored in the globalized era. In the digital world, it’s the industry that gets disrupted, not just specific companies. Also, digital business models spread rapidly like wildfire.
Distrust: The COVID era has certainly highlighted political polarization, “fake news,” tribal politics, and eroded trust in the fundamental institutions of media, government and science. However, we may be guilty of flattering ourselves by thinking that this is unique to the current situation. Fear and distrust are a given; they are well-researched and documented human reactions during periods of societal stress. Similarly, distrust and fear are to be anticipated and planned for during digital transformation. The immune system reactions to digital change aren’t meant to be ignored, minimized or laughed at. They are human reactions that deserve empathy and resolution.
Lessons from our past
Digital disruption is of course a modern buzzword. However, even if our ego leads us to believe that this is a recent phenomenon, the fact remains that technology-driven disruption isn’t. After all, digital disruption is the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Thus, digital transformation, which is the art of overcoming digital disruption, doesn’t deserve to be seen as a “new thing” either. It happens to be 90 percent change management and 10 percent technology. We really don’t need to rediscover the wheel on the 90 percent. The top three causes of transformation resistance are all attitudinal – they also happen to be hubris, isolationism and distrust.