How IT and the Role of the CIO is Changing in the Era of Networked Organizations

As I’ve examined the case examples below, and talked with many top CIOs about how they were operating their departments over the last several years, it’s become clear that the contemporary IT organization — at least ones that are successfully leading their organizations into the future — is now wielding a new kind of power.

I don’t mean power in the traditional, hierarchical sense through departmental mandate, titles, and the org chart. In fact, those don’t seem to mean nearly as much as they used to, as I hear more and more concerns about the growth of shadow IT and the lines of business increasingly going their own way with their budgets, all with minimal formal IT involvement.

Yet, looked at another way, these very trends — worrisome as they should be for most CIOs — might actually represent vital asset pools and change capacity that we could actually tap into and guide, as Red Hat CIO Lee Congdon strongly suggests.

Instead, I mean power in the sense of genuine, highly effective influence through trusted collaboration, proactive enablement, orchestration of bottom-up change agency, and new forms of digital leadership. We know that as our organizations update how they operate in today’s digital world, which has fundamentally different rules and highly effective new ways of working, the way we manage and achieve large-scale group outcomes is by leading through new networked models.

In other words, moving from inefficient hierarchies to self-organizing communities to deliver IT.

Legacy IT versus Next-Gen Contemporary IT: Change Agents and Networks of Enablement

The need to greatly augment our IT ‘metabolism’

Some would say that grassroots models of business change have always been with us. They would be right in a strictly literal sense, as the actual means and methods are different now. In my analysis this is clearly a new phenomenon in in terms of how new forms of influence are actually employed, how easily they can be scaled, how much fewer resources are required to marshal change, and how constituents can be cultivated, shaped, and self-organized more rapidly than ever before.

In the era of mass technology proliferation, with millions of new apps and billions of always connected devices and customers, the IT department in many organizations has become a tiny and badly outnumbered island of routine automation and application delivery. We’ve learned that such a small capability can’t possibly keep up with today’s truly vast digital change.

IT has also long been the primary guardian of data and infrastructure, along with its collective operational continuity and governance. Together all of these functions, given the nearly flat increases — or even declines — in IT spending for 2015 in a time of the all-time greatest amount of tech change, tend to wag the dog, making it very hard to focus on what IT needs now most to do: Lead the company through the increasingly urgent generational imperative for digital transformation and innovation.

Related: Is it IT’s last chance to lead digital transformation?

Blazing a new IT trail: Internal competition and change agency

Recently we’ve begun to see CIOs, and this includes CTOs with the same responsibilities, work with their organizations a very different way. We started to see it when Graham Holding’s Yuvi Kochar willingly decided to compete as an ordinary — albeit a highly informed, invested, and aligned — service provider to his own stakeholders using a lightweight and highly maneuverable cloud portfolio of solutions, instead of an iron-fisted controller of corporate technology pushing aging and difficult-to-maintain legacy on-premises systems:

As a result, I have structured my corporate technology team to be a service provider to our businesses. To ensure flexibility and agility required by our M&A strategy, I am pursuing a 100 percent SaaS technology portfolio. We acquire SaaS services, value add them with high-caliber functional support and project management and offer them as a service to the primarily functional teams at our businesses. We keep overhead costs to a minimum. Our businesses prioritize the agenda for our services by paying only for the ones they want and use.

It also happened when David Bray, the highly-respected and effective CIO of the FCC, needed to overhaul an increasingly complex technology landscape with antiquated applications. Bray’s open approach to the FCC’s IT strategy ended up with him listening to and then backing local change agents closer to the situation who suggested their own solutions, which ultimately led to considerably cost savings, faster deployment, and lower maintenance overhead. It wasn’t easy however, as this is not the way technology bureaucracies — especially in the public sector — have traditionally sourced ideas and direction. It was an struggle at first to work this way, says Bray:

There were a lot of skeptics to this new approach. Several who wanted to not make the change or even wanted to follow the much more expensive approach. My role was digital diplomat and ‘human flak jacket’ to help deal with any friction because this was a new way of doing things. With the SaaS approach, the data was not going to be kept onsite. We would be leveraging code and security provided by a cloud-based vendor. And in the end, it came together.

