What Are the Required Skills for Today’s Digital Workforce?

As I spend a great deal of time every year looking at the latest technological advances for the enterprise, I’ve noticed a trend in recent years that’s long been true but is clearly markedly accelerating. That trend is that technology has officially pulled well ahead of the workplace skills of even the most proactive manager or line worker. It’s not that the digital possibilities are getting ahead of our businesses, it’s that high technology itself is proliferating so rapidly in terms of potent and truly transformative new products and services (social software, collaborative economy, wearables, 3D printing, and the whole hype cycle) that it is now very difficult today even for experts working on the subject full time to keep up.

I posited today on Twitter that we need to figure out a way to catch up or, as Andrew McAfee seriously suggests, perhaps the robots will just end up doing everything for us as they might be the only ones that can manage.

Or is there a way forward for our organizations? Are there new ways to think about our digital workplace skills that allows us to take our thinking up to a new plane, the next meta-level of thinking and working where we have much higher leverage, can manage change that is an order of magnitude or greater in volume than today, work in fundamentally better and smarter new ways — and perhaps even work a bit less — yet produce much more value?

Internal and External Digital Chang Factors Impacting the Enterprise Today

We generally recognize that have to do something to improve our digital metabolism, as I see organizations struggle mightily these days with digital change and transformation, and often not getting very far.

Thus it’s become pretty clear that one of two things is going to happen: The world will continue to pull ahead of the average workplace, as our internal rates of change are greatly exceeded by the marketplace. We will steadily become irrelevant and ineffective, eventually replaced by digital startups and better-adjusted competitors. Or we’ll find entirely new ways of improving our capabilities in a way that allows us to maintain some kind of parity with progress in the world. (Whether technology change always represents progress is a discussion for another post.)

This means we have to find a way to change our selves and our workplaces, or the market will do it for us the hard way. Disruption is what happens when something new comes along that changes the underlying rules of the game. If we are doing the disrupting, it can actually be very good for us. When it’s imposed on us, then the results usually tend to be unfortunate. So we must be doing the disrupting to ourselves, and that begins and ends with shifting our mindset and perspective, especially in deeply understanding the nature of the truly pervasive digital operating environment we now find ourselves in.

Looking at the state of the digital workplace today, which I’ve been mapping for years now, and we can see from sources of hard data about what’s happening such as Jane McConnell’s terrific surveys, that “most organizations are just starting their journey to an effective digital workplace.” That’s Jane’s quote, but my emphasis: 30 years into the personal computer and networking revolution, and most organizations are still very early in their journey and often losing ground.

What Skills will Self-Sustain Digital Workers?

To be fair to IT and HR departments around the world, the digital workplace target does move incredibly fast and is picking up speed. And there never was a finish line. Fortunately, I believe there are novel, effective and increasingly well-understood new ways for most organizations to address their current digital workplace gaps, and it’s not (just) by “giving up non-essential control”, deploying liberal BYOD/BYOT programs to cultivate employee-led change, figuring out how to do things like learn or change behavior faster, or any of the ten strategies I’ve previously recommended.

No, instead it is by giving our workers genuinely transformative new digital skills that gives them the ability to adapt, provides them with the most relevant digital tools and platforms, conveys new motivations, and fosters the know-how to re-imagine their knowledge work in brand new ways that are much more adaptable, rich, scalable, and resilient — even embracing of — the inevitable march of digital progress.

While no one can yet represent that we have a full understanding of what the key next-generation digital skills of successful organizations are — as they are largely still being discovered — there is a broad realization of the important skills we know of already. All of the skills listed below are ones I’ve either seen being used successfully by large organizations or actively piloted with some promise. These should be on your shortlist as you plan your updates to the digital workplace, as I believe each is essential for working in a much more sustainable and meaningful way in our digital age. The enlightened leaders of today will enable these skills to tap directly into the “New Power” that digital networks are conferring on organizations that are willing and able to adapt.

Related: Today’s Digital Priorities for the C-Suite

Today's Digital Workforce Skills

The Essential Next-Generation Digital Workplace Skills

Working Out Loud

Also known as Open Work or Observable Work, this is the act of lightly narrating your workstream, usually on an enterprise social network, but it can be done using any participative medium. Working out loud allows one to let the network do the work (see below) and breaks down the silos that have rebuilt up with virtual workplaces and today’s far-flung multinational teams. Perhaps most importantly however is that is the key to unleashing agility using digital networks as it automatically collects institutional knowledge and critical methods, makes onboarding new employees much easier, and frees up your knowledge to work for the organization continuously while still ensuring your contribution is recognized. Credit goes to Deutsche Bank’s John Stepper who has done much to make this key digital workplace skill so well known recently.

Digital Sense Making + Personal Knowledge Management

These skills are something we’ve seen CHROs and HR departments consider how to provide in recent years as cognitive overload has become a common workplace malady. We now have many tools, channels, apps, and devices we must use in the workplace, and they will only grow in number, probably extensively. The attention they demand is squeezing out the time to do the quality thinking and analysis that we so badly need knowledge workers to spend time on. Harold Jarche has done excellent work over the years in mapping how activities like Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) is a discipline and practice that digital workers must acquire to navigate today’s knowledge-dense workplaces. PKM provides the tools, techniques, and time for consistent yet meaningful sense making. Next-generation organizations will actively work to reduce needless activities like excessive meetings by creating required time for the strategic activities of acquisition, management, and sense-making of digital knowledge. These skills are foundational to adapting more swiftly and organically to rapidly changing operating environments.

