Delve podcast: Navigating Digital Ecosystems & Transforming Strategy with Yolande Chan

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Delve podcast, November 3, 2021: Navigating Digital Ecosystems & Transforming Strategy with Yolande Chan
Robyn Fadden – host: Digital technologies today tend to be highly generic and highly specific at the same time. Your mobile phone is a phone but it’s also a translator, a map, a guitar tuner, and an entertainment system. Our use and understanding of technologies on a personal level is already extremely varied. So what happens when we ramp that use up to an organizational level? To understand the relationship between technology and organizations now requires a complex and nuanced lens, one that looks at all the moving parts within digital ecosystems. Digital technologies have evolved so rapidly in the past decade that they’ve altered not only organizations’ digital strategies, but the very relationship between organizations and technology. That relationship used to be thought of in terms of aligning an organization’s technology investments with its overall strategy. The aim was to achieve resonance between technology and business goals. So, often in the name of alignment, technology was a way to implement strategy or strategies were created to exploit available technology. Today that’s changed a lot. In the face of so many interconnected technological solutions solving ever changing business problems and even driving economic growth, that alignment approach to digital strategy seems as slow as dial up.
Robyn Fadden – host: Welcome to the Delve podcast. Delve is the award-winning thought leadership platform of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, you can find Delve at and most podcasting apps. For this episode of the Delve podcast, I’m your host, Robyn Fadden.
Robyn Fadden – host: More recently, a digital ecosystems perspective of organizational strategy has shown that all organizations from small businesses to large corporations exist in a changing technological landscape, where an alignment strategy simply isn’t feasible. In an ecosystem change is constant. If organizations want to innovate and grow, technology needs to be at the core of their strategy from the start. I spoke with the Dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management, Yolande Chan about her recent research in information technology and information systems, specifically, her insights on digital ecodynamics, a perspective that organizations can apply to examine their own digital ecosystems within a climate of change. That includes the various technologies they use and why, and their strategic roles along the potential paths towards knowledge and innovation.  As the Dean of Desautels, you’re engaged with all facets of the faculty. Concurrently are a prolific scholar who’s invested in your field, working on research with colleagues at Cambridge, Queens, Concordia, and other universities around the world throughout your career. Can you tell us about how you view management and organizations across sectors through the lens of your research, especially through the lens of digital ecodynamics?
Yolande Chant: I look at situations with a digital technology lens. Most people look at situations and they look at it perhaps from a human perspective. And I do that too. But I always add a digital technology filter. One of my messages, a key message is that we have jewels on the ground that we walk past – the jewels are our technology. So what I refer to as SMAC, so that’s SMAC, social media, mobile technologies, analytics, and cloud computing – SMAC – for instance, are just a small component of these light or inexpensive technologies that we all have, that we take for granted, and so we do not use sufficiently. So, in every circumstance, we have SMAC. In most circumstances, we don’t engage tools like SMAC. So in a response to an emerging crisis, or to a challenge, we do not automatically pick up the tools on the ground that are right there. And for businesses that are dealing with a crisis, they will often think strategically, but not include the technology in their thinking. So they will use it almost by default. They will do what their competitors are doing. But they will not put technology in the center or in the core of their business planning. And they overlook the jewels on the ground.
Robyn Fadden – host: Some firms are much more inclined and able to say, Oh, here’s a new piece of technology, a platform or a tool that looks like it will fit what we do – let’s experiment with that and see if it will fit. And some firms just don’t have that capacity. And in a constantly evolving technological landscape, as we’ve talked about, that piecemeal approach to technology might not even be the right one anymore. Are the relevant processes and technologies in any digital ecosystem always dependent on an organization’s cultural and for that matter, even historical context?
