A New E-Attitude

Technology is a double-edged sword. It not only enables, but also requires organizations to be more innovative. For those who still are dragging their feet, Rosabeth Moss Kanter has a singular message: Get going or get left behind.
A New E-Attitude
Get ready for the next step, Select the best step. It’s a leap in evolution from the Internet revolution. Just pick a direction In this world of connection. So many problems to solve— You’ve got to evolve. Chorus, “Evolve!—The Song”

More than 20 years into her career, Rosabeth Moss Kanter is renowned for her revolutionary ideas on management, which she shares through her speeches, books, teaching … and rap songs? Yes, in her latest book, Evolve! Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow, she even turns to rap to communicate her message: Technology, and the e-culture it inspires, requires business leaders to embrace change, not fear it.

The lyrics of “Evolve!—The Song,” which open the book, call for people to “find new habits of mind,” while the chorus affirms, “You’ve got to evolve.” Already the song has been made into a music video that’s getting play in classes, at corporate conventions, and even on CNBC Europe and CNN.

Rap music may seem an unlikely medium for a Harvard Business School professor and celebrated business consultant, but her adoption of it proves Kanter practices what she preaches. She is quick to point out that her decision to write the song is an apt metaphor for successful leadership in today’s technological times. “We all must try new things and learn to think in new ways,” asserts Kanter. “To innovate, we must learn not only to use new technologies, but also to behave differently.”

From her book The Change Masters in 1983 to When Giants Learn to Dance in 1992, Kanter has been at the forefront of the development of new attitudes in management, inspiring CEOs to rethink their definitions of leadership and realize they must change with the times to survive. Kanter holds that this theme has never been more relevant, now that technology and business are so inextricably linked.

Recently, Kanter surveyed more than 700 companies to learn about their attitudes toward new technologies. Companies that found the most success in the new economy were driven not by youth, Kanter points out, but by a willingness, even an eagerness, to change. The corporate stories that emerged from the survey inspired her to write Evolve!, in which she explores the corporate culture of the companies who have embraced technology, and of those who still lag behind.

In a recent discussion about her book and her latest views on technological development, Kanter stresses that technology is not an ungovernable force for change in business, but a tool that should be used wisely and creatively. Moreover, technological innovation demands that businesses and business schools alike keep their outlooks and approaches fresh in order to be effective in the digital age.

Although technology played a role in your past research on management, this is your first book devoted entirely to the impact of technology on business. What inspired you to survey companies about technology specifically?
I’ve always been interested in aspects of technology because it has had such an influence on organizational behavior. During the 1990s, there were only two really significant developments that changed the way businesses operated. The first was globalization, the result of the deregulation of Asian financial markets and the opening of Eastern European markets after the fall of communism. The second was the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1993. The increasing use of communication and network technologies made all kinds of new applications possible. For anyone interested in change, it’s impossible to ignore the Internet.

We all must try new things and learn to think in new ways.

In Evolve!, you write that the World Wide Web “is both a stimulus for new organizational culture (making it necessary) and a facilitator of that same culture (making it possible).” If the Internet had not been introduced, would companies still have had to become more open and collaborative, or has technology forced their evolution in a way that otherwise might not have occurred?
A shift has occurred in organizational culture and the workplace over the last two decades. This shift coincides with a new kind of industry that is highly entrepreneurial and centered on technology. You can almost date it to the late 1970s, when Silicon Valley and Apple Computers introduced a new attitude and culture into the workplace, different from the stodgy, bureaucratic corporations that I had studied in my earlier research. The idea of a workplace where people do not simply follow orders, but instead express their ideas and values, was growing. But without the ability to construct an interactive network that allowed people to respond and handle communications quickly and simultaneously, it would have been much more difficult to achieve.

For example, when I was a kid, a television show called “Sunrise Semester” premiered. It was supposed to wipe out education as we knew it. It would broadcast courses over television, allowing at-home education and making traditional schools obsolete. Well, it didn’t wipe out anything. It disappeared, because it was limited: The communication was only one way.

One-way communication could not spark such an evolution as we are seeing today. Technology has accelerated the formation of communities of all kinds because it connects people interactively and opens up many possibilities for how people communicate.

The attacks on the United States on September 11 inadvertently added a new chapter to our digital culture, highlighting just how important network technologies have become. In light of the attacks, how do you think globalization and e-business will be affected?
First of all, I believe more information and activities are going to go online. Not only were the attacks a horrible, horrible blow to all of us, but they also slowed down the physical movement of goods and people. This slowdown could have a negative impact on globalization, as people’s level of fear increases. The use of digital media, which kept so many people informed during the crisis, inevitably will accelerate because of fears about mail and air travel.

In addition, people don’t want to wait for their newspapers or the nightly television broadcast; they want to go online and get information immediately. The event created a hunger for information in all parts of the world, and for getting it in real time.

