Constant change -- Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary
Coburn was one of the key players in the first Internet technology boom of the 1990s, and he’s a player in the new Web 2.0 surge as well. His company, Coburn Ventures, employs theories of change to target and invest in new technology companies. His book, The Change Function, argues that for technology ventures to succeed the level of change that is placed upon end users should be incremental or evolutionary, and not revolutionary. Technologies that rely upon the “build it and they will come” theory are bound to fail. Users, Coburn argues, are resistant to major change, and people are only willing to change when “the pain in moving to a new technology is lower than the pain of staying in the status quo”. In other words, if it’s easy enough to use and does something pretty valuable then it will succeed, no matter its price. Take the iPod for example, or Amazon.com.
Successful companies must look to their users and find out what they want. But the current technology industry, Coburn argues, is supplier-centric. They don’t look to their users and try to find incremental improvements that users are willing to adopt on a large scale. Instead, most technology companies look for the big kill, the huge product that will “revolutionize” they way people do something. Unfortunately, as Coburn points out, users don’t always want a revolutionary new do-everything satellite-enabled-PDA-talking-phone, sometimes they just want an easier to use mobile phone.
There are good counter arguments that can be made about Coburn’s theory. Sometimes radical change is very quickly embraced, as was the case with the emergence of the web and the now ubiquitous home computer. But I want to take this discussion to libraries, and here is where I really get that “why did it have to be written” feeling.
Coburn’s argument parallels what many proponents of library change, including myself, have been saying all along – for change to be successful it must be continuous, regular, and almost imperceptible. Successful change is not the old school variety of change that comes every few years and is accompanied by massive upheavals, frightened staff, and upset customers. Successful change is constant change, and constant change cannot be discontinuous or fractured. Constant change is fluid; it’s evolutionary, not revolutionary.
Note: Eric Schnell at The Medium is the Message has an excellent post on Thomas Kuhn and paradigm shifts. Take a look.