Why Community Belongs at the Center of Today’s Remote Work Strategies

At the top of most organizations’ priority lists right now is how to keep their workers productive and engaged. Except for in-person businesses and essential workers, the workforce has largely been physically disbanded until the pandemic comes to an end, one way or another. In unprecedented fashion, technology has suddenly become one of the single most important tools in moderating the effect of shuttered offices, physical distancing, and remote work from home.

However, most organizations have largely been paving the proverbial cowpath. Meaning that they’ve largely a) just turned up the volume on how often they use their existing meeting and collaboration tools such as Zoom, Slack, Teams, e-mail, and conference calls, and b) not really been able to think about new and better ways they could work together. Ones that inherently take real advantage of how people are now working in a much more distributed fashion.

From my experience in spending much of my life helping organizations better adopt and use technology to improve the workplace, I believe that the focus on using these tools was necessary. However, it is also woefully far from sufficient.

The Most Popular Modes of Collaboration

The Journey of Understanding To Get to the New Future Of Work

Simply put, the imperative today for getting remote work right is this:

To revitalize and thrive in our current global situation, organizations can and must do better in rethinking their near-term future state in terms of the digital art-of-the-possible.

Our workers need it, our customers deserve it, and the reality is that the future is already here, but unevenly distributed as Mr. Gibson famously noted. That means we know what many of those better ways of working actually are. But they are just foreign enough that they’ve largely stayed on the margins of many our workplaces so far. Yet as we’ll see below, within these new ways lies astronomical riches if we are prepared to act. Now most organizations are in the middle of being forced act. Described herein is what they can fully achieve, if they are to truly thrive in their current distributed state.

Related: The Playbook to Go About Rethinking a Post-2021 Workplace

The Most Important Discoveries in Digital Collaboration

In the 30+ years that we’ve all been digitally connected worldwide via the Internet, we have collectively made many profound discoveries about how people can come together through computer networks to create mass shared value. Since I find that this is still not as common knowledge as it should be, I’ve collected together the most significant insights about digital collaboration that we’ve acquired from the vast and infinitely innovative living laboratory that is the global Internet. Here they are in rough order of importance:

a) Digital networks can create value exponentially according to their size.

This has been known going as far back as Metcalfe’s Law. Networks have the potential to create enormous value for those using them. Yet the networks through which we collaborate today — whether digital or in life — generally underperform greatly and don’t come anywhere close to reaching their full potential. We don’t communicate and collaborate nearly as much as we can or should. We also over-communicate (think CC: fields in e-mail) and over-collaborate when we shouldn’t or don’t need to. There were some good reasons for this, in the past. But no longer.

b) Whenever we have removed the barriers to connecting and collaborating between people, much more value has been created.

Our lessons over the history of digital networks has been nothing short of revolutionary. Perhaps the most essential is that we have simply made it far too hard to connect, share, and collaborate with each other. Many examples exist: Not having access to the necessary networks, or the right conversations. Finding the right channels, the best apps, having the necessary permissions, being in the appropriate groups, teams, or project. Having access to experts, leaders, and far-flung colleagues, all in order to just get our work done. For management and control reasons, we’ve often made it too difficult or complicated to engage, which is surprisingly easy to do with technology (even one additional step to participate sharply reduces said participation says the research). We often make the process of collaboration take a great many steps (the early and profound lessons of Wikipedia should be required reading by anyone in charge of human collaboration at any level in an organization.)

Thus in our quest to design collaboration, to control it, to shape it, and direct it, to secure it, and make it safe, we also tend to kill it. Human collaboration is in reality a delicate and easily disturbed flower, an often unwieldy balancing act of human exchange between people who are often quite different themselves and work/think very differently from each other. So we must remove all possible barriers to helping them engage. And we must take great care not to add new barriers. It’s worth noting that this is why Twitter and LinkedIn work so well (they only have one main place to type), and it’s why e-mail (which only has two fields and can generally talk to anyone else on Earth who has a connection) has lasted so long while other technologies have fallen by the wayside.

c) The biggest barrier to human collaboration is inability to participate.