Yolande Chan: I once did research, in fact, for many years, for over a decade on a term that I called alignment, the alignment of technology with business. But it was in a context that was more stable, where we knew the context, and we could predict what the context would look like tomorrow. And so it made sense to try to be aligned, to have technology and people and systems come into alignment. But when the context is always changing, that becomes a very frustrating activity. We no longer look at alignment, we are looking at innovation and we’re looking at that digital dynamic set of ongoing capabilities and reinforcement of opportunities. So it is always a moving target. And it is not a static alignment. It is very much, if you want to use the term alignment, digitally aligned enabled business activity.  In the context of an ecosystem, there is change, which is why I use the term digital ecodynamics. And so the context is always changing, there isn’t a single, stable context.
Yolande Chan: If you look at that second term, we’re saying that something is dynamic or turbulent, it’s changing, and what business environment is not, especially in COVID times. If you look at the eco part that could be ecology, ecological system, economy, or ecosystem. And any of those terms, any of those ecos, before dynamics will capture what I convey in my own research when I look at equal dynamics. The digital part is technology-enabled ecodynamics. So what I’m arguing is that in turbulent business environments, like the one we are in today, with COVID-19, digitally enabled responses are key. Also, the technology when introduced in industries in ecosystems creates turbulence. And so the only thing that is constant is change.  The other issue you raise though, is the importance of context as a whole. Regardless of whether or not it is static or dynamic. That is key. The research that I’m doing with my colleagues at Concordia looks at what we call technology affordances. That research basically says that, yes, technological features are black and white, but how they are applied and for what purpose changes the affordance, it changes what you’re able to do with the technology. Two businesses with the same technology, using them differently, have different affordances, or different outcomes that they enable. This is for many, not obvious, but it is really key. It isn’t good enough just to purchase a MacBook or to purchase a phone. It is what I do, how I use the map, which is the context in which I applied the computer or the phone that can change the MacBook from just another efficiency device to this has become this strategic engine where suddenly I am globally connected and this MacBook has the affordance of global engagement. But it also has the affordance of simply writing a Word document. The affordances are there, but they are only activated depending on the user and the purpose that is envisioned.
Robyn Fadden – host: This attention to constant change reminds me of an aspect of your digital ecosystems research that on the surface may seem unrelated, but your work shows that it’s integral to the bigger picture and to individual organizations innovation and growth in fact. We’ve seen recent advances in equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives in response to social change. So how does Equity, Diversity and Inclusion fit into robust, flexible digital ecosystems?
Yolande Chan: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion are very, very high priorities for me. And to the extent that my research on technology can also advance those goals I am thrilled. In turbulent times, often the most disadvantaged are those who are resource constrained and often it’s the small businesses that go out of business. My research that looks at readily available digital technologies that are light as in resource light, and they are usually already present. And part of the organization allows firms that are otherwise disadvantaged to think of ways out of very difficult situations. It is an equalizer. These tools are common to all of us. Even in the most disadvantaged settings, we generally have a phone, or we generally have access to a simple computer. It is very rewarding for me to see that with my partners, research partners that is, across the globe, when we’ve looked at work in India, when we’ve looked at work in China, in some parts of Europe, and here in rural Canada, we have found that disadvantaged populations – in one case in India, we looked at garbage collectors, and the fact that when they were given very inexpensive phones, their work was transformed, and they received benefits that were not just economic benefits, their status was changed in their societies. And these were very, very inexpensive technological interventions. When these were introduced into otherwise disadvantaged situations, we saw technology become an almost an equalizer, but it’s an enabler and it created power and opportunities for those who otherwise would not have received those opportunities. I see the work as very consistent with my focus on equity, diversity and inclusion because the technologies that I’m advocating are not expensive, and they’re available to all.
Robyn Fadden – host: You mentioned SMAC, which involves social media and mobile technologies like our phones. So we all have these technologies at our fingertips. Yet a lot of organizations often think they need a very complex digital plan and expensive equipment. How would you apply the lens of digital ecodynamics to an organization that’s trying to keep up with what seems to be like constant changes in technology and advances in digitalization.
