The Technology Fallacy: How People Are the Real Key to Digital Transformation

The Technology Fallacy: How People Are the Real Key to Digital Transformation
by Gerald C. Kane, Anh Nguyen Phillips, Jonathan R. Copulsky and Garth R. Andrus, Editors

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2019
269 pp., illus. 41 b/w. Trade, $29.95
ISBN: 9780262039680.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
November 2019

The tagline of this book, “Why an organization's response to digital disruption should focus on people and processes and not necessarily on technology”, is a perfect summary of its content and message. The authors start with a comparison between the digital disruption and the cyclone of The Wizard of Oz, but insist on the fact that they actually refer to the original book series by L. Frank Baum, not to the 1939 MGM movie: in the latter, Dorothy returns after her adventures in the land of Oz; in the former there is no way back and the heroine stays in Oz. The famous film line, “There’s no place like home,” is therefore to be considered an example of wishful thinking or escapism. It is instead the other, no less famous line, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” that should be taken as the starting point of any reflection on how to address the countless issues as well as opportunities created by the digital revolution that impacts all companies today.

The Technology Fallacy is a study that focuses exclusively on the life of organizations, more particularly on the way its leadership should make sense of and adapt to the digital disruption, on the one hand, and on the way company policies and leaders’ decisions are perceived by all those working for them. This sharp but narrow focus puts between brackets a certain number of dimensions and parameters that most readers might have expected. There is nothing here on international politics and the increasing tensions between national and international perspectives and priorities (no word on China, for instance). In a similar vein, the book leaves aside properly cultural aspects of for instance digital literacy and education in the broader field, as if training and learning opportunities were restricted to what happens inside the company. Finally, more recent discussions on issues such as digital sustainability and ecocritical thinking in the domain of digital media prove also absent from the agenda. All this definitely gives a clear focus to the research, but it also limits the possibilities of transferring the results of this work, conducted in partnership with MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte, to other domains than management. Readers looking for clear answers on company policy questions may find here many useful answers and advices. More broadly interested readers, keen on a more transversal and interdisciplinary approach of the digital revolution, will probably be disappointed.

The major quality of this book is its exceptional clarity. The research is based on a four year survey of more than 16,000 people and interviews with managers at such companies as Walmart, Google, and Salesforce. The results of this work are not mechanically reproduced and commented upon, but smartly and elegantly presented in a three well-structured parts. Part 1: What is digital disruption and how should companies respond? Part 2: What are the implications of “digital maturity, that is the ability to take advantage of opportunities offered by the new technology, for thinking about strategic challenges? Part 3: Under which conditions can companies successfully adapt? Each of the 15 chapter is built around a single question, which is introduced with the help of very helpful figures containing some essential information of the survey and further discussed with the input of existing literature, interviews, and above all excellent case studies (here as well, one privileged example per chapter). At the end, readers are offered a very clear summary that entails both “what we know” (left column) and “what you can do about it” (right column).

Most of the conclusions and advices of The Technology Fallacy may seem childishly simple, like, for instance: “Embed learning plans into your talent management businesses, but ensure that learning extends beyond formal training programs (e.g. job rotation)” (p. 122), but that does not make them less useful or always easy to actually implement, for instance in an HR policy system. From that point of view, the book is both a sound reminder of management principles that have to be repeated over and over again and a good sample of reasonable answers provided by successful companies. Failure is of course not an option here, but the authors make clear that failure is the inevitable outcome of leadership that ignores the general principles of this book.