Genetic Engineering: Lessons for Technology Change Managementveryard projects > technology change management > genetic engineering
|the relevance of biotechnology||on this page|
|Genetic engineering (biotechnology) illustrates many
things about technology change and how it is managed, for good or ill.
On this page, we identify some of the aspects of the debate, and draw some
more general lessons for management.
Genetic engineering has the quality of myth. Journalists refer to "Frankenstein foods", while serious scholars make witty asides about hybrids in Greek myth.
Arthur C Clarke (I think it was) said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
As technology consultants, we often find attitudes towards
|polarization: pro and anti|
Polarization: pro and antiveryard projects > technology change management > biotechnology > polarization
In the UK, it seems, the champions for these two positions are the Prime Minister in the Pro corner, and the Prince of Wales in the Anti corner. In this debate Prince Charles has the popular press on his side - newpapers that once dismissed him as a crank now revere him as the Voice of Reason.
It seems practically impossible to maintain any middle ground between these two extremes. And this is a common phenomenon in new technology.
Risk managementveryard projects > technology change management > biotechnology > risk management
On the other side, the opponents can produce an ever-growing list of risks - some plausible, others perhaps less so.
And these contrasting attitudes reinforce each other. The more the Proponents
seek to deny or dismiss the risks, the more this provokes the anxieties
of the Opponents. And the more the risks mount up, the greater the resistance
from the Proponents against taking all these risks seriously.
Perspectivesveryard projects > technology change management > biotechnology > perspectives
Some farmers and businessmen are focused on the commercial advantages to themselves of growing GM crops. Some opponents of genetic engineering are focused on the dangers to themselves of eating GM food. This is the personal perspective.
Some politicians are apparently focused on the global benefits: macroeconomic advantages, elimination of food shortages. Some opponents of genetic engineering are focused on the ecological dangers of disseminating genetically modified material. This is the global perspective.
There are other perspectives as well, but these are the most common ones.
Within software engineering, we find a similar split in the analysis of intelligent software agents. Some experts are concerned about the risks of hostile agents, while others are looking at the potential "ecological" effects on the computing world.
Public opinionveryard projects > technology change management > biotechnology > public option
As Britain was said (by Napoleon) to be a nation of shopkeepers, it is perhaps not surprising that it was the major retail companies that responded most quickly to the public mood, switching rapidly to GM-free or even organic produce.
Authority of scienceveryard projects > technology change management > biotechnology > authority of science
Scientists, preferably in white coats, declare that there is no positive scientific evidence of any risk provenly associated with the new technology. Or that the risk is negligible. (A common version of this argument is that a given source of radiation is less that the amount typically received by a passenger on a transatlantic flight.)
Furthermore, many previous public pronouncements by Scientists have been shown to be premature or even foolish. This has resulted in widespread scepticism about the authority of Science.
The fact is that Science has no authority over the future, and usually has no privileged source of knowledge of the effects and side-effects of a given innovation.
There is a common notion that Science has a superior intellectual position to Technology. As an engineer (with degrees in philosophy, computing and management), I reject this notion as unfounded. Many engineers and inventors are doing things for which the basic scientific theory is either inadequate or completely lacking - their designs and inventions are based on experience, on trial and error, not derived from theory.
Science can only reason about future technology and its effects by assuming that new technologies conform to old patterns. This assumption is an insult to the inventiveness of engineers, and indeed of mankind.
If the authority of Science is flawed, why then do politicians and businessmen still seek this authority? I read this as a lack of leadership on their part, their inability to cope with the inevitable uncertainties of their task.
Measurement and controlveryard projects > technology change management > biotechnology > measurement & control
The minister argued that a gap of a certain size was widely accepted by scientists as adequate for the production of "pure" seeds, which means no more than a fraction of a percent impurity. Therefore a gap of this size should also have been adequate for prevention of the spread of GM pollen.
It is interesting how, once a control or performance measure becomes established for one purpose, it gets applied for an entirely different purpose.
Management lessonsveryard projects > technology change management > biotechnology > management lessons
|Always look a gift horse in the mouth||Technologies may often yield significant benefits, but only if properly managed.|
|Don't dismiss resistance as irrational||The resisters may understand the risks better than you do.|
|Accept uncertainty||Noone, not even a scientist, can give you guarantees about the effects and side-effects of the new technology. But there are often as many uncertainties involved in the rejection of new technology as in its adoption.|
|Reconsider performance measures and controls||Old ways of managing relationships and processes may not be appropriate for the new technology.|
|True leadership requires careful planning and decisive action||Use a technology consultant as a mentor. (But you'd probably expect me to say that, wouldn't you?)|
|veryard projects > technology change management > biotechnology||
Technical update November 14th 2003
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