Learning Digital Transformation from the Amish
In the mad rush to procure the latest technologies to edge out competitors, businesses often produce unintended complications in their organizations. What can the Amish teach us about digital transformation?
This is a curious proposition coming from the blog of Canada’s fastest-growing digital agency. As you could probably guess, it’s not to be taken literally. In fact, at OPIN we’re constantly on the cutting edge of emerging technologies, and the value we get from these technologies is then transferred to our clients.
However, there is a problem in our current business climate: technologies are constantly being adopted by firms large and small, but productivity numbers remain stagnant. There is growing disengagement among employees across industries. Furthermore, firms consistently struggle with the adoption of new technology, the latest research shows.
So what can we learn from the Amish?
First, we should settle a common misconception about the Amish: that they reject new advances in technology altogether.
There was never a “cut-off date” for Amish technology, as many Googlers seem to have thought based on my research prior to writing this piece
The Amish do not refuse to adopt certain technologies due to a disdain for modernity. In fact, they adopt modern technologies rather frequently, including diesel-powered tractors, power generators, and refrigerators. The Amish are distinct from the rest of the Western world because they adopt technologies consciously based on how they think the technology would affect their community and relationship to God. This is extremely important. In spite of a hesitancy to adopt new technologies, the Amish are a successful culture, existing for hundreds of years and growing their population by 149% between 1992 and 2017.
So what’s the point of this? In the competitive, technology-friendly and forward-thinking business world, there are a few things we can learn from a highly intentional Amish-inspired approach:
1. Human Capital is the Most Valuable Capital
Fixation on technology procurement can lead to lost productivity. In fact, inefficient procurement is costing North American companies $1.5 billion and wasting 32.3 million man-hours per year. There are several reasons for this. One of the most dangerous is the creation of artificial roadblocks as a result of lacking a particular tool. Employees may decide they cannot complete certain tasks because they lack a certain tool, putting pressure on the organization to procure said tool. You’d be surprised how often this complaint comes up after the discovery of the tool - in other words, the tool’s marketers and salespeople are doing their jobs.
Other reasons for lost productivity as a result of technology procurement include difficulties with training and onboarding the new technology, and changes occurring so fast employees become overwhelmed and disengaged, feeling little investment and ownership in any particular technology as a result. The bottom line is to ensure employees feel supported rather than coerced: in a recent study, Dell found that less than half of the North American workforce felt that IT decision-makers have taken their opinions into consideration when selecting business technology.
To mitigate this, keep employees engaged in the procurement process, and ensure they’re maximizing the value of existing tools. Provide support and training where necessary, and always ask for their feedback.
Also, consider investing in their professional development as well. At OPIN we offer a generous professional development budget to every employee to maximize their potential. When we do take on new technologies, our employees are empowered to quickly and efficiently bridge the knowledge gap without the need to hire experts. While beneficial to personal growth, we see incredible business value, as a result, from investing in our employees.
2. Automate when necessary
The purpose of technology is to make life easier and maximize human potential. Everyone is talking about automation nowadays so I’ll just share some statistics and move on:
- 53% of employees believe they can save 240 hours annually through automation (that’s six weeks!)
- 90% of workers believe automation improves work quality and efficiency
While enhancing efficiency is important, it’s missing the point. One can be incredibly efficient at doing something incredibly useless. What matters here is not necessarily making tasks more efficient, but freeing up human resources to be reallocated to more complex tasks. That is the fundamental point that is missed, often leading to a swollen technology stack (as you’ll find in the next point).
Don’t automate for the sake of automating and improving “efficiency”. Always ask yourself what value is being released as a result of the automation, not what value is being “created” - only people can truly create value. It’s a subtle difference, but a significant one. Emphasize “human-first” automation: automation was never meant to be limiting but empowering.