For the reasons cited above, we’ve learned that we must work assiduously to make it possible for as many people to participate in a given process as possible. Whether this is a team, project, initiative or vast corporate program, we have learned that we generally have rather poor foreknowledge on who the full range of stakeholders in the process actually is and who should be included. We then get them involved far too late in the process when we finally do learn who all those stakeholders are. To add insult to injury, we then we make it far too hard for them to engage with us, so historically they haven’t.

This insight is so important, so critical to the success of collaboration at any level, especially the virtual kind. It is because of these barriers that when I wrote Social Business By Design, I took great care to state that the fundamental principle of effective collaboration must be “anyone can participate.” I mean this literally: Unless there is a very good reason not to (and there usually isn’t), in order for you to begin to tap into anything close to the full potential of digital collaboration, you must open it up by default to any stakeholder who feels they have a stake in what’s being done. I realize that this can be hard, for many reasons (which is my point.) But it is very important, even critical, to seek to address.

d) Asynchronous collaboration at scale is the richest and most powerful model for working together that we know.

Throughout most of human history, we’ve collaborated in real-time, face-to-face. It’s great for small groups, but soon breaks down when more than a few people are involved. That’s largely because it stops everyone else from working (since only one person can communicate with the group at a time.) Asynchronous collaboration has existed since human writing has existed, but it’s long been a niche method because it couldn’t travel fast enough or scale well enough. With digital networks however, both of those obstacles completely fall away. Now everyone can communicate and collaborate instantly and at the same time without interrupting anyone, and there is no limit to how many people can collaborate this way.

The gift this insight gives us is remarkable. The fact that we don’t realize the immense power that this gives us to work with each other in a vast hive of parallel yet deeply connected flows of work is because it is still quite new. It’s just a decade and half old or so in real terms, compared to the other methods that have existed for thousands of years in some cases. Asynchronous collaboration has led to some of the most remarkable outcomes in fields such as open source software (now the dominant model for how software is created, no coincidence), pharmacology, hard sciences, social media such as YouTube (the most popular TV channel on Earth now, all asynchronously co-created by us), shared public information (see: Wikipedia and similar sites), crowdsourcing, and much more.

e) The collaborative model that taps most directly into these world-changing insights is the online community and enterprise social network.

All digital communication and collaboration is more efficient than the physical models that came before it, even if they don’t quite replace the human dimension of the in-person experience. Within digital communication and collaboration there is again an enormous variability in what scales and how many people can simultaneously contribute and create value.

Relentless experimentation by the millions of people using the Internet has consistently and repeatedly found certain models that enable much higher level of participation with much lower level of friction. They also delivered noticeably better results as an immediate consequence. Social media was a direct outcome of these experiments. It’s what worked best in large scale communication and within businesses, in collaboration as well, which became known as social business just a decade ago. Of all the forms of social media, it’s the online community and enterprise social network which best fits the bill for complex collaboration, inherently takes advantage of how digital networks create value, and for truly empowering knowledge workers in almost any given situation.

Comparing the Models of Teams, Projects, and Communities

Open Collaboration is the Most Strategic Model

I’ll be very clear then as to the core lesson here: By default the single best model for digital communication and collaboration — and the one that produces the most human engagement and the richest outcomes — is the online community or enterprise social network. Nothing else compares in terms of openness, transparency, ability to enable wide participation, ensuring diversity, encouraging agile business methods, collecting and preserving knowledge, doing all this at any magnitude, and the list goes on.

In fact, a whole revolution in work has already taken place with these ideas and platforms, but has been more limited than many proponents would like. it’s just that we haven’t had the imperative like we do today, with almost entirely distributed workforces forced upon us. While many organizations have experimented with these new models, and not given them the time or resources to make them deliver their power and value, others certainly have over the years (see my social business success series for case studies.)