As a result of September 11, we are much more conscious of our global connections. At the same time, we also are more afraid of them. But we’re too close to the events now to know what the long-term consequences to globalization and e-business will be. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.

You note that corporations are either “pacesetters” or “laggards”— there are those companies that accept and evolve with the possibilities of new technologies, and there are those that deny or repress them. To what extent do you think those terms now apply to the academic community?
There always will be schools that are “wait-and-see” types. Some simply don’t have the resources to invest; others are already big and successful, and so they see no reason to change.

But something new is in the air in business schools—many are developing models for distance education and e-learning. It’s not clear that anyone has the perfect model yet, but some are spending more time than others in experimenting to create new offerings and new ways of delivering it.

Some schools are a little ahead. It doesn’t mean that they are doing it perfectly. But it does mean that they’re willing to be a little more experimental and willing to change, characteristics that will become increasingly important in the new economy.

It’s often difficult for academic institutions to move quickly because they’re sometimes more resource-constrained than are corporations. Also, because they’re more collegial in nature, more people have to agree on a project. Schools don’t function like corporations, where a small group assigns budgets and responsibilities and says, “Just do what you have to do.” They’re not hierarchical in the same way as a company.

That lack of hierarchy can be a tremendous advantage. But it also requires academic leaders to be more collegial and to understand coalition building more completely than corporate leaders, in order to let the entrepreneurs in their midst rise. In the corporate world you can get away with making decisions unilaterally, but the dynamic among colleagues in an academic setting demands a more persuasive kind of leadership.

To innovate, we must learn not only to use new technologies, but to behave differently.

In terms of technology, what should management education institutions expect to face in the years to come?
Companies increasingly are delivering their training and education online. For example, the latest figure I have from IBM is that more than 30 percent of their employee training is now online. As this develops, schools that have a technological component, an online component, will have an advantage.

That doesn’t mean that all courses will be “virtual,” but that schools will have increasingly developed online capabilities and new ways of managing and sharing their information. For instance, I’m very struck by MIT and its offer to put all of its course materials online over the next decade. Many believe such a tactic to be a mistake—what will happen to MIT if it simply gives the education away?

But I disagree. I think that MIT will make its education even more valuable, because if people want to learn something, they go to the source. If MIT has material that leaders use, then people who are going to be true leaders will go directly to MIT to learn what they need to know. They’ll still need MIT to provide a service.

Information gathering is something that is done well online. Libraries have transformed themselves into information management specialists. But you still need people to gather it, pull it together, and make sense of it.

There is a reason for a professor to meet with a class and deliver knowledge, instead of simply placing information online for students to find. It is the interaction that’s important. When people meet each other, in a class, seminar, conference, or workshop, their experiences are deepened because of their shared experience. Educational institutions now must figure out the role technology will play in that experience, and how to use technology as a tool to enhance it.

When you surveyed hundreds of companies about their use of technology, did anything in the results surprise you?
I wasn’t surprised by the findings, but one trend did come through stronger than I expected. In older, more established institutions, their problems with change and innovation were almost entirely internal. They were worried about whether they had the resources and imagination to move forward. On the other hand, smaller, newer organizations cited external forces as the primary source of difficulty: Did they have a market? Could they get the necessary capital? The older institutions had none of these problems. They were simply stuck in their ways.

This phenomenon comes through in the business school community as well. Professional schools, such as business schools, have always been a little more customer-focused and a little less turf-minded internally. But that does not mean that they may not have the same internal issues, especially with faculty.

If an institution is threatened by the changes that are coming, that will be a problem. The more threatened the institution, the more threatened the faculty members will be. And the more threatened the faculty members, the more difficult it is to get them, and the institution, to change.

What will happen to those institutions that do not change and adapt to new technologies and innovations as quickly as others? If they cannot lead, is it good enough to follow?
That’s the other end of the question. In big industry shifts like this, the “mediocre middle” often gets driven out. The institutions that are at the high end—the content providers, the knowledge developers, the research resources with brandname faculty—will flourish. They can add technology as a tool, but their real competitive advantage is in knowledge production. They are seen as sources of information.

At the other end, there are schools that become very creative and efficient distributors of knowledge. Using technology, they can distribute that knowledge from any location, physically or virtually, and they can do it on demand.

The institutions that will be in trouble are those that don’t have either of those attributes, those that are simply a campus supplying services to a local market. With these institutions, we may see more alliances and partnerships taking place. I believe the world of higher education is ripe for these kinds of alliances, in which mid-range schools become a part of a much larger, multicampus institution that takes over the facilities and faculty of weaker institutions in order to expand its programs.

These mid-range institutions might also seek other kinds of partnerships. For example, they might become the corporate training arm of a consortium of companies. Some are doing this even now, supplying the talent to design custom executive programs.

As I write in Evolve!, technology is going to play a large role in these shifts. But the book is not about how technology will make the world completely virtual. It’s about how it will make us change.