Open Digital Collaboration

As I’ve recently explored, collaboration is becoming the most important strategic activity in organizations, even becoming a vital top-level corporate strategy and major fast-growth new business model as well. Workers today must be experts in digital collaboration techniques, know all the relevant platforms, and maintain an understanding of the current collaborative “channel catalog” at all strategic levels. This includes the team and project levels, all the way up to the very business itself and its relationship with suppliers, partners, and customers. Becoming a connected, sharing knowledge organization using digital tools in global networks has, for example, become a top priority of large organizations like Bosch, BASF, Bayer, Michelen, and many others, some of whom even use techniques to ensure knowledge and observable work are kept out in the open. Open collaboration is a core capability of digital native organizations because it is how network effects and other power laws of networks are triggered, providing the scale and (literally) exponential ability to drive rapid change.

Related: How to Deliver On A Modern Enterprise Collaboration Strategy

Network Leadership

Today’s digital leaders — whether they are senior executives, managers, team leads, or line workers — must be able to wield influence and guide others over digital channels. Digital networks provide uniquely powerful platforms for self-expression that leaders can use to enlist others in common objectives, gain inputs from colleagues and especially weak ties, change minds, and drive collective action towards outcomes. In the industrial age, leadership was wielded through physical presence and (largely) one-way communication through traditional media. Today’s leaders must deal with networks that can and will engage back, and they must be effective at leadership through two-way dialogue, consensus building, and thought leadership. Showing the importance of this subject in leadership circles, the highly respected Executive Board has an excellent white paper on the Rise of Network Leadership that explores skills that must be developed in our workforce today.

Radical Transparency

In today’s digital world, rightly or wrongly, privacy is rapidly eroding and is now sometimes gone altogether. Forward-thinking organizations are going to take advantage of the change to build more scalable and sustaining trust, stronger relationships with their workforces, communities, and customers, and get the right information from where it is to where it needs to be. We’ve learned that any entity where people believe secrets that affect them are being kept is rightly regarded with considerable skepticism and growing cynicism. Edelman’s yearly Trust Barometer, whose results have been tracking the plummeting levels of trust worldwide in the last few years shows that the rules have changed. It’s often said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the proof in new ways of working has been the consistent positive results that more open and better networked organizations receive. Achieving this level of openness, however, will be one of the most challenging yet vital changes for most organizations to make: Creating a culture of sharing and near total transparency that drives much better decision making, faster feedback loops, stronger relationships, less searching for information, less customer and workforce frustration, and yes, especially more employee engagement.

Digital DIY Know-How

Maker culture, which can be quickly sampled in its current state by a quick browse through the thousands of active projects on Kickstarter, is an offshoot of the Do-It-Yourself movement, a trend towards finding ‘hacks’ that improve something by wielding simple but often unexpected solutions. While I believe this skill is not necessarily natural and amenable to every worker, hacking our workplace has become a common concept, often used to get around workplace barriers or antiquated ways of working without violating rules or policy. More recently, deliberately creating a hacker culture or business has been seen in the rise of hackathons and employee product startups/incubators, and other employee-led change processes. Encouraging digital DIY skills means tapping into a widespread but latent capability for change, improvement, and entrepreneurial spirit. Note: I’ll be exploring this topic more at my Ignite talk at IBM InterConnect next month in Las Vegas, on my session on digital leadership techniques. I’ll post the link to the slides here afterwards.

Letting the Network Do the Work

Perhaps the most truly disruptive of all the skills I’ve listed here, this refers to the technique for using the scale and asymmetric resources on the network (local, enterprise-wide, or preferably, global) to accomplish often otherwise impossible tasks. I’ve explored this strategic technique at length before as well as captured some amazing case studies in efforts like Fold.It. While some of the above techniques will naturally trigger this outcome (Working Out Loud most notably), the best results in my examinations of dozens of case studies comes when it is designed as an architecture of participation.

Are there other skills that should be here? Almost certainly. But as with all change today, so many parallel tracks often form that there simply must be a hierarchy, what’s most important, what’s next, and so on. I will collect and publish our updated view of all major digital workplace skills later this year, but I believe the ones above are at or near the top of the hierarchy and will genuinely enable rapid, transformative change in organizations. Visionary organizations that intend to survive and thrive in the near future will work on developing these skills and creating a workplace where they can be used to their fullest.

I would also like this to be the launching point for a more meaningful collective discussion of what we really need to do to modernize our workplaces for today’s operating environment. Please leave your comments below or better yet, write something that adds to this. Let’s work out loud and let the network do the work.

Additional Reading:

What is the Future of Work

Rethinking Work in the Collaborative Era

The Strategic Value of Social Business: What We’ve Learned

Recently, I had the need to gather our latest research from research, clients, and case studies on the established performance of social business for the Future of Work master class I delivered in Paris at Enterprise 2.0 SUMMIT 2015 this week.

The intent was to answer this question: What specifically is the business value in social-based ways of working today and tomorrow?

By this, I largely mean the design and deployment of enterprise social networks to create better business outcomes. The typical range of benefits can be ascribed to the effective use of newer types of situated collaboration tools that have a social layer, especially digital workplace environments that:

a) make the information that’s shared public by default and;

b) leave a permanent record of collaboration that is open to everyone for learning, analysis, and reuse.

These two attributes remain the critical difference between older generations of collaboration and communication tools in terms of providing differentiating results. While point-to-point collaboration methods have utility, they simply don’t have the strategic, long-term benefits of social-based approaches.

From this survey, I determined we can put the results into three primary classes of benefits:

Tactical improvements to existing ways of working

It’s clear from looking at the meta-studies of all recent measures of performance benefits to improving existing business processes by working through social network that significant results are to be had. Last year I assembled our latest such synthesis of results. It confirmed the consistent low double-digit business-wide returns that are likely if you employ the capabilities in the way that employees broadly work. These fall into a variety of categories that are both qualitative and quantitative: Finding needed information faster, lowering operational expenditures, higher customer satisfaction/retention, increased productivity, more successful innovation, and reduced travel/communications costs.

