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You are here: Home > Rethinking Organizations > bitwashing, greenwashing, warwashing: the self-defeatism of seizing the day vs. embracing transformation

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Published on 2022-03-27 23:15:00 | words: 5326


I know that the title is a little bit too direct.

But, frankly, in Europe, beside voices to repurpose existing initiatives toward the current "unexpected" crisis piling up on the aftermath of COVID19, everybody looking at reality without a tunnel vision can see the usual tell-tale signs.

Or: piggyback what you had in your drawers for a long time on whatever is the "current priority".

But, at the same time, as I wrote also in recent articles, whenever that happens, we end up undermining the initiatives we are attaching that piggybacking to.

This article aims to be short, and focused, as usual, on what is embedded within transformation.

But, hèlas, you know what happens whenever the incipit of an article starts that way...

...words turn from a trickle to a flood.

Let's say that today I have limited time, so, again, I apologize if I will be more direct than usual.

Anyway, I also had a kind of "help" from my chromebook as... it lost a couple of sections that I will have to rewrite...

The items?
_three initiatives
_having a compass
_washing vs. changing
_the unintended (?) side-effects

Three initiatives

I think that the title is quite explicit, but just to summarize how I would like to see the digital, green, and collective security implemented in Europe, this section should be enough.

In my view, any change of that magnitude cannot be left to "experts", as require an active involvement by both decision-makers and those impacted by the side-effects, if you want to make it organically sustainable.

Yes, I try to avoid vision, mission, stakeholder: too many pay just lip service to those three, and actually cocoon in elaborate wording to built a tunnel vision that confirms them in their own choices and abilities.

There is an additional element: while we are routinely training and coaching new "experts", and seeking certifications to confirm their expertise, those definitions are the result of a selective perception of reality.

And, interestingly, often those defining who could be acceptable as an expert in their own expertise in the future (e.g. for the sake of defining a new guild or certification)...

...would not fulfill their own requirements (which is appropriate: "red tape" is to avoid new entrants, not to expel those already within the fence).

I think that there is no way to go ahead without the first element, digital transformation, as the other two, in a complex world, otherwise would require an extensive bureaucracy.

And I will share in a later section what could be the consequences.

Overall, our societies are way too complex to miss the opportunity to benefit from the value delivered by integrating data and associated processing capabilities to actually lower the cost of expanding the access of citizens with a more proactive inclusive approach.

Meaning: if you have integrated technologies within your society, those technologies generate data.

Data that can be used as a form of social control (not just China has that approach, as was clear even before the COVID19 crisis generated an alibi for the most pernicious control-freak attitudes).

But also data that can be used to adapt, tailor, offer services and options without the need to have the recipients to get through what has been since the beginning of e-government a kind of catch-22.

Those who would need more access to services probably have less skills to actually present their case.

Hence, a truly inclusive digital transformation of society would imply being able to pre-empt demand.

E-government should not be just about removing paper or red tape, should be expanding the "services accessibility base".

The same approach, i.e. pre-empting, coaching, advising citizens, without becoming a new Hobbesian Leviathan.

Replicating a XXI century Hobbes, which actually seems to be embedded in many e-government initiatives, is inconsistent with the benefits that a data-centric society can provide.

But will discuss the latter point within the final section of this article.

And the same approach is true also for green transformation, as generally we focus on the "technical" side looking at components (e.g. replacing fossil fuels with greener alternatives), but instead the point is that we are aiming for something larger.

To summarize in a point, could say that "going green" is akin to disproving once and for all the 1972 Club of Rome report and its worse derivative ideas.

Going green is not just about using A instead of B as energy source, or recycling 99.999% of waste- it should be about something more far-reaching.

And, again, way too many proponents of "going green" seem to think as technocrats or, at best, benevolent despots ("do this", "do not do that"), as if their collection of elements of what implies "going green" were cast in stone.

Tranformation is already complex, we do not need to put in charge Zealots aiming at best for another Masada as their last stand, we need to make it work- also if that implies some adaptations.

In reality, as it entails redesigning our interactions within society (with and without technology), "going green" in a data-centric society where we are constantly experiencing "terraforming" (radical restructuring) of habits and everyday activities, if you really want to implement a green transformation as defined above, you have to think beyond the mere energy sources or allocation/use of resources.

Probably, it will have to be, as befits to a data-centric society, part of a constant feed-back influencing behavior and generating constantly a new consensus.

So, digital transformation and green transformation as defined above will have to redesign also the relationships between citizens and executive power.

