Organizational Technologies & Social Innovation

Our definition of technologies is often restricted to the material: the hammers and nails. But what enables hammers and nails to be made, and why are they made?

To answer this question, we have to look at the processes of social and cultural systems that produce objects and tools. I have thought of these co-ordinating processes as organizational technologies: information, conceptualization, and communication tools that guide human action in order to make change in the material world.

Organizational technologies are processes that take the form of everything from individual productivity strategies for studying, to social movements, to business optimization strategies, to entire economies. Social innovation is what we do to change these processes or make new processes to create better outcomes for people.

When asked to list technologies, people might list things like smart-phones, televisions, and moon rockets. They might go on to list tools such as hammers, flint arrowheads, or wheels. This list might eventually lead to the mother of all technologies: fire. Of course, fire is something naturally occurring.

The innovation is about controlling it or starting it by oneself, and in that way is it a synthetic technology. “Artificial” fire is not a static thing, but a process that transforms, in its simplest form, organic material into heat. Fire is a system that has been harnessed by humans. Since time immemorial, we have experimented with the principles of that simple process to produce other material tools — from building smartphones to fueling moon rockets. Through the system’s lens, fire becomes a foundational process upon which other processes are built. The physical thing is only half the story.

The line between the organizational and material is blurry. Think of the collection of firewood to start a fire, the network of tools required to make a wooden wheels, and the workflow design of a factory building satellites. One could imagine a time-lapse video of a large structure, perhaps a skyscraper or cathedral, being built. What we see is the physical growth of a material thing, a piece of material technology.

Other material technologies (steel, screwdrivers, welders, trucks) are employed to build the technology. But what are the rules that govern the movements and actions of the tiny, blurry people caught in the different frames of the video? What coordinates the interface of culture and technology? Organizational technologies, tools that govern behaviour and work flow to specific ends, are a means of co-ordination.

Organizational technologies that enable massive, whole ­society-mobilizing projects are usually thought of as stereotypical of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. There are special cases, in democratic and open societies, where a transcendental mission with incredibly ambitious ends can be completed through utilizing organizational technologies to mobilize societies. Fighting climate change requires a shift in our suite of organizational technologies, for instance. Technology is never purely material, and no problem has its solutions rooted in purely material answers. This is the core of what social innovation is about, and is an exciting prospect if we can trust practitioners to have wise intent.