It Is Up To You To Deliver a Revolution in Better Digital Work

There are two visuals shown above that make a powerful case for a) the scale and sustainability of large-scale open collaboration and b) why community tends to be the better model for most work including projects, enterprise-wide initiatives, and a lot of teamwork. While chat tools like Slack do have value at the team level, they are absolutely not focused on or able to realize the full capabilities of our networks or our people as a whole. Collectively, wo actually do know today what the best digital models are for many types of work. Please realize that I’m not prescribing communities/ESNs for everything. But I am saying that we should make them the default choice today to unsilo our organizations and fully unleash our true potential as individuals and organizations.

In this time of vast disruption of business and life, when the ways of working that we’re used to have simply gone away, the answer is not to double down on the approaches of yesterday that were not designed for the highly distributed world of work today. We now know of much better, more human, more engaging, and more effective ways of working together. As leaders, we must now better connect and cultivate our workforce, customers, and partners as a top priority. That means we must deliberately and strategically cultivate these stakeholders as the communities that they really are and which actually power our organizations. We simply must work in these news ways in order to lead them into a much brighter and more successful future.

Additional Reading

There is a great deal of research and thinking that has gone into to understanding how the concepts above were discovered and can be situated successfully in most organizations. Here is a full reading list of what we know about social business (online communities and enterprise social networks — as well as other related tools/platforms like them — that can dramatically improve how people work together digitally):

Revisiting How to Cultivate Connected Organizations in an Age of Coronavirus

How Work Will Evolve in a Digital Post-Pandemic Society

What We Know About Making Enterprise Social Networks Successful Today

Revisiting How to Cultivate Connected Organizations in an Age of Coronavirus

My 2020 Predictions for the Future of Work

A Checklist for a Modern Core Digital Workplace and/or Intranet

Creating the Modern Digital Workplace and Employee Experience

The Challenging State of Employee Experience and Digital Workplace Today

The Most Vital Digital Management Skill: Network Leadership

Let the Network Do the Work

More Evidence Online Community is Central to the Future of Work

Online communities learn new practices, report higher ROI

Can we achieve a better, more effective digital workplace?

How digital collaboration has evolved | ZDNet

The new digital workplace: How enterprises are preparing for the future of work | ZDNet

It’s Time to Think About the Post-2020 Employee Experience

In these fraught times, most of us find that it’s quite challenging to think or plan about business longer term. Yet the benefits of doing are not only self-evident, it is likely critical at this moment to successfully navigate the challenging journey that now lies ahead of us. One of the most important topics to address in this new reality is how to provide a healthy and effective workplace for our workers.

We are now likely at the end of the beginning of the pandemic. As businesses start to open up, the first major wave of return to work (RTW) protocols have now been released by various regional governments. They give us a detailed sense of the issues and capabilities — exemplified by this excellent RTW checklist from SHRM — that we’ll need to begin putting in place to begin transitioning to what will become our next situational phase of work.

Just as importantly, such views also give us a reading on what we must consider to embark on the process of determining what the new long-term future of our employee experiences will be. One sobering data point: As little as a quarter of workers are willing to resume working in a physical office post-COVID according to a recent Gallup survey. This data has major ramifications, not the least that this means that most organizations will need to provide a remote-first employee experience for the foreseeable future.

The Post-2020 Digital Employee Experience

Second, both our businesses and workers are not in their best shape. We’ll need to focus on wellness and taking the care of the fundamentals when it comes to healthy workers, both physically and psychologically. So too with the business, to ensure it recovers and is better adapted to transformed markets, different demands, and new operational challenges.

While this future is still very uncertain, given the continuing changes in the world, some key elements are abundantly clear: We won’t return to the physical workplace that existed pre-COVID. Nor will we be staying in our present digitally remote environment in its current state, given its apparent shortcomings, especially not when an entire organization now has to run mostly virtual. In this virtual state, the top challenge consistently reported across many surveys is adequate communication and collaboration, most recently confirmed in a broad survey by Buffer, though there are plenty of other challenges to remote work/work from home (WFH) as well.

