Coping With Change

Making sense of the social effects of digital technology

by Henry J. Lindborg

Disrupted by technology, ready to be digitally transformed and anxious about our careers, we receive a lot of explanation, commiseration and advice about the evolving workplace. In the burgeoning library on the topic, a source worth consulting is “The Work of the Future: Shaping Technology and Institutions,” the Fall 2019 report of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology task force. The task force intends “to identify a constructive path forward—grounded in evidence of what is happening today, deploying deep expertise in technology and the social sciences, and applying reasonable assumptions and extrapolations to anticipate what might happen tomorrow.”1

We need such informed guidance as we make sense of the social effects of technology—an effort that has a long foreground.

A pioneer in tracking social trends and forecasting the effect of technology was William F. Ogburn, a University of Chicago sociologist. The author of Social Change, he was called upon to head Herbert Hoover’s research committee on social trends from 1930 to 1933. In 1937, Ogburn led the U.S. National Resources Committee’s publication of “Technological Trends and National Policy,” a groundbreaking work in forecasting.

In a long and distinguished career as sociologist and statistician, Ogburn assessed the social consequences of myriad inventions, from aviation and air conditioning to the atomic bomb. He advanced a theory of technological development in four stages: invention, accumulation, diffusion and adjustment. As new technology is created, grown and spread, culture must adjust. If it does not, cultural lag results.2 If Ogburn is remembered at all, it is for this concept—one that governs many current conversations about organizational change.

Ogburn called technology, “the great disturber,” anticipating Clayton Christensen’s term, “disruptive innovation.”3 William Bridges’ classic Transitions explains the psychological process of coming to terms with the results of change—in this case, disruptive and shaped by technology.

According to Bridges, there are three phases in the process:

  1. Letting go. This phase “begins when people identify what they are losing and learn how to manage these losses. They determine what is over and being left behind, and what they will keep.”4
  2. The neutral zone. This is “the time between the old reality and sense of identity and the new one. People are creating new processes and learning what the new roles will be, but it’s in flux and doesn’t feel comfortable yet.”5 This is when cultural lag is felt most acutely.
  3. Beginnings. Successful transitions result in beginnings that “involve new understandings, new values and attitudes. Beginnings are marked by a release of energy in a new direction—they are an expression of a fresh identity. Well-managed transition allows people to establish in new roles with an understanding of their purpose, the part they play, and how to contribute and participate most effectively.”6

Research and guidance on digital disruption of organizations speaks to these phases.

Letting go is an issue often addressed in new studies of disruption, announced in the title and subtitle of a 2019 Sloan Management Review article, “Building Digital-Ready Culture in Traditional Organizations: Getting Your Company Into Digital Shape Doesn’t Mean Dumping Everything That Has Made it Strong.”7 The authors address knowing what to throw away and what to keep along the path to transformation through a new set of values: impact, speed, openness and autonomy. New beginnings include rapid experimentation and learning, self-organization and collaboration, as well as data-driven decision making.8 If this paradigm sounds familiar, it should. It underlies long-standing approaches to organizational learning and quality improvement.

Though now sometimes forgotten, W. Edwards Deming’s Out of the Crisis once was a disruptor intent on “transformation of the style of American management.” This is, Deming wrote, “not a job of reconstruction, nor is it revision. It requires a whole new structure, from foundation upward. Mutation might be the word, except that mutation implies unordered spontaneity. Transformation must take place with directed effort. The aim of this book is to supply the direction.”9

Contemporary advocates of transformation now focus on technology and risk, but we ought to remember that the term denotes a comprehensive, systemic change—as in, total quality management. Attending to the parts, we shouldn’t lose sight of the whole. As quality professionals learn from the insights of those studying the social effects of digital technology, we again must be reminded that our own body of knowledge is built on deep experience of systemic organizational change.

We also must realize that despite the rapid and sometimes painful change we’re experiencing, technological dislocation isn’t new. We are not without academic and technical resources to help us cope. At the same time, we ought to be vigilant. In times of transition, fads abound. Not everything with “digital” in its name is reliable or predictive of future outcomes. As Ogburn noted, “predictors agree with each other more than with reality,” and “hope tends to distort reality favorably.”10


  1. “The Work of the Future: Shaping Technology and Institutions,” fall 2019 report, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Work of the Future, https://tinyurl.com/work-of-future.
  2. Benoît Godin, “Innovation Without the Word: William F. Ogburn’s Contribution to the Study of Technological Innovation,” Minerva, Vol. 48, No. 3, 2010, pp. 277–307.
  3. Clayton M. Christensen, Michael E. Raynor and Rory McDonald, “What Is Disruptive Innovation?” Harvard Business Review, Vol. 93, No. 12, 2015, pp. 44–53. https://hbr.org/2015/12/what-is-disruptive-innovation.
  4. “What Is William Bridges’ Transition Model?” William Bridges Associates, https://wmbridges.com/what-is-transition.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. George Westerman, Deborah L. Soule and Anand Eswaran, “Building Digital-Ready Culture in Traditional Organizations,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Vol. 60, No. 4, 2019, pp. 59-68.
  8. Ibid.
  9. W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis, MIT Press, 2000.
  10. William Fielding Ogburn, “Studies in Prediction and the Distortion of Reality,” Social Forces, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1934, pp. 224-229.

Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement in Fond du Lac, WI. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board. He is a past chair and current member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Career Workforce Policy committee.

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