Talking straight to keep it short: I am not referring to direct democracy (that is worth another article, or even a whole book).

As for the third one...

...well, "security" currently is considered only in military terms.

But should be something more, as I will discuss in a later section.

And also limiting to at least do what we, in Europe, failed to do in the 1950s, the European Defense Community, it is, you guessed, a cultural transformation.

We did not get the community we looked for in the 1950s, but, following the Vandenberg Resolution, eventually we got NATO.

If you served in any Army, also if just for few months of compulsory national service (12, in my case), also if you did not work (as I did) within the administrative side and therefore did not see the bureaucratic side of traditions and rituals, you saw that changing processes and culture in something so deeply rooted in our collective history is not something you do on the spur of a moment.

Personally, I think that "security" and "European" should have a wider meaning than what is currently identified with "European Union joint military defence", a kind of NATO within the NATO.

But, again, this would require another book- so, maybe in another article.

For the time being, it is blatant from the deployment at the boundaries of the European Union (which involves e.g. other larger countries supporting the Baltics as the local forces are too small) that, despite the integration within the framework of NATO, there is still too much of a national element, and we are far, far away from having a "European security posture"- or even just a concept.

Well, just to pre-empt references to USA: part of my learning in the early 1990s on "Re-inventing the Government" and what was delivered by the DoD within its BPR-CD (Business Process Re-engineering CD, a virtual library) was also to read not just that material, but also some books and news.

Also in the USA the "partitioning" of military expenditure and associated industrial investments follows often electoral needs.

In my view, "security" had to have a wider perspective, as I shared this morning on Linkedin (typos included- the joy of writing on your smartphone while something inspires you and you are walking: you do not necessarily see what you type):

So, we have three transformations (digital, green, security) converging with two crises (pandemic and war plus its consequences).

Moving head on all three requires something more than the usual USA-style "federal" bartering between Member States (as the European Union is still a work-in-progress, on that side).

There are also some risks embedded in any action with political impacts.

Having a compass

As I wrote on Facebook this morning, with obvious reference to something else:

In war, the first casualty is the truth

And to those advocating a "us vs. them" instead of rationality: please watch the BBC documentary "five steps to tyranny" from 2000

A war ends, it consequences need to be soothed, not exacerbated

Anyway, it is not just in war that you have to soothe consequences- it is also whenever there are major transformations.

And transformations improperly managed can have lingering effects long after the transformation itself is officially completed.

As I wrote above, this is the second time that I am writing this section (and the next one).

What happens when political action meets reality?

It is a matter of (time)framing.

As part of my continuous learning since the 1980s, I routinely updated my knowledge by listening, reading, exchanging ideas.

More recently, since 2019 this involved sharing datasets on UN SDGs, sustainability, and, of course, the PNRR and NextGenerationEU, and adding to my past business number crunching (in 2019 R, since 2020 Python and Machine Learning, the latter updating on my 1980s PASCAL and PROLOG).

At the same time, again as part of my continuous learning, routinely update my knowledge on how our brain works, including few years ago a course and material on neuroeconomics (it all started with few books on brain physiology).

Communication and politics are sometimes difficult to balance, and probably my perception is distorted by what I learned as a teenager (started at 17) in organized politics, at the time political advocacy in a federalist association- but I wrote about it in the past.

Whenever transformative initiatives are to be implemented, it is to be expected that plans, when meeting reality, will need to be altered.

In the old days of politics, at least in Italy, while nowadays we remember corruption, at the time there was also a kind of "framework of reference" within each political party.

What I learned in that experience was also that, if you have a compass, a purpose, acting as a foundation, then you would keep a kind of "reference" on each subject domain, where obviously somebody would update as situation evolved.

This would help not just on already known domains, but also as a framework of reference, a collection of signposts to guide in defining a "reference" for a new subject domain.

In business and other activities, then, this evolved into my habit to create a kind of "position papers library" (including both my own "recitations" from experience direct or indirect, and supporting material or bibliography), as switched industries and domains within industries almost on a project-by-project basis (always on change or decision support, but within different contexts).

If you read Italian, the concept is expressed in more detail within a book that published almost a decade ago on political and idea advocacy (you can read it online for free, but buyers on Amazon are welcome, of course).

There is an ancillary concept, that I remember from a book from before I was even a teenager (was published in 1976, read it around that time), written by an Italian journalist, Murialdi, on how to read and understand newspapers and their distortion of reality.