The Post-Pandemic Employee Experience Will Be Mostly About the Digital Workplace

So much as already happened this year when it comes to employee experience, from the dramatic and sudden shift to remote work in March to a much greater focus on employee wellbeing and health subsequently, among a whole host of rapid and disruptive new shifts. And so much more was going to happen — please see my rueful interview with DWG’s Paul Miller about the many changes in trajectory — until the pandemic hit. Now it appears that 2021 will be the breakout year for a much different and more useful view of employee experience.

As many of you know, I’ve long sought to create unifying visuals of our digital workplaces and human collaboration through technology, as well as provocative views to help us conceptualize the vital work we have in getting technology right for actual use by humans in business. My main theme as always is that technology must be foremost about people, or what is the point?

Now it’s time to take everything that has happened recently, add in all the major tech and societal trends that were feeding into 2020, and paint a comprehensive new and updated picture to see where we are now with employee experience. I’ve already initiatied that process with my informal employee experience board of digital workplace practitioners, IT leaders, user advocates, researchers, vendors, and others.

What does this look like exactly? For the overarching concept, I’m already on record saying that digital experience is ultimately the only thing that truly matters in the end, and that particularly includes employee experience. Everything else is an implementation or vendor sourcing detail. Instead, it’s the nature and quality of the journey itself, the trust and value of the data within it, and communal human connection through digital touchpoints that is by far the most important aspects which we need to get right (and fix) for our workers, customers, and partners.

Because employee experience is badly broken today, congested by ever-accumulating digital channels, an endless multitude of (albeit useful and needed) apps, and mountains and mountains of data with little overall design or thought to how it all works or could better fit together.

I believe it’s time — a true imperative even — to do much better by completely reformulating the worker journey around the experience model, combined with our urgent needs post-pandemic, especially around wellbeing and resilience. Most of us will start at the core of their employee experiences and steadily go outward until we reach diminishing returns. Some will find that it’s better to start the edge and work their way inward. But change we must, because the status quo is near the breaking point in terms of ever-lengthening employee onboarding times, needless cognitive load on workers to manage growing complexity, stagnating worker productivity, and low employee engagement/satisfaction.

The Post-2020 Employee Experience Has No Silos, No Barriers, No Limits

As part of this, I’ve synthesized what I believe is a unified view of what the post-2020 digital employee experience stack looks like, given the pandemic, latest industry trends, and other factors I’ll explore soon. Given the scope of the entire employee experience today, there simply is a lot of necessary components to this view. It will take me several months to full explore it here and elsewhere.

There are number of key points in this model that are important to understand in order to appreciate why it addresses many key issues in employee experience better than previous models:

  • This model merges IT, HR, comms, and everyone else into a single view for the first time. There are no artificial boundaries, and the vision is integrated and unified. This means there are many elements in this view that are unfamiliar to people in each of these functions. That is just fine. We’re all going to have the learn all the moving parts to deliver significant and sustainable employee experience improvements. Note: The view above is the highest level one. I will be releasing the detailed view shortly.
  • If experience is at the core of employee experience, it should be the organizing principle. It should be represented as a recognizable capability on the IT side, and used by HR and everyone else to urgently produce the experiences we need that tap into our full capabilities as individuals and organizations. This is a very different view than in the past where we acquired individual digital tools, touchpoints, or suites, branded and configured them a bit, maybe added an integration or three, and threw them over the wall to workers. Invariably this just added one more thing to the grab bag of apps and systems they have to use. No more. A digital experience model that forms a consistent “center of gravity” for the worker and their daily activities is the most important focus in this model.
  • Automation, analytics, current and coming revolutions in digital experience, consumer-grade user interfaces, low/no-code and the emerging tech spectrum must regularly inform and improve the employee experience. The employee experience must evolve as fast the world, and it must therefore be represented in a cohesive but loosely-structured stack designed to change and keep up. Most organizations will spend the next five to 10 years getting this stack right for them, and they’ll never finish evolving it, nor should they. But it must be the primary focus, along with the worker journey itself.
  • The daily moments of the worker must be the unit of employee experience development and management. This makes it human centered and aimed at the most meaningful work activities. Re-organize disjointed work into singular job activities (sell a product, build a team, manage a project, get a promotion) that formerly spanned many to dozens of siloed apps and unify them into easily customized and personalized digital experience that are contextual, have built-in just-in-time training and can be created by anyone in the organization that needs to.