Strategic Benefits of Strategic Workforce Collaboration

It should be noted that while these improvements are typically in the lower double-digits — and can often form the core business case of an social business initiatives on its own — they are incremental and don’t describe the fundamental digital transformation of the enterprise. Though I noted here at Enterprise 2.0 SUMMIT this week that they can provide the entry point for such large-scale changes, these are the in-place improvements of existing processes that you get initially from getting the workforce connected better and sharing information more frequently and with less friction.

Supporting tacit interactions: Complex, highly variable problem solving

The next major areas where social tools provide strategic value is by aiming them at the last significant area where existing aids have left little mark. This is the area of knowledge work where the work is far from routine, consists of highly creative and/or analytic problem solving, is highly variable, may change its fundamental nature frequently, and is what today’s highest leverage workers adapt to and engage in to get their jobs done.

Tacit Interactions: Last Bastion of Productivity Improvements for Social Business

Historically, important economic activities such as farming (which was largely replaced by machines), and mental labor like accounting (again replaced by computers and spreadsheets) were supplanted by tools that had more capacity and far lessor cost. While today is increasingly the concern that everything humans will do might be replaced by robots, for this category of social business improvements, we’re largely referring to aids to humans for complex collaborative team work, and have long-resisted attempts at automation.

With today’s workplace AI tools, increasingly good access to a rich tapestry of contextual business data from employees working out loud, and situated solutions like decision aids or IBM’s Watson, today’s most valuable group of workers actually has a chance to significant improve the most strategic and high-impact 40% of work currently taking place.

Re-imagining institutional practices: Fundamentally rethinking business

The last category of benefits comes when companies have largely succeeded in networking their workers, often 3-5 years after their initial social networking efforts. Once an organization has a strong social foundation and workers generally are using the new platforms — in particularly understanding and using the powerful capabilities inherent in their design — then organizations are ready to begin the real work of digital transformation, at least internally (though it of course, has many external implications as well.)

Rethinking Institutional Practices with Social Buiness

This can mean everything from opening up forecasting and budgeting to be more participative and transparent to building collaborative communities for customer care between customers and the workforce, or even (or perhaps especially) just between customers. Whatever it means, it means taking a brand new look at the possibilities in terms of what networked ways of working makes possible, especially letting the network do the work, for example. The key here is that this third class of benefits is a highly strategic activity that doesn’t merely improve existing processes but rethinks them for the possibilities of the network era. Engaging in this activity at some point is critical for pushing the organization into the future, making it sustainable, and should be structured as a capability that is more or less continuous within the organization as digital change continues to unfold.

The business case for digital progress

I am asked frequently about being able to paint a clear picture of why there is an imperative for organizations to essentially disrupt what they’re already doing today, even though more or less successfully, and invest in new ways of working. I believe this framework is a good start in articulating this.

Using this lens, these three categories offer an increasingly strategic planes of improvement that companies can understand as they proceed through the journey of becoming a true digital/social business. This should provide a useful map that understand how to map value to the maturity of the journey that your organization has undergone thus far.

Additional Reading

Digital Priorities for the C-Suite in 2015

The Role of the CIO in Digital and Social Business Transformation

How Leaders Can Address the Challenges of Digital Transformation

How Leaders Can Address the Challenges of Digital Transformation

2015 marks ten years in which I’ve been working in the trenches with organizations at a leadership level to drive some form of major change that intertwines technology, networks, and people. Back in the early days it consisted mostly of the novel and heady topics of the Web 2.0 revolution. As things matured and the ideas were adapted to the corporate world, the discussion moved on to Enterprise 2.0 and finally became the social business movement.

These days it’s about the whole package: Pervasive digital transformation of everything that deeply involves our organizations’ products, services, engagement approach with employees, partners, and customers, entirely new business models, profoundly powerful new ways of managing, working, and even how to think about the purpose and methods of business itself.

It’s a very exciting time in business, almost certainly the most exciting as the proverbial curse goes. In fact, it’s pretty safe to say there is more potential and opportunity in business than there has been in history. But over those ten years I’ve also seen far too many organizations struggle deeply as they grapple with how best to adapt today’s incredible advances to the way they work and do business.

In this view I am not alone: The Harvard Business Review recently noted that transformation success rates still hover around 30% today.

Related: Designing the New Enterprise: Issues and Strategies

Collaboration Between CEO, CIO, CMO, COO, CDO, CHRO Essential for Digital and Social Business Transformation

For years, it’s been difficult to discern why organizations are having so much trouble doing something different. We used to say it’s about aging corporate DNA, and how hard it is to make it digital. Or there’s simply too much change, and we have to design for constant change. Or our bureaucracies and hierarchies are too inflexible and we should augment, or even replace them outright, with self-organizing networks on top of networks. Often we’ve said that our culture is wrong for the digital age, and we have to change it. There have been many other diagnoses.

I’d note here that most of these points of view are actually correct and must be addressed, but they aren’t the largest obstacle, even when dealt with. Instead, these days I’m increasingly sure the root issue is actually the way organizations apportion leadership and responsibility for digital change.

In recent years, as the imperative became obvious to even the casual observer (see Constellation Research’s latest CXO priorities survey), I’ve seen digital change land squarely into the lap of the top leaders in the C-Suite. Now, I thought, we’re going to see some changes, even though anecdotally, most of the major successes I’ve seen — and there are quite a few we can point to now — have often been unceasing struggles against entrenched powers, against nay-sayers, the skeptical, the beholden to the status quo, and holders of turf and fiefdoms who all feel impacted negatively (they believe) by the major changes that now simply must happen in most organizations.