Any communication implies a degree of distortion: we are not robots, we do not have perfect knowledge of anything, and, of course, the context define what is relevant and what is not when.

Hence, the (time)framing I wrote above.

Currently, as part of my readings, I went through some material on prospect theory, but decided to start from its application to foreign policy.

To a friend, few days ago, I summarized the "domain of gains" (where you are less inclined to take risks) and "domain of losses" (where you are more inclined to take risks) using an Italian saying "o la va, o la spacca" (go for broke).

Which, actually, is the same as known by anybody in business or politics: if you have nothing to lose...

In reality, was something that was known long before prospect theory and its consequences were even put on paper.

As an example, following Sun Tzu, Chinese military history recalls of when, to turn the table on an enemy with overwhelming force, a general positioned his troops with the back to a river, so that they would have no escape but fighting.

The "framing" part of "timeframing" is obviously a reference to prospect theory, ancient and modern.

As I wrote above, "framing" has to be contextualized.

Washing vs. changing

Sometimes, as I wrote in the title, the current political trend e.g. in Italy of "seizing the day" is, as discussed in the last section, conflicting with the aims of transformation.

There is a further element to consider within transformation: any transformation implying a cultural change is, as I wrote in part articles, political (without even trying to be original, as e.g. Schmitt was there long before I was even a potential).

And this, of course, requires a political attitude, a bit of surfing and, for those aspiring to do so, leading (without falling into the "appointed leader" trap).

In Italy, our current politicians' crop seems more oriented to getting the "likes of the day" and "preaching to the choir", than taking the yin and yang of political leadership.

For the sake of a post, they toss away opportunities, and, piling up post after post, getting into what I called (referring to Turin, my birthplace where I am currently working, but applies to the country at large):

a tad slow in extricating themselves from the Gordian knots that they entangle in while playing convoluted gaming and scheming
Again: control freakness is not the open mindset you need to make a location attractive

Calling yourself a leader, is not the same as striving to be always liked (e.g. our political leaders got a penchant of having their own name within the symbol of their party, when there are general elections- feels a bit odd, to me).

As since 2012 was pulled back to work again in Turin, on this section I would like to share some local points.

Turin has the same characteristic of two towns that, in the local exoteric penchant, is often associated with, Paris and Prague (the three of them, as reminded to some friends this morning, have multiple rivers, kind of land between the rivers but in Europe, not the Middle East).

In a company town, as Turin used to be for most of the XX century, it is almost acceptable (if not expected) to be a tad "control freak"- it is the "village" mentality, and I experienced it in another company town, and also overseas I was told of something similar in other company towns (reminds me sometimes of the repeated mantra "for the common good" within the funny 2007 movie "Hot Fuzz").

Aspiring to become a multinational town does not imply turning that into reality, if the town still behaves as if it were a company town, long after ceased to be one.

Hence, my nickname of Macondo on the Po (or, in a joke for my German connections "Macondo am Po"), obviously from Garcia Marquez.

I remember that over a decade ago was attending an event I wrote about in the past, it was part of the campaign to attract a transport authority in Turin, hoping that that would halt the decline of the local automotive industry.

Well, at the time, commentary in the audience from representatives of foreign governments while a presentation on a new accelerator/incubator/whatever was that, in reality, they had created their own jobs, as could not understand how in a town as large as Turin the local education institutions could not create "organically" the same amount of jobs.

There was a time, when Turin and its neighborhood were actually still company towns (I am referring to FIAT for Turin, and Olivetti for Ivrea), where Turin had even two of the few "in house" Italian training academies focused on ensuring scalability in management, Isvor and Elea.

Since the beginning of this century, first when I supported start-ups also in Turin (business and marketing planning, as well as associated coaching activities), then when was more or less working and living here in 2012 first, and then 2015-2018, it seems to me, a foreigner-local, as if Turin is focused on retaining control and extracting value, not on building value.

Hence, even recently it was reported that has a significant number of accelerators/incubators/various forms of support (as I saw also in the early 2000s), but few start-ups that are able to "scale up" locally.

Sometimes, reminds me a curious episode in the late 1980s.

Was working for the Italian branch of an American consulting company, specifically on the commercialization of decision support systems and associated services.

At the peak, I had approximately seven between managers, senior managers, partners etc above me- and reporting to all of them, resulting (in pre-mobile phone times) in shuttling around the country on a daily basis, and logging up to 18 hours a day.

Once, I was in a secondary office in Turin (where I was then to be shuttled away from after asked to "filter" some of those above me to let me work on preparing the project activities), and jokingly somebody said that I should consider setting up my own company.