At its core, however, this is an attempt to put all the moving parts of digital employee experience together — perhaps for the first time in a truly comprehensive view — in what I believe is a new, useful, and compelling way that is centered around experiences while empathizing deeply with two vital audiences: Employees and the business, both.

As mentioned above, this is the beginning of a long exposition on experience-led employee journeys that I believe is becoming the next leading model for digital workplace and employee experience. Please join me here and elsewhere as I continue to explore it in detail, as well those organizations that are already starting to do it.

Note: No view of employee experience could be truly novel of course, as many in the industry have identified or created so many pieces of what I lay out here. We’re all building on the shoulders of giants. What’s different, I would suggest, is a truly holistic and inclusive approach that has the highest chance to be successful at addressing the largely accidental, disjointed, overly complex, and sprawling employee experience that most of us have built up over the years.

Please contact me if you have important contributions to make. Do consult the additional reading below for a fuller view of how all these pieces fit together into a much brighter and more effective employee experience that meets both the needs of workers, the business, and our times.

Additional Reading

How Work Will Evolve in a Digital Post-Pandemic Society

Revisiting How to Cultivate Connected Organizations in an Age of Coronavirus

My 2020 Predictions for the Future of Work

A Checklist for a Modern Core Digital Workplace and/or Intranet

Creating the Modern Digital Workplace and Employee Experience

The Challenging State of Employee Experience and Digital Workplace Today

The Most Vital Digital Management Skill: Network Leadership

It is a remarkable time in this particular moment in human history, where most organizations have become almost entirely distributed, yet for the first time still remain largely functional. We can thank a combination of three modern advances for this, which have never been available to us before at their current level of maturity. Namely, ubiquitous computing devices in most people’s homes, along with pervasive Internet access across the developed world, and a truly remarkable host of new enabling tech-based tools, from online video conferences and team chat to shared digital whiteboards and work coordination tools, even entire virtual worlds.

While it may not feel like it to most of us, we actually live in a time that is much less impacted by a pandemic, at least by these measures. It is the countless recent innovations of modern technology that have created a new respite for us and our organizations, and one that we can use to minimize disruption as well as prepare for our new future. Yet the shift to work from home (WFH) or remote work, as it is often called, does come at a significant cost. The loss of real human connection is one. The replacement of in-person contact by the hermetically sealed faces of our co-workers on video conference grids does distance ourselves from them in surprising ways when we have to do it week after week. But these inconveniences are in the end, mostly manageable.

How To Lead an Entire Organization Through a WiFi Connection

Instead, perhaps the most significant shortfall in becoming virtual organizations is that we haven’t acquired or developed leadership skills that work well in these powerful new digital venues. Being a leader, which is defined as someone who helps motivate groups of people towards useful goals, is often conducted quite differently via a shared technological medium. In fact, as we’ll see, the digital version of taking the helm of a team, department, or enterprise, known as network leadership, is currently in woefully short supply. Now is the time to change that.

Digital Leaders Wield Influence at Scale on Today’s Networks and Communities

While there are a number of essential skills that help organizations create useful business outcomes with distributed teams through the use of the most modern digital tools, here I’ll assume the most scalable kind — enterprise social networks or online communities — I find that leadership is almost always at the top of the list of challenges in using them well. In fact, the leaders themselves have, until now, often been the ones least engaged in them.

With today’s global lockdown orders, there is now no avoiding that what executives and middle managers actually do when it comes to leadership with digital networks has a inordinate impact on whether workers will a) usefully employ digital tools in their day-to-day work, b) take unique advantage of what makes the newer tools so potent, and c) actually deliver the impactful results needed to sustain the organization in a more digital form.