Related: Going Beyond ‘Bolt-On’ Digital Transformation

Digital Transformation Fragmented by Top-Level Responsibilities

So what’s the real obstacle? As digital/social transformation has arrived at the C-Suite and the board level in 2015, we see the following dysfunction, as change — and who is responsible for it — has remained fragmented all the way up to the C-level. The issue in a nutshell is in fact lies within those very CXO purviews, which in most organizations — though yes, not all — usually badly distort the process of digital change. This goes well beyond the much-discussed CIO/CMO tug-of-war being debated today:

  • Today’s CIO is in charge of developing the connected infrastructure for things like social business, digital workplace, digital business, etc., but not the human component.
  • The CMO is in charge of connecting with customers via all available channels, but through vast digital infrastructure they largely do not create or own.
  • The CHRO is in charge of employee engagement as well as approaches for recruiting, hiring, and performance management, but not the technology or non-employees.
  • And the COO is in charge of getting results (efficiency, performance) from employees for the business.

This provincial focus on a certain domain or audience, even though they are now all connected, is making it very difficult to say who is in charge of digital transition in the enterprise. Even in the C-suite, no one has responsibility for the whole process, namely the technology and its connected constituents. And so digital change happens in fragments and pieces that don’t fit, which are primarily inward-only, outward-only, employee-only, tech-only, or business-only. That, as we’ve now seen for years, does not really work. Digital and social, and I keep them separate as concepts for a reason as social has always been possible without the digital, are part of a single continuum and so they must be addressed that way as an organization.

Examples of this abound: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come into an organization and found two separate social business initiatives (one inward facing and one outward), or HR trying to deal with employee engagement in isolation from the technology, when we now know they’re deeply intertwined, or the COO focusing too much on the business activities at hand instead of the digital context and technology advancement of the company, which will dramatically improve said activities.

So, what’s the solution here? There are a number of them actually, pushing out well-beyond approaches like bi-modal IT, and we’re beginning to see evidence of what they are. But at the root of every major success story seems to be the effective working together of the C-Suite to holistically drive change in a more coordinated and integrated fashion. Rates of change across an organization will always vary, and simply must in order to manage dependencies, risk, and resource availability, so I’m not suggesting holistic change is necessarily big bang. No, it seems more agile than that and I mean that in the formal way of pods of teams coming together and using iterative approaches with fast feedback loops. Meaningful digital change in scale occurs as leadership defines the transformations that need to happen, supports them across C-suite boundaries, and empowers the organization more broadly, in an emergent architecture-style fashion which has been seen to work.

New Models Emerging to Drive Strategic Digital Change

Again, I’m not talking about management science astronautics here, I am suggesting this is what we are actually seeing happen. I believe the case studies and success stories we’re encountering now bear this view out: Digital change is a board level process that succeeds most effectively when the C-suite works together closely, pools resources, mutually reinforces each other, and drives change consistently through a well-defined (yet agile) process that also — and this is key — drives widespread empowerment on the ground across the organization.

Recently I’ve suggested the increasingly popular center of excellence (CoE) model is evolving in response to this into something we are now calling the network of excellence. I have sought to capture examples of this and I will explore it in much more detail soon, but it makes sense that organizations are finally hitting upon new network-enabled models to drive digital change and transformation.

So, while I frequently point out that the hard data says the technology change is relentless destroying companies today, I am at the same time heartened by the fact that organizations are at long last adjusting their digital priorities this year to deal with these obstacles. (For specific examples, see Schneider Electric and Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt as partial evidence of this.)

In coming weeks I’ll post our case studies and frame-up of the new models companies are adopting to drive effective transformation in the emerging digital enterprise. Please contact me if you’d like to have yours included in this work.

Additional Reading:

Defining the Next-Generation Enterprise

The Digital Diaspora in the Enterprise: The Arrival of the Chief Digital Officer

Rethinking How We Transform Our Organizations for the Future

Unified Collaboration: How Social Business and Other Forms of Digital Engagement are Intertwining

The rich history of digital collaboration in the last 30 years has been a long and winding one. Fortunately, it’s also been a highly rewarding story that has led to literally historic advances in workforce productivity and efficiency for most organizations. Along the way, many of these advances have led to and made possible entirely new and powerful types of work scenarios.

However, I find that many organizations still treat digital collaboration as 1) a largely tactical activity that doesn’t require much deliberate enablement, structure, or process 2) mostly separate from digital engagement in general and 3) a needed capability to be solved primarily through deployment of technology, rather than from the point of view of enabling activities between people. These three tendencies alone lead to much of the shortfalls I’ve seen when new collaboration efforts sometimes underperform.

The Intertwining of Unified Communications, Lightweight Collaboration, and Social Business into Unified Collaboration

The three new categories of digital collaboration

As collaboration has evolving during the rise of the social and mobile era, I’ve found that the last decade in particular has lead to some of the most significant and increasingly disruptive refinements in the practice:

  • Social Business (internal). This is the high concept rethinking of how we work together to be more community-centric, open, and participative. It consists of a varied set of practices — depending on whose model you are following — that typically consists of business processes redesigned around new social tools such as enterprise social networks, content/document management platforms, online communities, or even enterprise microblogging services. Needless to say for those of us who have been involved, a tremendous amount of energy and thought across the collaboration industry has gone into how organizations can achieve numerous benefits if they can reorganize the way teams and even entire companies can better work together using the potent model of social media. Techniques typically include Working Out Loud, the redesign of business processes to be more participative, and all the other activities involved in large-scale social business transformation.

    Organizations have seen results across the spectrum with their social business efforts, though there have been common pitfalls, especially when the notion of ‘Facebook for the Enterprise’ has been the goal, instead of solving urgent business problems (like trying to resolve poor collaboration between specific internal groups, or making certain key processes more transparent and efficient) The general consensus however is that there is a 25% enterprise-wide benefit in terms of productivity. Lately, the drum beat on social business has taken a bit more of a back seat to full-spectrum focus on digital business transformation in many organizations. Social business has continued to evolve however, and we’ve just now reached the end of the beginning in my opinion.