Then, the secretary and colleagues started listing the roles that they would like to take in "my" company: none productive, all support...

Well, took that as a joke- and anyway my reply was that there would be no difference, if I were to follow their model.

Except that, eventually, I saw the same in other contexts: there are locally too many supporting and standing in the way.

Basically, as was said over a decade ago, generating their own jobs, instead of fostering development and accepting that, if a start-up or a new company grows, also if you hold only say 5% after helping them through few rounds, it is a 5% of a much larger pie that you would not have been able to bake.

Instead, here heard from a podium an "angel" (my British colleagues know that I often call them "daemons" since a couple of decades) stating flatly that the idea was to take them cheap and make them work hard: almost harking back to the old approach of when Italy for a country with "latifondo", i.e. landowners where employees had to ask authorization to marry, study, and, heavens forbid, leave.

Too many extracting value, too few generating value.

Few days ago I read in a local newspaper that sounded as if local politicians were to meet Stellantis to tell them why was worth investing in Turin (over the last few decades, thanks in no small part to a different more "joint development" model, the automotive industry grew in what is called "Motor Valley", in Emilia Romagna, while shrinking down in the area where was initially developed in Italy, Turin and surrounding areas).

As I shared with friends, from the outline of the approach within the article, reminded me a typical misconception about foreign direct investment attraction (and retention) that even when I worked on a project in Rome in the early 2000s, specifically in the FDI Attraction domain, was already known.

Moreover, the current approach seems compounded by the same mistakes done when we tried to attract a pharma authority in Milan: save you Excel spreadsheets showing the money from outside the territory (Rome, Europe) that you can "funnel", start with "why" on a systemic way, not just a temporary access to resources- or, at least, you would need a timeframe aligned with the level of commitment asked.

These cultural elements, anyway, are not just in Turin, but shared across most of Italy: we broadcast, we do not listen, we expect that our marketing produces a kind of brainwashing.

Instead, we should listen, empathize, and think on the same timeframe of the target audience, not your own.

Also because public promises in Italy generally, due to the lack of a "sistema Italia", are not seen as constraints for all the political élites, but just for the incumbents.

All this preamble, to share a "mental framework" before moving on the concept of the three "washing".

Now, what would you expect from digital/green/security transformation?

Something structural, and that transcends the current electoral cycle.

So, to give a short outline:
_ digital: rethink business processes and relationships within society so that they embed data in a sustainable and inclusive way (i.e. not just digital transformation supporting and sustainining those that are already "digital", or even "digital natives", to use Prensky definition)
_ green: restructure not just energy sources, but how when why resources are used, and maybe redesign work patterns and our cities
_ security: as in the example above about the consequences of the war in Ukraine, think what implies having a shared "security posture" covering from the Atlantic in Portugal, up to the Baltics and down to the Mediterranean Sea and the Dardanelles (maybe, in the future, even Crimea, plus or minus a Kaliningrad-like Donbass).

It was to be expected that some of the national resilience and recovery plans, even before the invasion of Ukraine, would be subject to "political stuffing", i.e. recovering old dossiers, or adding those that keep afloat businesses that could work in the pre-digital and pre-green or even pre-security model (for the latter, think about businesses depending on resources from Russia or China via Russia as exclusive source).

Politics requires managing transformations as a series of transitions.

But the three "washing" are equally simple to describe, giving examples just from Italy:
_ digital: e.g. when companies in Italy acquired new equipment able to broadcast operational data and help in pre-empt maintenance, but then failed to connect them to their information systems or train staff, and used the new equipment exactly as the old equipment, only better performing (because Italy had a quite obsolete shopfloor-level equipment footprint), and mainly... to benefit of tax benefits that were renewed by the Government each year
_ green: e.g. we had quite a few scandals of even organized crime infiltrations into production of alternative energy, and anyway we still lack a coherent industrial plan that survives beyond the electoral announces
_ security: e.g. we are joining the spending bandwagon but presenting it as an investment, despite knowning that what is needed is a massive cultural and organizational change, not just piling up new material.

Across all three, what is missing often is the long-term perspective, and sometimes, reading at the list of projects etc, seems more a shopping list than an investment plan.

Another point often missing is the concept of transition: already difficult to deliver a transformation without a coherent long-term perspective on the overall aims, if you compound that with what sometimes amounts to a kind of "keeping the zombies afloat", not having at least a clear picture of how the latter is integrated with the already weak premises generates unnecessarily additional risks.