There are similar efforts in the queue with the Commission’s change agents for 2015. Working together, they demonstrate daily that positive change agents can transform how the mission and technology of the FCC best serve the public.

From this, and the stories below and other sources, we can begin to piece together a new mindset for modern IT and what I’ve previously called the New CIO Mandate:

Legacy IT Approach Next-Gen IT Approach
Impose tech decisions as faits accomplis Pro-actively collaborate on tech decisions
Lead all technology efforts Support tech leadership across the company
Sole source technology provider Confidently compete as a service provider
Hold stakeholders at arm’s length Collaborate with stakeholders on their turf
Wait for change champions to approach Actively seek out change champions
Occasionally listen to change champions Actively supply change champions with resources
Bureaucracy Diplomacy
Constrain IT to strict standards Enable local innovation within bright lines
Chokepoint for IT realization Coach and ombudsman for decentralized IT realization
Service delivery Learning and change delivery
Strategic initiatives, Center of Excellence Network of Excellence
Single or Bi-Modal Tri-Modal and beyond
Waterfall, ALM Agile, DevOps

Here are other essential stories of CIOs realizing IT in new, more decentralized, collaborative, and bottom-up ways:

  • AstraZeneca CIO David Smoley remade IT at the pharmaceutical giant to be a learning and collaborative organization focused on the customer and technical leadership, he recommends, “that, in addition to embracing technology, they better understand the business, focus on behavior, be bold, and build their networks. People rely less on curated information, he explained, and more on networking and learning what other businesses are doing.
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The incoming CIO Brook Coangelo had to rebuild the entire IT brand from the ground up. Central to this was including internal customers closely in the process of technology change, often taking their lead, using an internal culture he calls Nimble.
  • Etisalat. Francisco Salcedo, senior vice president of Digital Services, at the telecommunications firm reports they have begun to “provide IT services within the organisation in new ways as opposed to traditional methods, and become a business growth enabler, rather than a bottleneck.” Key to this process: “Focus on adding value to the business, while leveraging IT expertise of partners to support business experts in generating new revenue streamlines.”
  • IBM. New IBM CIO Jeff Smith says that for him, “clarity is more important than certainty, course correction is more important than perfection, self-directed teams work better than command and control, and innovation is for everyone, not just the select few.” How does he enable next-gen IT? One key way: Smith created an internal Kickstarter-like crowdsourcing platform called ifundIT. With it, anyone can formulate a project or problem that needs to be solved, and raise internal funding to get it accomplish. I think this is a terrific example of how to use internal networks — social and otherwise — to rapidly engage, then actively enlist, change champions and supporters.

All of this certainly represents considerable and difficult changes for many IT organizations, yet the benefits are clear: A rate of internal change that more properly matches today’s operating environment. But there will be bumps, as with what Tony Hsieh has dealt with at Zappos in fundamentally remaking the organization into a holacracy — a somewhat comparable change to what is described here, but org-wide, well beyond technology — some creative destruction is almost inevitable.

However, as with almost everything with technology change and transformation, the CIO has an absolutely key role to play today, and can be a leader or a follower as the business has to move now and seize opportunity in today’s challenging markets. As Adobe CIO Gerri Flickinger recently said, we are entering a new golden age of IT, if you’re ready to move to the next level.

Additional Reading:

Going Beyond ‘Bolt-On’ Digital Transformation

Closing the gap between executives and digital transformation

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

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

Shifting the Meaning of Hierarchy to Community

Over the last year or so, a fascinating bow wave of interest has been converging on a growing cadre of companies who appear to be doing something quite novel and seemingly new. Specifically, these organizations have apparently thrown off many of the traditional structures and processes of corporate management. Interestingly, all of these organizations are focusing on change through people first, technology second, if at all.

Though sometimes employing the language of social business, these innovative organizations aren’t just centering their efforts at rethinking their business around digital/social. Instead, they are focused primarily on fundamentally changing their thinking and behavior around work itself. This is something Hugh MacLeod noted last week that is likely to literally become one of the next big industries, albeit in a virtual sense, as we seek en masse to adapt our organizations to much faster rates of change and innovation.

