The post-industrial economy values service over products, processes over objects, change over stability. The accelerating infusion of physical services with digital components makes it critical for IT to undergo the same transition. The deepening complexity of twenty-first-century life and business, coupled with the increasingly disruptive nature of the market, calls for IT to fully transform itself from a reactive servant of efficiency to a proactive agent of learning.
In order to become a digital conversational medium that enables continuous organizational learning, IT must transcend its perspective on itself as an engineering discipline. IT’s new purpose is to help businesses self-steer. To fulfill this purpose, IT must learn to view itself as an agent of design. It must see its role as helping service organizations take Herbert Simon’s definition of design to heart by continually changing existing situations into preferred ones.
Learning happens when internal mechanisms can no longer adequately control external situations. A system learns by reorganizing itself.1 In a highly dynamic and disruptive environment, learning must become relatively continuous. Continuous learning requires an intimate relationship between design and operations to the point where the boundaries between them begin to blur.
Design addresses the question of what to do next. In order to accurately answer that question, it needs the ability to observe its environment as well as the impact of potential answers. Design thinking uses techniques such as ethnography, prototyping, and user testing for this purpose.
In a complex digital service environment, however, observation through testing can only go so far. The most accurate environmental observations come from production operations. According to the cybernetic view, one cannot answer the question of what comes next without feedback from what is happening now. In a competitive market, the business that can accelerate feedback loops by deeply merging design and operations will have the greatest chance of success. Whereas industrial businesses relied on IT to deliver systems, stability, and information, post-industrial businesses rely on post-industrial IT to deliver the capability for continuous design.
John Boyd was a renowned fighter pilot and military strategist for the U.S. Air Force. He developed a highly influential military theory known as the OODA Loop. His theory’s influence has spread well beyond the confines of the military and is used by business and technology strategists across many industries.
The acronym OODA stands for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. In order to shoot down an enemy aircraft or even just respond to its maneuvers without being shot down oneself, a pilot must observe the enemy, identify a set of possible actions based on this observation, pick one, and execute it. Boyd believed that a fighter pilot who could mentally navigate the OODA loop more quickly than the enemy would gain the upper hand in battle.
Design and operations constitute overlapping OODA loops as part of the digital conversational medium. On the one hand, designers observe, orient, decide, and act during the process of designing a new solution. On the other hand, operations staff observe, orient, decide, and act during the process of monitoring and responding to problems with production environments.
By generating changes that must be deployed, designers’ actions trigger operational actions. Conversely, operational observations contribute to design observations by providing insights into real system and customer behavior. An optimal conversational medium deeply integrates them with each other and minimizes the friction that distinguishes them. The ultimate expression of the digital conversational medium is an environment where everyone understands and contributes to design and operations.
This book has introduced concepts such as cybernetics, autopoiesis, and self-steering that might be unfamiliar to many readers. The basic premise behind these concepts is that being is defined by becoming. My purpose in using them is to express the view that post-industrial business requires a digital medium that enables continual change, adaptation, and learning. This medium must make the continual design of services, as well as the organizations that operate those services, natural and fluid. Second-order cybernetics provides a powerful lens through which to understand these principles and their implications for how IT organizations see themselves.
If change is the only constant, then design is inseparable from operations, and thus never-ending. This dictum holds for IT’s view of itself as much as for its view of its role within its surrounding business. Specific IT practices are less important than the continual evolution of how we use them. Whether one follows LeanUX as laid out in Jeff Gothelf’s book,2 for example, or whether one even calls what one does LeanUX, is beside the point.
What matters is how well IT keeps its promise to help digital businesses maintain brand quality through digital conversations with their customers. In order for the business to self-steer as part of that conversation, IT also needs to self-steer. It needs to treat any particular methodology as a provisional, momentary solution for keeping its promises.
IT needs to treat new methodologies as opportunities for cybernetic conversations: What does this practice mean to us? How do we adopt it? How do we adapt it and ourselves to each other? In the post-industrial economy, IT’s new purpose is to enable digital businesses to continually redesign themselves. To fulfill that purpose, IT also needs to continually redesign itself as a delivery mechanism. It needs to transform its understanding of itself from a thing to a process. Furthermore, it needs to begin to act from a deep understanding that the continually unfolding process that is IT is inseparable from the continually unfolding process that is the surrounding business.
Digital business as a circular process of empowering and responding to customers is the fundamental raison d’être for post-industrial IT. It is the essence of promise thinking. In the quest for continuous quality, we use strange words like cybernetics, autopoiesis, and self-steering. We define strange languages like promise theory and second-order analysis. We do so because we face a strange new world of service, infusion, complexity, and disruption.
Customers and businesses need IT’s help to steer their way through these new surroundings that are so much choppier and more winding than the ones to which they’re accustomed. The point of the digital conversational medium and everything we do to design and operate it is nothing more nor less than maximizing our ability to actualize our own empathy. By doing so, we can help the customers and businesses we serve steer their way toward success and satisfaction.