Disruptive Technology: When Business As Usual Doesn’t Work Anymore (for the Church)

The purchasing counter at the Amazon Bookstore. No cash allowed.

The purchasing counter at the Amazon Bookstore.
No cash allowed.

First, an example. When I was up in Seattle last week, I stopped by the new Amazon Bookstore. Not the online site you are used to visiting — I mean the brick-and-mortar actual Amazon store with books in it. It has been open less than a month. It was packed. It was fun. I bought three books, just because. Not much has changed over the last few generations for the consumer experience of browsing in a bookstore. But it certainly feels different inside the Amazon store. It is different. There are no posted prices (book prices are synced to the online Amazon price, which changes frequently). And they don’t take cash. A consumer retailing operation that doesn’t post prices and doesn’t take cash. Interesting.

As an online retailer of books, Amazon has certainly been disruptive to the brick-and-mortar bookstore business. Will the new Amazon model of a real bookstore be another disruptive event? Time will tell, but don’t say no until you visit the new store. Technology changes not only goods and services but also how they are purchased and delivered. That holds for religious services as well as any other field. I’m thinking the big blowup over the recent policy changes by the LDS Church is another example, showing how social media have disrupted business as usual for the LDS Church.

Last month I did a post at T&S on the same general theme, arguing that the increased pace of online information delivery that we are all getting used to makes the current structure of LDS Sunday meetings (three hours of slow delivery of uninteresting information) ever less appealing, particularly for younger Latter-day Saints. Here is another example: The dramatic reaction to the new LDS policies requiring mandatory discipline for gay marriage and barring some children who have a gay parent from being baptized at age 8. The LDS Church has been quietly changing policies in its Handbooks for generations, but a public display of opposition by the membership on this scale has never happened before. Previously, most members were not even aware of such changes. Something has changed. I think social media as a disruptive technology is part of the explanation.

How has business as usual for the Church changed? First, the secret handbook giving detailed guidance to LDS local leadership is no longer secret. For a church that has employed secrecy as a strategy in so many areas (the Handbook, the temple, disciplinary proceedings, historical documents in its archives) the transparency of social media and the Internet is highly disruptive. Second, unhappiness can now network, communicate, and organize, and do it quickly. Granted, it takes a significant screw-up to create a level of unhappiness sufficient to spur networking and organization by those who are unhappy. But when that happens, as it surely does from time to time in any organization, including the Church, the negative consequences are now almost instantaneous. The Church no longer has years or even months to assess the damage and craft a response or execute a retreat from a bad decision or policy. Waiting even a week to respond is now too long.

If the Church does not adapt to the reality of this changed technological environment and modify its procedures and operations, similar scenarios will continue to recur.

Comments

Disruptive Technology: When Business As Usual Doesn’t Work Anymore (for the Church) — 7 Comments

  1. In the late 80s, I was privileged to have access to a new phenomenon called the Internet (actually, it was called the ARPA-net back then). At that time, the Internet was not available to the public — only to engineering firms and academic institutions. David and Lynn Anderson formed LDS-L — which consisted mainly of academics and engineers. We called our discussion group the “LDS First Internet Ward”.

    A delegation formed and sent to the church office building. The message was that there was something big — really big on the horizon, called “the Internet” — and that the church ought to pay close attention, and use it to its advantage.

    The delegation was rebuffed, and assured that the church was on top of things, and didn’t need our suggestions.

    The delegation also talked to a different department about putting the Book of Mormon on the Internet. The response was that if we included chapter headings as contained in the 1979/1980 version of the scriptures, we could be sued by the church.

  2. My post got cut off — here is the remainder:

    The point I’m trying to make — is that the church has been slow in some instances to realize and take advantage of modern technology — or to realize its power (good and bad). I’m sure there are many savvy consultants working for the church who could have predicted the train wreck that the Policy has turned out to be. But apparently their voices are not heard by the upper-level decision makers.

  3. I think your analysis is spot on. My guess is that the church will get bloodied a few more times before the old guys get it. They simply can’t acknowledge mistakes quick enough to change unfortunately.

    Too bad about their penchant for secrecy, though. It makes one think.

  4. Very good, I agree. In addition to their advanced age (being at least two generations removed from the current culture), they seem highly entrenched in the notion that they are inspired (including the belief that their decisions have been approved as the “mind and will” of God). This serves to place an enormous amount of cultural inertia and resistance to change with regard to taking an action and then correcting it.

    This cultural inertia (whether exacerbated by age or not) exists among most bishops and stake presidents as well. I have personal experience at that level–having tried more than once to get them to make changes in processes and procedures (in my case, mostly having to do with the data and issues clerks deal with).

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  6. I have fond memories of LDSL-L from the early 1990s. Amazing how much has changed (and not changed).

    About 5 years ago, as I was wrestling with my beliefs, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dallin H. Oaks 1:1 for 30 minutes. I shared with him my observation that a sea change was amidst within the Church, that the membership was self-organizing given the adoption of Facebook on a global level, and that those with sincere questions and doubts were searching but not finding answers. I added that, unlike the emergence of individual Ward Web Sites in the early 2000s, Facebook was neither small in scope nor governable in a centralized way. Without mentioning it by name, I described the phenomenon of Mormon Stories and other Mormon-related communities and the flow of information. I emphasized that this wasn’t just ex-mormons, these were active members. But I felt like something I’d want to be aware of if I were him. He was very intent and actually got out a notepad and took notes, which I hadn’t expected. He thanked me for what I shared. Then we parted – with a glimmer in his eye he said he had to go to Correlation Committee meeting.

    I am no longer a believer in the Church, but I left that meeting with 2 strong impressions (admittedly just opinions): 1) at an individual level, the General Authorities are well intentioned and interested in the welfare of the membership, however misguided their means may be, and 2) even senior apostles are fairly limited in their ability to advance meaningful change in an increasingly consensus-driven, precedent-driven institution. (the fact that the 15 has increasingly become a gerontocracy doesn’t help)

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