  • Unified Communications. Rarely considered at the same time or in conjunction with social business initiatives, unified communications has been making steady inroads into the corporate world, despite some fairly rocky evolution over the years. The unified communications industry has attempted to sort out and make consistent the various digital communications channels within the enterprise, but has often missed major developments in the industry. The most inexplicable oversight was that unified communications vendors missed the social media revolution almost entirely, though that has now been partially addressed in some of the leading platforms now, though it took years to resolve. This meant unified communications was sometimes anything but. The issue continues to persist as new and emerging enterprise collaboration channels such as mobile apps, the explosion in enterprise file sync and sharing such as Dropbox, and even legacy content/document solutions are often still left out in the cold by unified communications solutions. Despite these additions — and I think the continuing rapid rise of new collaboration channels will remain the top problem for the approach — unified communications has become increasingly capable of delivering a core set of well integrated solutions for chat, voice, video, and presence, and now finally e-mail, social, and mobile.

    Notably, unified communications has taken nearly the opposite approach of social business. Instead of a fundamental rethinking of work in digital/social terms, it’s a much more workman like approach to providing handy new digital communication toolkits to the worker that can be used for collaboration. In the final analysis, however, the unified communications approach has been slow to deal with the important strategic issues that social business aims to address: The unfortunate “evaporation” of digital knowledge in older tools, poor visibility and participation (not enough eyeballs) in legacy collaboration methods, and the still pervasive inability to find knowledge or people in most organizations, to name just a few. Despite all this, the market for unified communications, particularly in the cloud, is now poised for a major wave of growth.

  • Collaboration suites, next-gen intranets, and lightweight collaboration apps. Recently, a number of new collaboration approaches or digital methods have emerged, some full collaborative toolkits, others just filling in still-unaddressed or just emerging point needs within organizations, or both, a strategy Google is increasingly following with their cloud offerings. These are not as comprehensive or one-stop-shop solutions for collaboration or re-imagining how workers interact with each other and produce value, but organizations are broadly considering them in general as white spaces emerge, often without considering their collaborative workplace strategy as a whole.

Given these three rough buckets of new collaborative focus within the enterprise, most of which happen in isolation from one another in the average organization, it’s been interesting to see how they’ve operated either as genuine silos or as so-called ‘frenemies’, working together a little but competing for each others user bases. But, gratifyingly in my view, some organizations are increasingly no longer so accepting of these fragmented efforts, and are proactively trying to do something about it.

The emergence of unified collaboration

I’ve been spending most of 2014 looking at what large organizations have been doing to evolve their collaborative environments and I’ve noticed several distinct trends:

  1. A strong drive for meaningful integration between collaborative silos. I’ve noticed there has been a sharp drop in tolerance for collaborative processes to be stuck in one place, platform, or audience, and not searchable or visible elsewhere. For example, I’m seeing that organizations are now seeking to connect intranets, enterprise social networks, and content/document management systems in much more meaningful ways. As Alan Lepofsky has observed recently, mail and social networks are starting to merge as well. Unified comms is also getting embedded everywhere and within many applications. I now believe we will witness considerable investment in the next couple of years in creating bridges between collaborative silos and meaningful presence for collaborative tools in business applications in general.
  2. Development of a true enterprise-wide view of digital collaboration strategy. Organizations are increasingly getting their act together and making sense of their collaborative efforts well above the level of the technologies themselves, putting together more purpose-driven plans that eliminate confusion, fragmentation, and inconsistency with collaboration technology while updating worker skills and shifting company culture to take better advantage of the possibilities. This includes, as Stowe Boyd has noted, the measurement and quantification of the collaborative environment in real-time, which I’ve found has been vital in producing feedback to guide a collaboration strategy in flight towards impactful results.
  3. An advanced notion of unified collaboration. As a direct results of the first true trends, I’m seeing the organic emergence of an important concept I’ll call unified collaboration. This is the strategic knitting together of plans, the full portfolio of collaborative technologies, and business objectives enterprise-wide into more cohesive whole. It stands out from mere unified communication by being much more overarching, contextual to the business, scenario-centric, and goal-oriented. It also reflects the understanding that there is more to collaboration than just the next big thing (aka social business), and that collaboration in all its many forms must be better and more comprehensively supported, reconciled, and enabled.

I think these trends — along with important ones like enterprise-wide knowledge streams — herald great things in the enterprise when it comes to collaboration and represents a sort of maturity proof point. I’ve begun collecting industry examples of these trends and will share them soon. Please send me your stories and case examples if you’d like me to add them.

Additional Reading:

How to Deliver on a Modern Enterprise Collaboration Strategy

Realizing Effective Digital Collaboration in the Enterprise

Rethinking Work in the Collaborative Era

Finally, I’ll be talking about this topic and others later this month at my afternoon keynote at the Enterprise 2.0 SUMMIT 2014 in London. It would be great to meet you there.
Dion Hinchcliffe will give the afternoon keynote at theEnterprise 2.0 SUMMIT in London

Let The Network Do The Work

One of the most striking things I see when watching organizations make the transition from legacy industrial models of working to new network-based models, is that we keep trying to employ the new tools and ideas in the same old ways. Certainly, it’s quite hard to unlearn the old methods, so deeply instilled are they by prior experience, history, and momentum. But as businesses, even today, we largely still try to create all the ideas, try to control everything, and focus on doing all the work to produce outcomes within the organization, team, or enterprise, with a little help of perhaps a few closely held suppliers and business partners.

In short, most organizations still have an out-dated and overly centralized model for working, and it’s turned out to be a very difficult habit to break. Unfortunately, these old models are also inefficient, highly resource intensive, low in innovation, short-sighted, and ultimately counterproductive, when we have such better — and increasingly proven — models that greatly outperform the old ones.