I’ve studied or helped organizations apply the key success factors of digital collaboration for years, and there remains a key question that seems to come up as frequently as ever:

What exactly should leaders do to enable their organizations and themselves to adopt the most effective concepts and work techniques of digital networks to the way they work?

The good news is that it turns out that enablement of the overall underlying methods of digital-style leadership by corporate leaders actually requires some of the same key skills that made them top managers in the first place: Effective communication, the ability to get others to follow their lead, the ability to formulate a vision and inspire others with it, getting things done, and perhaps most of all, the ability to encourage others to help carry out positive changes to move into the future.

Leadership today also requires a set of attributes that many managers usually do not yet have today: Knowledge of and skills with modern digital collaboration tools, and their techniques and strategies. As my industry colleague Cerys Hersey once noted, contemporary platforms like the enterprise social network are becoming our corporate ‘operating system’, at least in a significant — and steadily growing — percentage of large organizations today according to the latest market research as of 2019.

Comparing Traditional Leadership with Network Leadership

The full and compelling motivations for using a social network as a foundation for — and a digital analogue of — how a modern corporation operates is a rich topic that I explored in my book on the topic, Social Business by Design. However, you can consult a brief primer here, and the short version is that it enables truly engaging employees, helping them work together in innovative new ways, tapping deeply into their knowledge to enable widespread learning, scaling work processes in new and potent ways, creating richer/better institutional practices, and capturing a highly differentiating corporate body of knowledge, among other known benefits.

So, of all the new skills that executives have to learn today, perhaps the most important is network leadership, which the well-respected Executive Board urgently identified a few years ago in their report, The Rise of the Network Leader, as a major new evolution in management skills, which can contribute up to twice the profit growth in organizations which have the most effective leaders:

Analyzing the relative performance of more than 3,000 leaders, CEB has found that organizations with the strongest leaders in changing times have double the rates of revenue and profit growth compared to those with weaker leaders.

Unfortunately, many organizations and their leaders struggle to meet these mounting demands; those who struggle are hard pressed to maintain their advantage as the work environment changes and the nature of leadership in the new work environment shifts. CEB research shows that many leaders are poorly equipped to thrive in the new, rapidly changing digital work environment.

Digital Networks: The New Management Imperative

The lesson here is that it’s now urgent for executives and managers to acquire network leadership skills in order to succeed in today’s pandemically-induced remote work environments, rife as they are with many new types of digital collaboration environments that can help them wield outsize leadership influence. They can and should use this broad digital grasp to bring everyone together into a healthy enterprise-wide online community as well as orchestrate high-scale adaptations and performance improvements for their organizations. Beyond the usual corporate focus on revenue and profit, which network leadership can readily deliver in potent and innovative new ways, network leadership also fosters a fundamentally better, high performing, more aligned, and more satisfying workplace for everyone.

As Altimeter’s Charlene Li, in her examination of how digital is remaking the styles, techniques, and even the very culture of leadership, singled out in her best-selling new book The Engaged Leader, notes that:

In order to be truly effective today, leaders in business and society must change how they engage, and in particular how they establish and maintain relationships with their followers in digital channels.

The good news is that top corporate executives are realizing the imperative of leading through digital channels. There are now leading examples of network leaders from highly respected organizations around the world, including business luminaries such as Richard Branson, Rupert Murdoch, Mary Barra, Marc Benioff, Marissa Mayer, and even Harvard’s Bill George, though there are certainly still considerable differences in digital engagement depending on corporate responsibility.

So, to understand exactly what top network leaders do in today’s digital networks, let’s examine the patterns that have emerged in what leaders do, day-by-day, to cultivate and exert effective network leadership within their organizations and outside of them.