Though controversial, many Amish communities are highly inventive in their adoption of technology. Take this simple computer that acts as a word processor and doesn’t connect to the internet:
3. Declutter your technology stack and start fresh
Spring cleaning is a welcome refresher in Amish communities - an opportunity to repaint walls, clear the film accumulated on sealed windows from kerosene and wood-burning appliances, and air out mattresses after a long winter. Do the same with your technology stack. In the rush to stay ahead, we aren’t presented with a clear opportunity such as the onset of spring to do some tidying up. So do it now!
This isn’t just a theory: unused software licenses cost companies billions annually. 1E’s 2016 Software Usage and Waste Report found that 38% of software licenses in the US and the UK were either unused or rarely used, costing organizations $34 billion annually. Smaller companies that haven’t implemented software asset management tend to fare worse than larger companies, and they end up in this situation as a result of a misdirected drive to innovate. It was discovered that by removing the waste from the top 35 unused software titles (out of 1800 studied), companies can save $202 on average per user.
At OPIN, we reassessed our technology stack and were surprised by several technology licenses we were paying for and got little value out of. We ended up saving a ton of money, and it will be easier to manage our stack going forward.
Tip: When assessing new technology, always consider your goals and current business needs (and associated opportunity costs) first. Think Amish, and don’t pull the cart before the horse!
4. Be conscious of shallow work and deep work
The Amish are known for deriving pleasure from a hard day’s work. When employees feel a sense of fulfillment, attachment and importance from the work they are doing, they are happier, less likely to quit, and more productive.
Creating the conditions for employees to enter what bestselling author Cal Newport calls a state of “deep work” is essential. In his aptly named book, Deep Work, Newport cites examples such as famous essayist Michel de Montaigne, who shut himself away in a tower in the French countryside for long periods to allow himself to enter a state of deep work.
Tinkering with technology can often remove us from deep work, as it can break the “flow” required to do deep work (a notification, an email, or even a pop-up asking you to update your operating system are common examples). There’s also a well-known phenomenon of “accidental admins” or employees who are pulled from the core of their work to optimize a particular technology for their organization. Sometimes this is necessary, but it should be monitored closely as a potential source of disengagement.
The optimization and cultivation of a complex technology stack should always come second to the cultivation of the human mind. The ability to enter a state of deep work, as Newport argues, is the single greatest competitive advantage a worker can possess in the modern technology climate.
Business managers should encourage employees to be protective of their time and limit the number of ad-hoc requests where possible. This could involve blocking off large chunks of time in calendars, for instance. You may be surprised by the innovation and productivity increase that results.
5. Focus on current needs, not future wants
A lean organization should treat its technology procurement as one would drive a standard transmission automobile (or a tractor without rubber tires, in the Amish case). The key to shifting gears smoothly is to get the timing right: not too early, not too late.
This idea that you must always be forward-thinking is completely false. It’s also impossible. The law of unintended consequences prevents it. In fact, small wins that feed vanity in this regard can be incredibly detrimental to your business in the long run. What your organization needs is flexibility, not future-proofing. You should respond to friction when acquiring technology, not responding to predicted future predicaments. The ability to effectively pivot will always be valued, whether the year is 2019 or 2119.
But doesn’t this go against principles of open innovation that companies like OPIN were founded on? Absolutely not. The difference between future-proofing and innovation is simple: innovation is blazing your own trail to the future, while future-proofing is the construction of a safety net based on the predicted future behaviour of others. Visionaries are incredibly useful and take on great risk to drive the economy forward, while so-called experts try (and mostly fail) to predict future conditions. Ignore the experts.
This piece should not be interpreted as skepticism towards technology, but a new way of interpreting its purpose in the modern business landscape. To stay ahead, firms need to consider first principles.
The point of this seemingly paradoxical approach is not to directly emulate the Amish community’s skepticism towards technology (their own technology procurement process is extremely time-consuming). The point is to consider their conscious approach to adopting technology and maximizing the value of their human capital.
Even the flashiest, most expensive business technology will fail to produce any value if the people using it feel disengaged. The Amish have been aware of this for nearly four hundred years. It’s about time we are too.