All too often I still encounter enterprise collaboration efforts, customer communities, and CRM projects that make the same essential mistake: They literally transplant how they do things today into emerging digital environments such as social networks, online forums, and collaboration suites, instead of tapping into the new ways of working that these new digital environments enable. This misses the whole point of adopting innovative new ideas and technologies that can unlock deeper opportunities that just weren’t possible before.

If I have a single key lesson that every organization seeking to digitally transform must learn it’s this: You must let the network do the work. It has the bulk of the ideas, it self-organizes at scale, it needs only a little control and guidance, and it has all the productive capacity, no matter how large your organization.

Let The Network Do the Work: Using Online Community and Social Business to Scale Cost Effectively

This was driven home yet again over the weekend when I came across the story of CrowdMed, a service that aims to diagnose some of the trickiest unsolved medical problems of patients with maladies that have resisted all previous attempts. Jared Hayman, founder of CrowdMed, which uses an external community of several thousands doctors and nurses, currently claims a 50% success rate at solving this difficult cases, just by letting the network do the work.

This is just one of thousands of similar stories of network-based peer produced solutions that work far better than their traditional, centralized counterparts from another era.

Of course, the challenge is to retain essential control. I find that the list of reasons companies give to why they can’t plug networks directly into the way they work, into their products and services, into their business models, even into the own personal workstreams is nearly endless: “We can’t trust it”, “We can’t rely on it”, “Our culture isn’t ready for it”, “That’s not how we’ve traditionally worked.” The list goes on.

In the end, unfortunately, these arguments don’t really matter, other than identifying and articulating one’s obstacles to change. That’s because the competitive implications are increasingly clear to anyone who does a cursory examination: Network models are far more cost-effective, richer, and higher scale than old models of working. So we simply must find ways to adapt in order to survive.

At the highest level, the future of the enterprise is inextricably entwined with social business, crowdsourcing, the collaborative economy, etc. These are the network models that are creating the next generation of fast-growing businesses, many, such as Airbnb and countless others.

The fundamental principle then, which we put as fundamental principle #1 about getting value from the network in Social Business By Design, to tap into the most value is really quite simple: Anyone can participate.

When you prevent this from happening, intentionally or otherwise, you sharply limit the value created and opportunity accessed. But most businesses today still let very few participate: They try to do it all themselves. For most types of work, this results in outcomes that are simply uncompetitive and unsustainable in terms of the cost, quality, and effort of the outcome.

So, why aren’t more companies doing making the transition then? I’d argue they are. Most companies are slowly moving towards network models. But far too slowly, given the growing digital competition.

Thus we are still in the midst of a global transition to network models that will likely take many us a decade longer. But the writing is clearly on the wall: Most industries are filling with new digital competitors who understand the fundamental rule of creating value using networks, and unless industrial age organizations can adapt, the upstart will win (and largely have been re: open source, social media, digital ecosystems like Amazon, Google.)

Fortunately, effective transformation is still accessible to most organizations if they are willing to change their mindset and think like digital natives.

Additional Reading:

Shifting the Meaning of Hierarchy to Community

The Role of the Leadership in Digital and Social Business Transformation

Designing the New Enterprise: Issues and Strategies

The emerging case for open business methods | ZDNet

What Is the Future of Work?

Going Beyond ‘Bolt-On’ Digital Transformation

Much has been made recently of the imperative to fully transition our businesses into the modern digital world. It now hardly needs to be said at this point. There is even some encouraging news for traditional enterprises: The latest data from Forrester shows that companies are indeed at long last making digital transformation a top priority, with 74% of executives saying that they currently have a strategy to get there.

Yet “having a digital strategy” can also mean just about anything, depending upon who you ask. At this point however, there are basically two main forks in the road to digital for most organizations:

There is the ‘bolt-on’ strategy, which typically means adding a few new digital channels to existing touchpoints — typically social and mobile — and maybe creating an associated but minor sideline business with some digital revenue.

Then there is the ‘digital transformation’ approach to digital. It’s a full-on, meaningful reconception of the business, often using a startup or incubator model, with the intent to re-imagine a digital native organization with all that it entails, from new business models, culture shifts, remodeling of the structure and processes of the business, and rethinking of the very foundations of the enterprise across the full spectrum of digital possibility.

Enterprise Digital Business Transformation

Unfortunately, the latter approach also has many of the characteristics that corporate leadership tends to avoid: a) The big bang initiative which has a high likelihood of failure, b) cross-silo involvement, meaning it will encounter numerous bureaucratic and political obstacles, and b) the likelihood of of success being dependent on securing rarefied talent with scarce expertise that crosses the domain of the business, the world of strategic emerging technology, and next-generation IT.

The reality is that both forks have real risks: The bolt-on approach is too little and too incremental to have the requisite strategic impact, though it’s certainly a valid interim approach (as long as it’s not the only one.) On the other hand, the full digital transformation model entails a major investment and commitment across the organization with a seemingly all-to-uncertain outcome.

Yet, the latest data tells us unequivocally that the act of doing nothing — or just too little — is also sure to fail. The march of technology is wiping out traditional companies faster than ever before, and the pace is only accelerating.

Another way of putting it is that the CEOs, CIOs, COOs, and CMOs — the four roles most directly responsible for guiding this transformation — will secure rewards for their organizations that are directly commensurate with their commitment to drive broad digital adaptation and change. For the data is unambiguous: Those that don’t fully align with the state of the marketplace will be absorbed by those that do.