The unintended (?) side-effects

Whenever there is a transformation... no, it is not just about politics.

Any transformation implies a transition, and, of course, in my framework, implies a cultural change.

And there is always both blatant and hidden resistance to change.

Sometimes, the latter is more difficult to both identify and manage, but can have the greater impact.

I could share few books, working papers, etc, on each one of the "technicalities" of the three transitions object of this article.

So, I will spare (for now) discussions about each.

Whenever a transition starts, there are at least four elements to be considered:
_ the starting point
_ the target point
_ the transition between the two
_ the resources involved.

Change happens as if by magic only in movies.

Anywhere else, even under the best conditions, the first issue is knowing really were you are starting from.

A further element that is often ignored is monitoring changes within the context: no matter how good are your abilities to be a "control freak", a cultural transition is subject both to endogenous and exogeneous influences.

It is delusional to assume that you will not have to adapt along the way.

If you are able to formally stick to your original plan, probably there is something else to be reconsidered, e.g. about how much your plan is integrated with reality.

Finally, a last element that often is not simply ignored, but discarded, is about resources.

Transitions involving organizational structures and societies involve people.

And people within organizations are involved in roles, activities, and delivering the purpose of the organization.

In a transition, you need involve the right people, while, at the same time, ensuring the continuity of what is existing, until the transition is completed.

This obviously generates stress on the allocation of resources (human and financial).

Juggling in the air all the balls would be difficult enough, but, if you were to add the further element of bitwashing, greenwashing, warwashing, there are additional side-effects.

Capability planning in a transition assumes that resources are allocated mainly to the aim of achieving the target point.

If, as it is typical within a "washing" scenario, instead the allocation of resources is mainly to keep afloat what is going to be replaced, the message given about priorities to all those involved is at best misleading.

Specifically, in many a national recovery and resilience plans within the European Union, part of the overall NextGenerationEU, even before the add-ons that can be foreseen due to the security situation, the "recovery" (keeping afloat) component spills over also onto the "resilience" (completing the transition) component.

At the same time, as shared above, as we live in a data-centric world, and not anymore in the XIX century, the information about the distance between the claims of transformation and reality eventually will be spread around.

In part, this can be expected.

No political activity or initiative would focus just on those who cannot yet vote, e.g. because belong to future generations.

The risk of transformation zealots as expressed above, the "all or nothing" type, is that this is an attitude fine for a flashmob, not to deliver sustainable change that is inclusive and generates a new consensus altering what is considered a set of "sustainable behaviors".

Anyway, the dispersion of resources if in reality the transformation plays second fiddle to continuity and conservation can undermine both the continuity of the pre-existing and the execution of the transformation, as well as the credibility of future initiatives.

Few examples, from Italy:
_ digital: if the digital transformation results in giving a "modern" face to old processes, e.g. by converting existing processes into their digital versions, as seen in some bureacratic changes, this would actually result in a lower level of inclusion and reduced flexibility, increasing instead of reducing the distance between citizens and State; moreover, if the State were to adopt an Orwellian approach on specific measures (the "control freak" element)
_ green: if the green transformation increases costs (e.g. as done in Italy by dumping the costs of failed "virtual" energy suppliers to customers, or by adding layers of costs by "unbundling" services), and does not alter behaviors to improve the energy footprint, it does not increase sustainability, and at best creates more "green zealots" (who, in turn, generate a reaction from the others, undermining the participation needed to achieve success)
_ security: if the new security posture will turn into just more expenditure but without a cultural and organizational transformation (something that probably would require at least a decade), the side-effect could be actually to miss an opportunity to rethink the overall role of security in a country that has way too many security forces overlapping and projected to the past, and generate additional bureaucracies and costs.

In a data-centric society, either of the three transformations would have a much lower cost and increased efficiency and efficacy if the society, as composed by data-generation points (i.e. each individual and each element of the infrastructure interacting also with individuals), is an active participant.

The "washing" element instead creates a technological layer that acts as an excuse to avoid change, assuming that all other societies will do likewise.

In the case of Italy, already way behind in competitiveness, this would just increase the distance, and, as seen in recent choices by some multinationals, despite the size of its economy in Europe, reinforces the consideration that I already wrote about over a decade ago, while in Brussels.

Or: a market large enough to have local "maquilladoras", distribution, services- but neither competitive nor attractive enough to be considered for value-added activities, where more structured economies might offer better long-term perspective to potential investors (e.g. look at the allocation of investments in Europe by Intel and Tesla).