Ironically, as the changes being made aren’t primarily technological but cultural, it’s the organizations which don’t have a strong or healthy culture that are finding that technology revolutions like social media are greatly amplifying their shortcomings in this regard.

Management Hierarchy versus Online Community

Some of the notable exemplars that have been held up as poster children for this trend include Southwest Airlines, W.L. Gore, Valve, Zappos, and Morning Star. All of these firms have realized in some form a contemporary new and self-organizing way of working that pushes action, responsibility, and change directly to the edge of the organization, where workers are essentially free from unnecessary bureaucratic and political constraints to take initiative, make decisions, and act on their insight.

It’s not fully clear yet if we’re seeing the emergence of a broader trend or if these are isolated examples, but the overall success of these organizations is well-established, as most of them are leaders in their industry. Side note: By isolated examples, I mean in the traditional enterprise space. There are countless successful examples in the digital space.

So, as we try to understand these examples, I’ve wondered what is really happening in this new wave of how we manage and structure the traditional organization. Fortunately, I do believe we’ve started to get a good sense of this and it helps us understand how these ideas could possibly work. An important discussion recently of these changes by Steve Denning makes a rather convincing case that hierarchy is not exactly what’s being eliminated in these new models. Instead, hierarchies themselves are shifting from org charts, fixed responsibilities, and formal titles to a more fluid and competency-based model:

Thus I often hear it said, and see it written, that firms […] have done exactly that, i.e. “gotten rid of managers” and “abolished hierarchy.”

This is a misunderstanding. This is not what these organizations are doing or what the ongoing paradigm shift in management is about at all.

In networked organizations, where work is self-managed, there are still managers. The managers have become enablers of self-managing teams and networks rather than controllers of individuals. In those organizations, someone has to sign checks. Someone has to sign legal documents on behalf of the organization. Someone is legally responsible for what is done by the organization. That someone is a manager. A manager after all is simply someone who is responsible for getting things done. If anything is to get done, an organization has to have managers.

There are still hierarchies in a network, but the hierarchies tend to be competence-based hierarchies, relying more on peer accountability than on authority-based accountability, that is, accountability to someone who knows something rather than to someone simply because they occupy a position, regardless of competence. It is a change in the role of the manager, not an abolition of the function.

Based on my work, I think Steve’s analysis is very close, yet not the entire picture. The part that is missing is that indeed there is a broader move in many organizations towards a networked structure, one based on earned, peer recognized competency and manifesting itself in loosely-coupled, dynamically formed, and freely participative teams (pods in Dave Gray’s language.)

It’s a Community, It’s a Networked Hierarchy

However, it’s also becoming increasingly clear to me that the part of this story that is left out here is the very notion of the enterprise itself. Our increasingly antiquated view of companies as self-contained entities with leaders and workers working within rigid and slow-to-change functional silos that are also supposed to provide all the ideas and all the motive force is no longer effective or accurate. In fact, the single most disruptive force shifting hierarchy is the same force that is also expanding the meaning of hierarchy beyond the boundaries of the organization.

This force is community, and by that I generally mean online communities, although their incarnation in the digital is not always required, as we clearly see from the examples above. I’ve long believed that communities are moving to the very center of our organizations — this means operations, structure, and yes, even business model — and it’s really the community model that is being replicated in today’s new corporate hierarchies.

What does this shift mean to businesses, specifically? Functioning organizations will soon rely on, as they already do to hundreds of organizations today, communities that will deliver essential capabilities to the enterprise that used to be intrinsic to self-contained organizations: Marketing, advocacy, pre-sales support, product development, customer care, operations, and other functions. There are excellent examples of community-centric versions of all of these functions happening at scale in traditional enterprises.

So while I do find it quite interesting when we look at new models for recasting the classical notion of the workforce — and look at the classical workforce only — it’s essential that we don’t merely regard the subject through the myopic lens of the old org chart. Instead, we must use the deeper understanding that networked organizations are hybrids that fully merge traditional workforce and online community. Again, the more transformative examples seem to focus on the people more than the technology, though the latter — especially social technologies — does seem vital, as long as it’s not put first.