Forrester Digital Business Strategy Not Yet Business Strategy
Many industries even today are resistant to digital. Source: Forrester

Thinking Like a Digital Business

What can organizations do if they are serious about their responsibilities to lead the business into the future? Several clear options are emerging:

  • Seek out digital change. Avoid having it imposed. Successful next-generation enterprises — see the start of my 2014 NGE target here — won’t wait until adopting new digital channels, tech, and business models are unavoidable. They will pro-actively seek them out, learn them early on, experiment, and be ready to grow when they mature. Even fast-followers will be at risk if they don’t avidly seek out new opportunities. Dave Gray has previously pointed out research from Shell showing that the longest-lived companies are pro-active seekers and explorers of new markets. What’s more, digital change is now nearly continuous, and the organizations must establish long-term processes that tap into and pull these changes into a new “digital metabolism” that makes incorporating strategic innovation both routine and sustainable. Organizations that only respond to change will always be several steps behind those that are change-seekers. Finally, be bold it seeking out these changes. As the latest McKinsey report on digital transition notes, the winners will “be unreasonably aspirational.”
  • Cultivate capabilities to support multiple operating models. As John Kotter pointed out this week, there is now “an inseparable partnership between hierarchy and network.” We will have two and probably more major operating models in our organizations going forward, at least the legacy and the digital. We must operate and exploit each of these systems to their fullest — and together — to produce competitive and effective results today. To get there, successful leaders will strategically enable the shift of hierarchy into much more network-centric models, while cultivating the strengths of both simultaneously. Since most organizations currently have significantly underdeveloped networked operating models, this will require special investment and integration into the digital transformation process.
  • Understand and absorb the new competencies of digital across the organization. If one thing stands out clearly when I look at digital transformation efforts, is that they are often led by those who are experts in the existing business, who often don’t have the competencies in the digital space. It’s not that it can’t be learned, but it is a fast-growing and already enormous field. The profound difficulties that many transformation efforts have encountered, despite the vast on-hand resources including thousands of workers and millions of customers, has been to the distinct boundary of and very different rules for success between legacy business and digital business. I recently summarized what many business leaders don’t quite get right in their mindset and assumptions when it comes to digital transformation, but it boils down to deeply understanding and emulating what those successful in digital have done to get there. Understand the power laws of digital business, deeply absorb the concept of engaging with and co-creating new products and services with digital ecosystems, and wielding powerful new ways to scale innovation.

This is not to say that businesses have not already extensively digitized. They have, but as Sameer Patel recently pointed out, they generally have not transformed. The single biggest obstacle to successful digital transformation is a broad shift to a ‘native digital’ mindset that will consistently inform broad action. I’ve come to believe that traditional companies can make this transition, but only if they decentralize tech innovation that is coupled with a supportive new network operating model, while carefully controlling downside (typically security, data control, etc.).

So, while bolting-on a digital mindset may lead to some short-term successes, it will certainly stunt the future of your organization. Instead, employ internal and external networks to create a naturally-supportive environment where digital change is far more scalable, emergent, adaptive, and continuous.

Additional Reading:

The New Top Level Operating Models of Business

Digital diaspora in the enterprise: Arrival of the Chief Digital Officer

Defining the Next Generation Enterprise for 2014

Many of you know that over the last several years I’ve tried to make the case that most organizations are currently falling behind the advancing pace of technological change. That business is so centered around technology today is the reason why addressing this has become a top competitive issue. Becoming better adapted to tech change is even tied to the medium-term survival of many organization as I recently explored in my look at digital transformation.

But to say that technology alone is what is disrupting traditional businesses would be inaccurate. We ourselves have changed — have co-evolved — along with technology. Our mindsets have become expanded by the new possibilities of super-connectedness, new models of working, and pervasive data-based insight that today’s networked revolution has wrought.

That’s not to say there aren’t important pros and cons to these advances as well. Along this journey of global, open, and social digital networks, we’ve also encountered enormous challenges in grappling with issues such as individual privacy and equal access, as well as the inherently large inequalities that emerge from the gaps between the digital haves and have-nots. This is precisely because technology is a profound force multiplier of just about everything it touches. There are other potential worries as well.

As The Economist fretted over recently, most technology revolutions have created more employment, not less. We hope that this is true for the next generation, but we’ll see, given how current models show that producer power is generally moving outside of traditional organizations to external networks that have less well-defined employment models:

Everyone should be able to benefit from productivity gains—in that, Keynes was united with his successors. His worry about technological unemployment was mainly a worry about a “temporary phase of maladjustment” as society and the economy adjusted to ever greater levels of productivity. So it could well prove.

Yet to most of us, it’s quite clear that digital channels combined with engagement at scale within them amongst all our stakeholders is at the core of the future of business. But what does this actually mean? What does it look like to most organizations? How can we articulate the changes to structure, process, and management of our organizations in a deeply digital age? It’s my belief we need a comprehensive yet eminently understandable model of how all this reshapes our organizations.

Ecosystem View of the Next Generation Enterprise for 2014: Workforce Community, Customer Community, Partner Community, Market, Social Business

I’ve come to realize we’re trying to hit a fast-moving target with poorly aging models for service delivery and IT governance when it comes to digital transformation. The reality is that it usually takes several years for a large organization to achieve large scale change. By this I mean three to five years, and often more, and that’s just for an individual enterprise-wide initiative.

In today’s operating environment of yearly — sometimes quarterly — waves of highly disruptive enterprise technologies and products, that’s just too long. We need a clearer and more updated sense of where we need to take our organizations, and it must also show us how to increase our technology metabolism as well. This model should include the broad strategic outlines as well as specific adaptations to the latest powerful new digital capabilities such as big data analytics, omnichannel customer engagement, the Internet of Things, social business, and so on. These subjects are all highly strategic to the future of our organizations at the moment, yet they are also interrelated and must fit together relatively well in this model somehow.

Related: Digital Business Ecologies: How Social Networks and Communities Are Upending Our Organizations

Motivation for an Infinitely Renewing Model of Tech & Business

Over the last few years, I’ve adopted a term known as the next generation enterprise or NGE for short. It’s the idea that we can maintain an up-to-date strategic model when it comes to digital transformation. The vision for the next generation enterprise is different from one year to the next and has specific technological phases as well as overall strategic themes at any given time. This vision has its own management theories as well, such as shifting from organizational hierarchy to networked community or reorganizing how we operate to the three new top-level modes, to name just two examples.