Yolande Chan: There are many ways in which small firms can benefit from the use of digital technologies. First, most small firms are resource constrained, most digital technologies that are SMAC and readily available are not expensive tools. In fact, we use them in our private lives, so we bring them with us into our business settings. Secondly, when there’s turbulence in a business environment, a lot of the ability to gain knowledge about what is happening in that environment and to be able to respond in a timely manner can be facilitated with these technologies. So by following, tweets, Twitter accounts and looking at what our Facebook pages of competitors involve, again, we’re getting competitive intelligence in a very cost-efficient and timely manner. If you look at wanting to grow in an environment that is, again, uncertain, a lot of experimentation can be done very inexpensively using digital tools. So if there is a small business that is looking to innovate, one of the best ways and most feasible ways of doing so is by thinking consciously about the technology already in the business, or the technology that can be obtained very cost effectively,
Robyn Fadden – host: Thinking more about resource constraints and access to technologies and access to relevant communities of peers, or even the human resource of tech savvy managers and leaders, you’ve also conducted research on digital ecosystems of small firms in rural settings. Why did you focus on this area and what are the challenges of those small firms?
Robyn Fadden – host: You and your co-author found in your data that the top 10 cities for gourmet food trucks were Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Portland, Miami, Austin, New York, Houston, Denver, and Orlando. Those are big urban centers with a diversity of cultural offerings and the audience and consumers for that. The bottom 10 cities in your research, which often only had one or two gourmet food trucks were cities like Arlington, Toledo, Des Moines, Augusta, Georgia, what did the data show you about entrepreneurs and their experiences in these different locations?
Yolande Chan: Much of Canada is rural. And often when we’re in big cities like Montreal, we forget that. Much of rural Canada can be made more competitive with the use of digital tools. When we use technology, vast spaces can appear as though they don’t exist. We can appear all gathered. Think about today’s Zoom calls. I’m on Zoom calls frequently where people are all over the world and yet they’re literally in my face. So in a rural setting, when people are dispersed across many hundreds, if not thousands of miles or kilometers, using digital tools can overcome these distances. I know that telehealth, for instance, in some rural settings is a very well understood way of dealing with what I call rurality. I got into the study of rural Canada, in large part because in a previous institution, we were many of us engaging in research with an impact. We wanted to impact that region, which happened to be semi urban or semi-rural. The absolute difference between trying to do business in a rural community and doing business in a community like Montreal, or Toronto or Vancouver, was very apparent. And we understood, the research team and I, that the tools we were providing were going to equip, potentially, business owners in these communities that were disadvantaged economically and needing economic revitalization, with important ways in which to mimic the business activity and obtain the business benefits of firms in cities like Montreal.
Yolande Chan: When we go online, it is not apparent to the customer if the business is in a small community, perhaps by a lake, or if it is in downtown Montreal. There is no difference unless the business owner makes it visible. So rural businesses can appear like giants by properly using digital tools and creating a digital window that enables the customer or consumer to see the potential of the business and not the constraints of the business. So by thinking about how we use digital tools, and strategically using them, there can be significant competitive advantages available for rural firms. What my research showed is that small investments in technology, so it could be in tools like Slack, tools like Dropbox, I mean, these are small investments where we use cloud computing, maybe with very minor cost to bring computing power that is very economical to our fingertips, at a distance, can enable small, remote, isolated firms to engage business communities as though they were in the middle of the activity. We found in my research, that unfortunately, most business owners see the constraints and don’t see the tools. So it is for them surprising to hear that they have the solutions to their problems at their fingertips often, but they’re just not aware of these tools and their potential. Or they say, but everybody has these tools so we can’t use them for competitive advantage because we all have them, so they couldn’t be a differentiator. It isn’t the tool, it’s the system, which involves the person as well as the tool, as well as the context and the strategic use of the technology.
Robyn Fadden – host: And as you’ve said before, a little bit of investment in this is going to result in so much more growth. How much of that depends on investing in technology that works for them, not only to get the job done, but to keep evolving?