Create Reach: Cultivate Network Capital

Network Leadership | Step 1: Cultivate Reach and Social CapitalGetting an organization to engage with an executive over an enterprise social network can be straightforward if you’re a well-known and/or well-liked leader. But most executives will have to work fairly diligently on building a network of followers in the organization. Over time, these individuals will pay a growing amount of attention to them communication and value steadily flows from the executive through their daily activities. And that’s just internal cultivation of network capital. It can be much more work to gain a relevant network following on the other major arena: Out on the Internet. In its simplest form this is gaining followers interested in your industry work on popular social networks. More meaningfully, it becomes the entire set of online conversations, group activities, and concrete value streams that have your professional social identity connected to them in some way. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources that can teach executives the necessary skills. In particular, reverse mentoring programs such as at Bayer Material Sciences have been known to be particularly effective at helping executives rapidly acquire the necessary skills.

Be Transparent and Communicative: Working Out Loud

Network Leadership | Step 2: Working Out Loud on Social NetworksDigital networks only become truly powerful business tools when executives start to set their knowledge free to work out in the network on a routine day-to-day basis. Leaders must also build authentic and meaningful conversations with other stakeholders on the network, and so the currency of lightly narrating your work activities on social channels, including what you’re doing and what issues you are facing is considered a key network leadership technique. Cultivating these digital habits will have the benefits of automatically creating more transparency and a shared understanding of what the organization is actually facing at an executive level. Working Out Loud can also directly improve employee engagement, which can be low particularly because meaningful ongoing storytelling is often missing in large organizations, despite inclusive corporate cultures being widely regarded as drivers of high performance. This narration process, which can be usually be accomplished in the margins of executive schedules, also becomes the basis for building even more social capital, as well as enlisting the organization to help just-in-time with key issues, as innovative ideas and solutions often have a strange way of coming from where you least expect it. You can learn more about Working Out Out from my friend and collaboration industry colleague John Stepper, who has long promulgated it.

Engage on the Network Regularly: Stay Involved at Multiple Levels, Channels

Network Leadership | Step 3: Regularly and Proactively Engage on the NetworkAs one might suspect, just narrating your own work is not sufficient to be a network leader. One must also track key conversations and work streams happening within your networks and social followings. While there’s no way to keep track everything that’s happening, most enterprise social networks have volume controls and filters to let you focus on what matters to you at the time, such as what particular teams, projects, or even people are doing, while still making sure enough serendipity still occurs. It’s important to stay involved at a sustainable pace at multiple levels in the organization across the key digital/social channels, as it’s long been understood that diversity of information and stakeholders creates the most vibrant and useful knowledge networks, never mind that remote work creates higher barrier to visibility across the virtual organization. Opportunities for doing more within network, as well as learning about the organization — and perhaps most of all about your customers — faster than ever before, soon become obvious.

Related: What IT Leaders Should Prepare for Post-Pandemic

Work Through the Network: Orchestrate and Co-Create

Network Leadership | Step 4: Orchestrate and Co-Create Through the NetworkOnce a leader has sufficient network capital, along with involvement and credibility within various digital networks and communities, they can begin to more actively wield their influence and leadership strategically over the network. What’s more, this engagement can scale far higher — and much faster — than traditional relationship networks, which is one of the key benefits of digital/social.

Leaders can also use networks to proactively enlist participative stakeholders in driving successful change and co-creation, seizing business objectives, solving vital problems, and harvesting needed innovation, or even just getting vital work done. Executives can maintain corporate alignment across a highly diverse workforce, while directing the co-creation of solutions to the issues of the day. What’s fascinating is that these activities don’t tend to put much of an additional burden on the workforce because of two sources of headroom: Many employees aren’t fully engaged until their leaders work more closely with them, and most organizations still have a significant cognitive surplus. So while network leadership is fundamentally about moving towards improved engagement with your stakeholders, it also has transactional benefits as well. Finally, if you’re still not sure about all this, the Collaborative Leaders Network has many compelling example of executives using collaboration and co-creation — particularly over networks — that led to better outcomes.

