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Genetic Engineering: Lessons for Technology Change Management

veryard projects > technology change management > genetic engineering
June 1999
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 technology
progress that verge on the superstitious. Not just the opponents of a particular innovation, whose resistance may be attributed to a combination of "rational" and "irrational" fears. But also the proponents, who often imagine that a given technology will have almost magical effects (the so-called Silver Bullet).

> technology as magic
polarization: pro and anti

risk management


public opinion

authority of science

measurement and control

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Polarization: pro and anti

veryard projects > technology change management > biotechnology > polarization

The debate about genetic engineering is starkly polarized. Either you are an automatic enthusiast for Technological Progress, and believe that genetically modified crops should be disseminated as quickly as possible, as a solution to World Hunger, or perhaps to promote the political and economic interests of Our Farmers. Or you see genetic engineering as a uniquely terrifying innovation, set to reap Pestilence, Plague and Famine across the world.

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.

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Risk management

veryard projects > technology change management > biotechnology > risk management

This polarization reveals itself through contrasting attitude to risk. On the one side, the enthusiasts seem to deny that the new technology carries any significant risk whatever. Even scientists who attempt to explore possible risks are discredited.

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.
more Risk Management

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veryard projects > technology change management > biotechnology > perspectives

Proponents and opponents typically take one of two 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.

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Public opinion

veryard projects > technology change management > biotechnology > public option

The proponents of biotechnology seem genuinely taken aback by the public outcry over genetically modified foods. This suggests another aspect of the implementation of the new technology that was not thought through.

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.

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Authority of science

veryard projects > technology change management > biotechnology > authority of science

The standard Government response to a public fear, whether over food safety or malign software, is to lean on the 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.)

Unfortunately for the Government, and for anyone else dependent on such authority, the lay public is increasingly aware that such negative statements do not amount to a positive guarantee of anything at all. And there is a growing understanding that some of the effects of a given technology will only emerge after an extended period of use, or after the use has reached a certain scale.

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.

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Measurement and control

veryard projects > technology change management > biotechnology > measurement & control

2nd March, 1999. A UK Government minister on BBC radio this morning, defending some policy on the control of genetically modified crops.The environmental issue: is a gap of a certain size sufficient to prevent cross-pollination between GM crops and other plants?

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.

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Management lessons

veryard 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?)

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This page last updated on June 21st, 1999
Technical update November 14th 2003
Copyright © 1999 Veryard Projects Ltd