Implications of Networked Work Hierarchies

The move to networked models of work therefore appears to imply the following:

  • A network of self-interested people organizing dynamically around what needs to be done is more efficient and effective. Forcing work down only through traditional hierarchies produces poorer and much more costly outcomes. This assumes of course, that there are tools, education, and organizational structures to enable the former. Again the evidence is clear that peer production is a richer — if sometimes less predictable — and far more scalable and agile way of working. Therefore:
  • Greater business value is created with least overhead or friction by self-interested and engaged communities. Organizations that try to “do it all” with their own workforce simply cannot compete.
  • The individual/organizational bond is steadily becoming the individual/community/organizational bond. Community is a new emerging construct between our institutions and individuals. Like most major changes to the world, this is neither a complete nor total shift, but a gradual change in the center of gravity. Thanks to Harold Jarche, for a summary of his ideas that helped crystallize this particular insight for me.

Consequently, the enterprises that don’t fully appreciate they are now part of a much larger and richer system-of-systems of people — and redesign themselves around this new reality — will increasingly be at risk. To survive, our organizations must pro-actively seek to efficiently ramp up participation in the richer, shared outcomes that only the productive entanglement with communities — internal and external — can produce.

Finally, if you’re not sure this is a big part of our business future, we have only to look at the mass dislocation that the collaborative economy is producing in so many industries, where communities are at the very center of the business model, to see that this is actually happening today and widely.

Related: Rethinking How We Transform Our Organizations for the Future

What is the Future of Work?

Much has been made recently about one of the stand out trends of the times we live in: Everything is becoming infused with technology. Software is eating the world it is said. Some have claimed that next it might even eat the jobs, which to some degree is almost certainly the case. With only a little bit of irony, Hugh MacLeod humorously noted this week that software may eventually eat all the people. But even that could be a bit closer to the truth than some of us might expect.

But the point is this: In the last half-decade alone, most of us would admit the societal and cultural shifts that technology and global digital networks have wrought is nothing short of astounding:

Social media is relentlessly chipping away at the power and control that companies and governments have long enjoyed almost exclusively over the rest of the world. Supply chains, talent management (hiring), customer service, product development, and just about every function of business is being transformed by things like 3D printing, social recruiting, customer care communities, crowdsourcing, to only name a few of the more important examples. That’s not even looking at the macro changes (example: Arab Spring), in which digital/social is impacting the fabric of entire nations. In all of these cases, the power and control is shifting to the other side of the network, to what many now call the ‘edge’, where most of us are.

Unfortunately, there remains a constituency that remains stubbornly in the back of the pack when it comes to the large scale changes happening in the world today. Surprisingly, this constituency formerly used to actually lead the technology world. Instead, it is now dragged along by consumer technology companies and their customers. Yes, I am referring to our corporations, to which I’ll add our institutions, including our governments and associated entities.

Related: Rethinking How We Transform Our Organizations for the Future

The Future of Work, Technology, Business, Culture, and Society

I’ve explored many times in recent years how traditional businesses have essentially lost the leadership mantle when it comes to technology. But finally now there is an increasingly concerted effort to take some of it back, to get back in the game, to use the realization that the methods we’re using in large organizations to apply technology to work is often failing, and badly.

This has led us generally to a broader global discussion on the future of work. With our institutions, expectations, and behaviors undergoing a steadily increasing rate of change, where is all this taking us? What will the workplace of the end of the decade look like and work like? That has been a question that’s been coming up more and more frequently. The answers are often focused purely on the externally obvious — and their easily determined — differences, such as the wide range of disruptive new technologies moving into the workplace today. While the technology is certainly a subject of fascination and I’ve been talking recently to audiences around the world about it, it’s not enough. We must move the conversation up a level and talk about the changes to us, the people that make up our workforces and our customers, and which are taking place as our businesses move deeper towards a very different 21st century model of work.

