The Collingridge Dilemma
This dilemma was originally formulated by David Collingridge of the Technology Policy Unit within the University of Aston, UK and described in his book entitled, “The Social Control of Technology”. It highlights the following double-blind problem faced by anyone trying to manage the impact of technological change:
The impact of technological change cannot be properly predicted until the technology is well established.
Changing technology is difficult once it has become entrenched.
While David Collingridge formulated his ideas in terms of technological change, the dilemma he describes applies to all facets of change management and is faced by employees at all levels within any organization.
We can paraphrase David Collingridge’s idea by saying:
“In any given situation, it will typically be the case that at times when change would be easy, management will frequently be unaware of the need for it and when the need for change is apparent, change will be difficult.”
In previous blog posts, I have discussed the importance of feedback up through an organization from the lower levels. I have discussed how this can both help any organization to respond much more rapidly to change while at the same time reducing change-related instabilities and indecisiveness.
While effective feedback control based on fully functioning vertical communication within an organization is certainly necessary and will help militate against adverse change-related impacts, the dilemma raised by David Collingridge reveals that this, of itself, will not be sufficient. To manage change successfully, we have to find a way to resolve the dilemma.
Resolving the Dilemma
In a previous blog post focused on maximizing Client-Centricity, I described the importance of obtaining a proper balance between structure and flexibility.
In particular, I made the point that, while properly designed information systems can be immensely helpful, their implementation of necessity involves the introduction of additional structure.
I also made the point that this additional structure can result in a loss of flexibility. This dichotomy between Structure and Flexibility underpins the dilemma described by David Collingridge and also reveals how we can militate against its effects. To resolve the dilemma we have to keep in mind a number of simple management principles:
Flexibility is Paramount
In any given situation, we have to keep in mind that, whatever appears to be a good working solution for today, may not be so tomorrow. The world is changing rapidly and we all know this pace of change is going to increase with every passing moment. When looking at technological solutions, preference has to be given to vendors that have flexible technology. So, for example, avoid the following:
- Solutions where the vendor only provides annual updates.
- Vendors unable (or unwilling) to allow their systems to be integrated easily with your existing systems.
Involve the User
The very best systems/products are invariably end-user designed. Experience shows that, when it comes to technological change, organizations often rely far too much on the opinions of so-called in-house experts. Smaller organizations are particularly prone to this problem. In a previous blog post entitled Survival of the Fittest, I described the dangers associated with the employment of specialists. We can all feel intimidated when we are dealing with specialists and the danger is that we can compensate by giving far too much credence to their opinions. This is particularly the case in smaller organizations. Where there may be only one such specialist in an organization, there will be no peers to challenge their views.
- Always involve end users at every stage of the process.
- Under no circumstance, leave any part of the design/implementation to the specialist.
- Make sure you involve more than one end user – you need effective challenge at every stage.
Less is More
Only introduce systems that are absolutely vital.
- Keep in mind the overhead – the management of every element of a structured system involves additional time and effort.
- Avoid long-term contracts – vendors who are sure of their solutions rely on performance to retain their clients.
Watch the Downside
- If you make a change that doesn’t work in practice – can you easily reverse your decision?
- What adverse consequences might arise from any change you implement?
Evolution not Revolution
Because we all live in a rapidly changing world, we can be led to believe that meeting a schedule is more important than thinking things through – nothing could be further from the truth.
- Always be wary of any situation where inflexible time constraints are placed on the implementation of changes.