In other words, the idea of the next generation enterprise is a relatively complete view — including both business and technology — of the target that typical organizations should be aiming for in their objectives for digital adaptation and growth. For the moment, let’s put aside whether there even is a typical organization, since many of the most important technology innovations are usually agnostic to your particular industry or unique company attributes. In other words, most major technology advances will derail your boat if you ignore them long enough, no matter what business you’re in.

To give us a shared roadmap and a point of reference, I’d like to start putting a clearer definition behind what we think is meant by a next-generation enterprise. Early this year, I mapped out the most important strategic new enterprise technologies, but it was a purely technology view and included a good many tactical elements that aren’t that important when it comes the big picture.

Instead, I’d like to have a more enterprise-centric view that includes the most important advances in business that technology has directly enabled. Some would say that the advent of being digital connected to every human being on the planet at all times (at least in the developed world) is one of those advances, and I agree. This realization is that communities are moving increasingly to the center of our businesses. But it’s more than that. The enclosing strategic conception is really one of ecosystem, whether that’s inside a segment of the enterprise with a single networked team, an external customer community, or a full-on developer network of thousands of application development partners who have welded your digital supply chain to their apps. All of these are ecosystems that must be created (or identified), grown, cultivated, managed, secured, and governed.

In fact, one of the largest issues we have in digital transformation today is that we look at business in a far too simplistic traditional model. In this legacy view, there are functional silos with workers combined with management hierarchies that together actually make decisions and operate our organizations. Then there are suppliers, business partners, and customers, and that’s about it for the big moving parts.

Baseline for Next Generation Enterprise 2014: Networks, Communities, and Support Programs (Social Media Center of Excellence)Today’s next generation enterprise plays on a much larger and more complex chessboard. There are thousands of relevant ecosystems that now exist for most businesses, most informal, and across thousands more channels, all with a long tail structure.

This means that while the head of the distribution consists of big channels you’ve heard of — from major social networks and call centers to traditional media and Amazon’s cloud — there are thousands you haven’t heard of and will never be able to deliberately consider and plan for. Business architecture has thus moved from simple planned models to complex and highly dynamic emergent networks across every business function we have. We’ve gone from a few dozen groups of stakeholders to ultimately tens of thousands that we must still manage to somehow. Ultimately, our org structures must adapt to reflect this.

I’ve previously proposed a set of enterprise strategies which have a good chance at addressing many of this issues, which were originally brought forth by the channel fragmentation, scale, and decentralization that we saw greatly exacerbated by IT consumerization a couple of years ago. But I now see that bring-your-own-device was just the forefront of a wave of grassroots led network-enabled change, including bring-your-own-application, bring-your-own-community, and soon, even bring-your-own-workforce.

Related: Designing the New Enterprise: Issues and Strategies

The Element of The Next Generation Enterprise for 2014

So I’d like to put a stake in the ground and define what I think the next generation enterprise for 2014 should look like. There are several views here, but I’ll start with the more business-centric view of ecosystem and expand to other views as I’m able. In this ecosystem view we have the following components:

  • A more network-centric enterprise. Less hierarchical and consisting much more of online communities for achieving cost-effective outcomes at scale. This will happen within and amongst the workforce (network/social collaboration), business partners, customers, and the marketplace. Management and leadership through networks will become an essential skills and will require knowledge of the concepts and operation of digital and social businesses.
  • Workforce communities. While we’ve had a primitive model of team in the legacy workplace, it becomes much more fluid, dynamic, and high scale in the networked world, often directly supported by powerful new collaboration capabilities. Teams-based, project-centric, and — still evolving — process-based work conducted by communities will increasingly become the norm. Why? Because the data has consistently supported that the network/community model provides better business results.
  • Business partner communities. One of the least developed models of networked communities, there are however good examples that can be pointed to. Strategic partners, affiliates, and suppliers can be engaged together in operations, in particular — as John Hagel famously pointed out — with exception handling scenarios.
  • Customer communities. This is one of the strongest and most easily started models for strategic community. The evidence for business value is strong enough that I’ve wondered if the window is already closing on customer communities in certain industries. Certainly in my research I’ve found that customer care communities can reduce costs by 30% in the first year alone over traditional approaches. Social support also at the very top of Ray Wang’s social business use cases.
  • Marketplace. The single most scalable asset that businesses have is networked access to their customers and the broader marketplace. While this constituency also includes regulators and influencers, two groups that can be hard to manage, it also includes online advocates, crowdsourcing participants, software developers, and other interested parties. If you’re surprised to see developers in this list, then don’t be: Developers have become one of the single most important new constituencies as their innovations can drive primary growth and network effects. This is a very different view of business than before, where companies directly engaged their stakeholders.
  • New channels. The next generation enterprise will still have some legacy aspects including physical offices/stores — just smaller and more virtual — it will be the Web and especially on mobile devices that value is primarily created and captured, both. Social business environments (communities of all functional types and audiences) and the application as the new CRM will be key channels here as well. Ultimately, however, APIs — which I define as open digital supply chains — will be the most strategic channel for many industries because it scales faster and creates far more robust outcomes for very little investment.

Using this model, we can also baseline the various states of maturity of each part of the modern enterprise ecosystem for comparison, as in how far along are we? The essential point here with this view of the next-generation enterprise is that it’s the current target model, not what you should look like today. It’s what you should be aiming for, although you should certainly have some elements of it in place today (see figure 2.)

What do you see as other essential views of the next generation enterprise? What else needs to be added?

Related: The Second Wave of the Contemporary Workforce

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 90 other followers