When then does the the future of work look like? Nobody has the full picture of course, but I am increasingly sure it broadly looks something like this:

The Future of Work: The Key Aspects

  • The evolution of the business/worker compact We are on a trajectory that has taken us well away from lifetime employment, guaranteed pensions, and single careers where largely benevolent, parent-like corporations looked after their workers, to a model where the principle actors, both companies and individuals, are much more autonomous, self-interested, and dynamic. Like all things this has trade-offs, but in the large this directly facilitates more rapid evolution of those involved and potentially creates a richer, more rewarding — if seemingly riskier — work environment for us, especially if we’re self-actualizing. There are other implications as well.
  • CSR/social enterprise and the need for business to go beyond a basic value proposition. It’s not good enough just to sell products and services anymore. Companies and their workers must be thinking about the bigger picture as the marketplace is increasingly demanding that the businesses they work with are concerned about overall global outcomes. Sustainability, environmentalism, corporate social good/responsibility, and other urgent qualitative matters of policy and governance are going to increasingly infuse how we work. Doing this successfully will require a very different mindset in our workforce than our traditional organizations typically have cultivated in the past.
  • New modes of management and workforce collaboration. The management theory — or more likely theories, plural, as there are probably several good ways of thinking about it as I’ve recently explored — for the future of work is starting to emerge. The same with team, department, company-wide, and mass collaboration. Then there is the collaborative economy that is genuinely remaking very concept of how business works for the digital era. Read some of Harold Jarche’s latest musings on work to get a sense of what the mechanics might look like, as well as Stowe Boyd’s recent thoughts on going back to the fundamentals with social business thinking.
  • New transformative workplace technologies. Everything from wearable tech to mind/machine interfaces and increasingly commonplace social business tools are changing how we will work. This will further change expectations and possibilities. I’ve explored the important technologies to watch this year, but there are many others in the wings and they will only come faster and be increasingly impactful. Our businesses are also becoming platforms in every sense of the word, becoming technologies in their own right. As Fred Wilson observed yesterday, it’s increasingly urgent for organizations to find — and become — the next platform.
  • New approaches for addressing diversity and inequality. While still I’m on the fence about the best ways to address these, you can be sure there will be enormous investments made through the rest of the decade by businesses, government, and other institutions to start tackling the structural issues in the global economy. We’ve increasingly learned and come to accept how much they impact business performance and the bottom-line.
  • A shift in the fundamental relationship between workers and business. This can be most clearly seen in the inversion of the traditional model of business, realized directly by the flourishing of vast numbers of self-organizing online communities. Now people can just come together online and create shared value without an intermediate organization that would otherwise have to the resources required to meet their needs. What does this mean for how important the traditional model business and work will be to people? The classical enterprise clearly isn’t as necessary as before for many purpose. Now we need to look ahead and see how these trends will affect how we structure, manage, and operate our organizations.
  • Co-evolutionary changes in society and global/regional culture that impact the workplace. Technology improves what’s possible by dramatically lowering the effort, time, or cost of doing something, or even makes something entirely new possible that was simply impossible before. This sets expectation and enables/encourages new types of behavior in people and society as a whole. These soft changes in us then drive the exploration of new technologies guided by behavior changes and new norms. We need to better understand where this co-evolutionary process is taking us, as well as anticipating how these new directions will impact it will affect our businesses.

Surely, this list is fairly incomplete. Unfortunately, more change is taking place now than we can really individually know (and is one reason why I believe locally autonomous adaptation is essential to the future of work.) Given how disruptive change has been in the last 20 years, remaking industries, creating giant new entities (Internet, Web, and cloud ecosystems like Amazon, Google), and dramatically changing what’s possible, the next-generation of work is likely to be almost radically different, while also being incredibly interesting. It’s worth it for us to find out as much as we can so we can prepare and anticipate the future, with the goal of avoiding unnecessary disruption — preferably being the author of your own disruption — while capturing increasingly historic opportunities.

Additional Reading:

Ten strategies for making the “Big Leap” to next-gen enterprise | ZDNet

What Most Digital Strategy Underestimates: Scale and Interconnected Change | On Web Strategy

Does technology improve employee engagement? | ZDNet

Can technology improve business innovation? | ZDNet

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

As we’ve watched digital networks reshape just about every aspect of business these days, I’ve found that we’ve struggled to come up with the right words and ways to describe a very different way of working. From vast app stores and pervasive streams of big data to enterprise social networks and customer engagement, the rules that Internet-based models of business impose are often very different.

