Who’s the Boss Now? Technology and the Future of Work

An Interview with Digital Workplace Expert Jane McConnell

For more than a decade, Jane McConnell has been helping the world understand the role that digital technologies play in transforming the modern workplace. Jane’s landmark annual report, The Organization in the Digital Age, stands among the clearest and most prescient guides to the radical changes that we have all experienced in our work lives, either as a frantic and confusing blur or a slow and steady trek that can be equally difficult to get a handle on.

The publication of the 2016 edition of The Organization in the Digital Age marks a unique point in the lifecycle of Jane’s research. A decade on, we’re no longer talking about whether or how far to embrace digital transformation in the workplace. Rather, we’re trying to understand how we can better weave digital into the very genes of our organizations.

To mark the tenth anniversary of her research, I asked Jane if I could put her on the other side of the mic to dive a little deeper into some of the critical issues facing organizations today. In the resulting interview, Jane touches upon everything from digital workplace strategy to the explosion of enterprise social networks, the challenge of retaining important knowledge and (of course) that thing we used to call an intranet; all with her characteristic insight and candor.

  1. The world is going mobile at light speed, yet the intranet world seems to have largely missed the memo. The leaders I work with know they need to mobilize, but few have made real progress. What’s going on here?

The intranet world, as it used to see itself, is now a dinosaur. Communicators and intranet managers who think the intranet can be or should be the single entry point into the digital work world have missed the boat. Seriously.

The mobile workforce today includes nearly everyone! It includes workers who are not office-based as well as workers who are office-based, but are often on the move. People prefer simple mobile apps such as email, contacts and social networking to do much of their work.

Most intranets are not optimized for mobile. Some may have responsive design, where the interface adapts to the device, which is good. But even then, intranets tend to be over-loaded with information and documents. It’s hard to find what you need.

“Intranets as we know them today are an endangered species, on the way to extinction.”

2. Intranets have long been private spaces for use by employees only. We see that changing suddenly as the rest of the web becomes more open and interconnected. We see intranets that serve partners and customers as well as employees. And some that integrate content from hundreds of sources outside of the business. Does your research support this trend and how far do you see it going?

Absolutely. My data shows that the more digitally mature an organization is, the more likely they are to have collaborative spaces they share with clients and a range of different types of online communities that include external people.

My vision is that the traditional internal-external divide will completely disappear. The digital work environment will evolve to become a mosaic of online spaces, each with a specific purpose and available to a group of people who may often be from different organizations. People will use different spaces depending on what they need, when they need it, where they are, and who else they need to work with.

3. According to the report “When asked about investment priorities, technology was at the top of the list and education and change at the bottom.” Does this mean that many organizations are still deploying technology platforms and calling that an intranet strategy?

Technology is at the top of the list of investments because many organizations are still equipping themselves for the digital age. The technology is not just for building intranets. It also includes social tools, data analysis technologies, and in some cases experiments with AI (artificial intelligence) and bots.

4. The report states that lack of budgets and resources has decreased as an obstacle. In my work I’ve seen a dramatic increase in spending on intranets and digital workplaces lately, along with a greater appreciation of their strategic potential. Does your research confirm this or is the uptick less dramatic than it appears?

What you’ve seen corresponds to what I’ve seen as well. We seem to be at a turning point where senior management, who are often the budget holders, are waking up to the need to transform the way their organizations work. They are making budgets available and allocating resources to digital projects.

“What many do not yet realize is that transformation is more than buying technology, installing it and counting on viral deployment.”

I know a number of large organizations that have had success with viral deployment, but at a certain point it stops. The early adopters and digital-savvy people are on board, but there is still no critical mass.

This is the critical turning point where people, especially management, need to walk the talk. They need to use new digital capabilities visibly, demonstrate new behavior, and show by their actions that the way they work is changing. Actions speak louder than words. Management in many organizations have not yet made the leap from approving budgets to getting involved themselves.

5. It was surprising to see that process simplification is just getting started in some organizations. This has been happening since the earliest intranets. Can you take us deeper into what’s happening here?

Here’s how I see it. Organizations have been digitizing processes for a number of years now. The goal has been to optimize them, to gain in efficiency, to save time and money.

However, true process simplification is different. It means that processes are shortened, removed, or dramatically changed to make it easier for people to work. I recently saw a great example from a large global organization where people no longer have to submit their expense reports through a system based on workflow before getting reimbursed. They snap a photo of the receipt on the spot (restaurant bill, for example) then upload it to a system that will automatically approve and start the reimbursement process. No questions asked. Each person (and their manager) can see at any time the list of expenses, but there is no approval process as such. The system is based on trust.

Obviously, if there is a problem, there will be a discussion between the person and the manager, but according to my contacts at this company, to the best of their knowledge, it has never happened. The system is simple, and is based on visibility and trust.

6. Enterprise social networks have proliferated in recent years. Nearly all of my clients are deploying them or talking about them. Less clear is how successful these social networks have been for organizations. Whether they have met expectations. Do you have any insight to share about this?

You’re right that enterprise social networks are being deployed in many organizations.

I’d like to share these figures with you:

These figures are for deployment only. You’re right to make the distinction between deployment and success. I’d say the success level is low-to-moderate overall at present. There are many reasons for this.

First of all, enterprise social networks are a disruption in organizations with centralized, strong, hierarchical decision-making. Social networks are horizontal communication and collaboration tools. They go across silos. There are still many organizations that are not comfortable with this.

Secondly, the cases I’ve seen where the enterprise social network is successful are where it has been positioned as a tool that supports the purpose and goals of the organization itself. It is part of an enterprise or business transformation initiative. Senior leaders use the network, and are visible on it to everyone else. It rapidly becomes the natural way of working.

7. Knowledge retention and management have been top intranet priorities for decades, yet this year’s report found that fewer than 15% of organizations are confident they can retain knowledge and know-how when people leave. Given the level of sustained attention this has received, why has the challenge remained so intractable?

This question is deep, and we should go into it in more detail in a future conversation. There’s so much to say. The short answer is that the knowledge retention and management has nearly always been based on documents. People write up lessons learned, good practices and so on. People retiring from organizations are asked to transfer their knowledge to younger colleagues. This is then stored in videos or documents, all of which rarely transfer knowledge.

Knowledge is built and shared between people through the exchanges and conversations they have. Communities of practice are places where young or new employees can learn from others in the natural flow of work. Working out loud is another important practice. This refers to people who conduct their work openly, letting other people observe their project spaces for example, rather than keeping them restricted to the project team. The practice of working out loud is not yet common. There’s a lot to say about this. The low figure you cited from my study has remained constant for several years. There’s been little improvement. That’s why it’s key for people to find better ways of sharing what they know. Working out loud and participating in communities are both effective ways.

But, I honestly think it will be a long time before people and organizations manage to truly share knowledge and know-how. We are still very dependent on people, and that’s a good thing. In many areas of work, AI applications will help, but when it comes to the truly creative, unique ability of people to handle new situations and solve new problems, AI will be an aid, an accelerator, but the people who actually have the know-how and experience will be the ultimate players.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on February 15, 2017.