Yolande Chan: There is a difference between digitization and digitalization. Digitization is simply focused on efficiency, using technology to automate processes. And I think most small businesses have that down pat. What we don’t see with small and entrepreneurial businesses actually often is digitalization. Digitalization is viewing technology, looking at it with a competitive lens. It’s looking at the technology strategically. My message is about digitalization in small and medium sized firms and especially too in startups. We have looked at outcomes. So if a startup is only minimally digitally engaged or maximally digitally engaged, are we seeing differences in outcomes? And a lot depends, of course, on the context that’s broader. So the industry, the kind of initiative that the startup was trying to embark on, and sadly COVID, how has that affected the industry or the opportunity that the startup was seeking to address? So, we have seen a lot of dynamics. We can’t say that technology is the solution in all cases for all problems. But what we can say is that more often than not, technology is an important part of the solution.
Robyn Fadden – host: So for one organization, bringing AI data analytics tools, for instance, into their digital ecosystem helps them manage their data so that they can discover insights within it. Whereas another organization might bring these tools in for a different purpose, or they might not have the resources to apply them in other ways. Having a new technology at your fingertips really is only the beginning.
Yolande Chan: That’s correct. And so we don’t want to tell businesses just to get the digital technology tools that they see their competitors are using. Because if they don’t understand how those tools are being used, and how they could use similar tools, they will simply be acquiring infrastructure that gets them no further ahead. My message is not, please go out there and accumulate technology, that is not my message. My message has maybe two parts. One is, see the technology that you already have, and strategically use that technology. And you may want to invest at the margins. And to use both what you have and small additional investments if you’re a small firm in a very strategic way for competitive advantage.
Robyn Fadden – host: It’s astounding the digital tools that are out there, and that are free or low cost to access, such as social media, YouTube, there are many accessible technologies that can become sources of competitive intelligence and organizational advantage. We’ve been talking a lot about small firms, but your work also tackles the societal aspects and community change that can come from these technologies. And that’s definitely tied to small firms, because they exist within community, of course, but it sounds like this lens of digital ecodynamics can also be applied to community development and nonprofit organizations.
Yolande Chan: Absolutely, yes. So I have a conversation piece co-authored with my colleagues at Concordia that actually looks at the use of readily available digital technologies in the pandemic. So again, when you have whole communities that are trying to recover, especially rural or disadvantaged communities, trying to understand what is going on, what is best practice, how to respond – the tools in our hands can be used strategically. So there can be individuals who innovatively set up a almost like an Intelligence Center, to provide information to communities to share in the context of a disaster, where danger is, where solutions are. And at the community level, not just at the individual level or at the business level but at the community level, these readily available digital technologies can form the infrastructure for community responses to difficult situations like a pandemic or hurricane.
Robyn Fadden – host: Thank you so much for going into depth with Delve about your research on digital ecodynamics and the application of digital technologies that really takes into account the very human core of those organizations.
Yolande Chan: When I have shared about digital technologies and said, please view them differently, the block is in your mind, one potentially challenging response that I’ve received is, we can’t listen to this, this is just too simple. But this compounds the problem. It’s as though you’re being told you’ve got the solution. And you say because I have it, it can’t be the solution. And I hope that as you share this, it will be that those who hear or read what we have discussed, I would implore them, not to say this is too simple. Often we will pay a consultant to tell us what we know. Or we will buy a technology for many thousands of dollars, rather than fully use something that we have already or that is free. And what I am saying, especially to resource-constrained firms and communities is and I’m pleading in some ways, is not to despise what you have because you think you need a large capital outlay in order to make progress. Start with what you have, and see the progress that you will indeed make.
Robyn Fadden – host: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Delve podcast with Desautels Faculty of Management Dean Yolande Chan. I’m your host for this episode Robyn Fadden. You can listen to more of the Delve podcast at And subscribe to Delve McGill on podcast apps like Apple podcasts and Spotify. Thanks for listening.