Yet some well-known elements of business haven’t necessarily changed and have only become more pronounced: For example, scale is one of the single biggest challenges in moving to digital and social business, but has also been a challenge in our globalized world for some time. Today’s pervasive network connectedness is making this factor ever more pronounced. For organizations now this typically means having to maintain tens of thousands, or even millions, of simultaneous conversations with the marketplace for critical activities such as marketing, sales, and customer service. It also means most businesses will have to manage an order of magnitude more suppliers, business partners, and other 3rd party relationships (example: open APIs are a great harbinger of high scale in digital supply chains.)

Thus, the challenges of magnitude infuse everything in digital: Distribution, supply, engagement, control, competition, and even — or perhaps especially — security and sustainability. However, in other areas, especially where digital and social networks fundamentally change the fabric of things, we still don’t have clearly identified constructs, or even good words that we can use.

Digital and Social Business Ecologies: How Workforce and Market Engagement Are Blending

For instance, it’s been abundantly clear for a decade now that open digital communities are a new and revolutionary construct that have gone on to literally change the world. From upending media and software (social media and open source communities, respectively) to remaking the fundamental nature of how business in all industries gets done (collaborative economy), large, self-organizing communities are taking the lead. Digital technology even changes the underlying forces of the age-old concept of community. For example, even though the idea of community has been around since there have been people, the digital incarnation seemingly does something a bit different: Instead of forming insular walls that group people together, digital communities tends to group people together and break the walls down.

It’s here that I think we’re missing the name of a key concept, or at least, we’re not using one that needs to be applied here. Specifically, I believe that the relationship between the traditional enterprise and online communities has been greatly underexplored. For sure, we have many good examples now of enterprise communities that have created results across our value chains today.

But what we don’t have is a good understanding of what relationship communities should have to business at a strategic level. Are communities an adjunct to a specific function under certain conditions, such as customer service communities or product development/innovation communities when existing traditional processes underperform? Are communities to be the primary delivery model, or a secondary? My belief is that this thinking is now too incremental.

Instead, I believe businesses should now focus directly on moving to community-led business structures and processes as a first class citizen. The force multiplier of social technology here has simply proven far too great not to put at the core of our businesses, and not doing so has begun to have significant competitive and sustainability implications.

To get there, we need to talk about digital communities and business in new ways that explain their new relation to the enterprise much better than we do today. I’d like to suggest that as digital business practitioners we starting exploring this landscape in the form of ecologies, when we talk about business and community. Why ecologies? Because of what the term means:

Ecology (from Greek: οἶκος, “house”; -λογία, “study of”) is the study of interactions among individuals and their environment.

Therefore, it behooves us to much better understand — in relation to our stakeholders — the exact nature, interaction, and possibilities of communities and business, a twin environment we’ve not really had before in business as the highest order concepts. The motivation here is that the new fundamental environment for business in the 21st century is the digital network, and specifically, online communities of every description. Given the way they are upending what’s possible in terms of how to achieve just about every function in business, it’s time we capture a more complete conception of their role. I believe this means articulating their centrality to the operating model of many or most activities in the enterprise today.  While that sounds like a bold statement, I believe the results we’ve seen so far (see the nearly 100 case examples we put in Social Business By Design for a small sample) fully bear this out.

As my good friend Stowe Boyd recently wrote [my emphasis]:

We need a CDO-style figure in most businesses — if not the CEO — to make that transition to a postnormal footing, where work technology is at the core of what everyone does, not an afterthought or add-on. The inability of traditional IT to deliver on the promise of today’s technology is the universal business facepalm of our day.

Network technology is dominating the transformation of business today. Now we need to successfully adapt our management theories and practices to this new reality.

Additional Reading:

Digital diaspora in the enterprise: Arrival of the CDO and CCO | ZDNet

What Most Digital Strategy Underestimates: Scale and Interconnected Change | On Web Strategy

A new reality between the CMO and CIO | ZDNet

Enterprises and Ecosystems: Why Digital Natives Are Dethroning The Old Guard | On Web Strategy

Four key takeaways for digital transformation | Econsultancy

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