This post has been contributed by Prof. Grazia Ietto Gillies, Emeritus Professor of Applied Economics, London South Bank University. For a more extensive discussion of this topic see Ietto Gillies, G. (2021), “Reflections on organizational change and interdependence in a post-Covid-19 society”, Economia e Lavoro, LIV: 77-91.
Much attention is usually paid by both researchers and policy makers to technological change; much less to the organizational change necessary to deliver technological change and make it successful.
In 1987 the New York Times Book Review published an article by the Nobel laureate American economist Robert Solow, who had, indeed, been one of my old lecturers at the MIT decades earlier, and a very good one he was. In it Solow states: ‘You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics’ (p. 36). There was much discussion of this issue in the years following Solow’s statement. One work – Gordon (2000) – was pessimistic about the potential for productivity growth related to the ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies). However, many authors showed, that within a few years, there was a significant positive relationship between the use of ICTs and productivity growth (Tomlinson, 2001; Oliner and Sichel, 2000). The latter work pointed out a discrepancy between short and long term effects of ICTs and several authors concentrated on the reasons for such discrepancy. Organizational and social reasons were seen as at the basis of it. Brynjolfsson and Hitt (2000) singled out the organization of the labour process and emphasize the relevance of organizational changes and of workforce training for the productivity effects to be realized. These changes take time and this explains the lag in productivity and the discrepancy between short and long term performance.
The following two recent examples relate to the UK and are still both ongoing. They illustrate how organizational issues may hinder or support efficiency linked to technological advances in times of Covid-19. Let us deal first with what appears to be a case of failure. In the summer 2020 the UK government has invested considerably and developed a very high level of testing capacity by international standard. However, the effects in terms of number of tests done; speed of results and follow up with tracking and tracing is very disappointing. The media and various politician and epidemiologists seem to agree that the problem may lie with the organization of the test, track and trace system: from the location of testing centres in relation to foci of infection to the time taken for testing and communicating the results to problems of communication between the centralized system and the peripheral health centres, to incentives for people who had been in contact with an infected person to isolate themselves.
The second example relates again to the UK under the pandemic and illustrate a case of successful organization of a large programme. It is the delivery and rollout of the vaccines. In this case, the government decided at the outset to entrust the programme to the National Health Service (NHS) whose expertise in successful vaccination programmes goes back decades. Moreover, the NHS has a capillary network of operators throughout the UK territory. It is able to reach relevant population and, indeed, its digitalized information database has given it the power to speedily classify people into relevant bands of prospective vaccination patients. The digital technologies have been used extensively in the NHS for many years now and they have recently been put to further use in communicating with the people to be vaccinated as well as for communication between experts within the various layers of the NHS.
Both the track and trace programme and the vaccination programme have behind them complex and challenging technological and scientific problems which were tackled in remarkable short period of time. However, the organization and delivery of these projects proved no less challenging. They both involved a variety of sub-projects and tasks that needed to be linked together. In some cases the technological aspects posed constraints on the organizational and logistics side: a vaccine that requires storage at very low temperatures could only be rolled out in specific institutions. The challenges on the social and cultural sides are no less serious in countries with high levels of inequality and in which many ethnic groups and cultures co-exist. Both programmes involved also political decisions, for example: (i) what components of the programme(s), if any, could/should be externalized to the private sector or remain within public institutions; (ii) whether people who were asked to isolate following test, track and trace should be compensated for the lack of earnings to increase the probability of compliance. This involves analysis of private/individual versus public/social costs and benefits. For example, in considering whether to compensate isolating people to encourage compliance, the government might concentrate on trying to avoid that some people would cheat on the system with resultant extra costs for the Treasury. However, in taking the decision this cost should have been compared to the benefits for the Treasury and society as a whole of lower levels of infections resulting from higher levels of compliance with the injunction to self isolate. Looked at it from this angle, the money spent to secure compliance with isolation should have been seen as an investment to combat the virus.
Other relevant elements involved in both programmes include the following.
- Geographic scope: what elements can/should be decentralized to regions or towns and boroughs/areas within them? What elements are non-location bound and can, indeed, be executed online.
- Need to integrate the technological side with the human resources side. The expertise, motivation and training of the workforce is essential to success in the various tasks, some of which involve direct communication with the public.
- Cultural dimensions: this ranges from the language of communication to knowledge of practices in other cultures or countries. I have an amusing example in this respect. I hold a double citizenship – Italian and British – and am UK resident. Years ago I had to fill, online, a form required by a top Italian public institution. Among the requests was one for my address of residence. When it came to my postcode I filled in the standard UK as a mixture of letters and numbers. The system did not accept it; it was programmed for postcode in digits only – the Italian system – though the form was for foreign residents! I could not fill the form online. In the case of vaccination, reaching out to various communities is proving very important in overcoming vaccine hesitancy.
Brynjolfsson, E. and Hitt, L.M., (2000), ‘ Beyond Computation: Information Technology, Oreganizational Transformation and Business Performance’, The Journal of American Perspectives, 14, 4: 23-48.
Gordon, R. J., (2000), Does the ‘New Economy’ Measure up to the Great Inventions of the Past?’ The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14,4: 49-74.
Ietto Gillies, G. (2021), “Reflections on organizational change and interdependence in a post-Covid-19 society”, Economia e Lavoro, LIV: 77-91.
Oliner, S.D., and D. E. Sichel, (2000), ‘The Resurgence of Growth in the Late 1990s: Is information Technology the Story?’, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14, 4: 3-22.
Solow, R. M. (1987), ‘We’d Better Watch Out’, New York Times Book Review, 12 July.
Tomlinson, M. (2001), ‘A New Role for Business Services in Economic Growth’, in D. Archibugi and B-A. Lundvall (eds), The Globalizing Learning Economy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 97-107.