Use the Network to Learn, Then Optimize

Network Leadership | Step 5: Use the Network to Learn Then OptimizeAs I’ve pointed out in exploring how our organizations are heading towards a 4th Platform, networks are also the ideal place to learn, and from the learning to improve ourselves and our organizations. Enterprise social networks are therefore terrific environments to learn in the large, because most of the activity is out in the open and can therefore be analyzed for a variety of strategic business objectives. Leaders can also use their digital networks for informal and unstructured learning, and getting ‘ground truth’ about what’s really going on and how things are actually accomplished within their organizations.

Network Leadership: How To Get Started, and What’s Needed

Fortunately, since nearly two-thirds of organizations now have the necessary networks internally, and 100% have the needed external networks (social media), almost everyone can get started on network leadership these days.

Note, however, that one key concept that is depicted in the visuals for each step above is the capability of community management, an essential function to maximize the operational results of digital networks. Community managers can also make the process of leaders getting involved and developing the skills, and even working through high value scenarios, far easier than it would be otherwise. Chances are good that your organization has people that already do this, but if not, they can be found online with only a bit of effort, such as contacting the excellent Community Roundtable.

Lastly, this is a new journey and new management skill that we are all learning together as business evolves into more organically networked structures. There is little doubt in the value of network leadership, but the rule of thumb tends to be the more that you put into it, the more you and your organization will get out of it.

Ultimately, I believe that the real question that leaders must ask themselves now is this:

What will I do with this unprecedented new strategic management capability in these unprecedented times?

Note: This is a substantially revised update of a previous exploration I made of network leadership. I’ve updated it as appropriate for our current situation in mid-2020.

Additional Reading:

How Work Will Evolve in a Digital Post-Pandemic Society

Revisiting How to Cultivate Connected Organizations in an Age of Coronavirus

My 2020 Predictions for the Future of Work

How Work Will Evolve in a Digital Post-Pandemic Society

The current outbreak of COVID-19 is stress testing our institutions, infrastructure, governments, and societies more than any event in most of our lifetimes. We have to go all the way back to the two World Wars to find similar precedents. Yet, as our businesses and personal lives are profoundly impacted, some of us can also perceive great forces of change in motion that offer us hope for positive and important new outcomes that we might influence.

The realization has also set in that we won’t likely be able to roll things back to how they recently were — at least any time soon — so we must now look at what is likely to be the next new normal, as it was famously known as during the 2007-2008 financial downturn (and which now sadly looks increasingly minor by comparison.)

In the last month and a half, I’ve been exploring how organizations must rapidly adapt themselves to the pandemic as most of our organizations now consist purely of digital workers connected over our global networks. As many of us in the digital workplace and employee experience community have noted of late, there are now major opportunities to follow-up on significant yet often slow or stalled transformations of human-centered work.

But first we must face our current situation and likely trajectory.

Profound Disruption of Work is Here

There’s just no avoiding it: The disruption we are facing today is as profound as it is pervasive. Yet I deeply believe it also offers an increasingly fertile and robust landscape into which we can drive meaningful and sustained change for good. Our timing must be careful and the thinking behind it — combined with effective action at scale — both crisp and clear, albeit real challenges in our fast-changing times.

There’s also no denying that how we’ve worked before is simply gone. Something much better than what we currently have must replace our current unwieldy situation for many of us: Weeks long slogs through endless video calls, tiring teleconferences at all hours, with our team chat windows scrolling mindlessly past our gaze. We can and must now create a much better design for our current working realities. Whether you will focus on remote work, more quarantine-friendly physical facilities, or a comprehensive rethink of the modern enterprise for being near 100% digital, we will have to go as deep as the core ideas that underpin work itself.

The Post Pandemic Organization for the Future of Work

We must also — to make it much easier to evolve going forward — start designing our workplaces and our work itself much more as a contemporary digital product in an ongoing and continuous exercise of collaboration and co-creation. I once asked in Designing the New Enterprise, “how do we adapt sustainably to constant change?” Now the question is also, “how do we adapt sustainably to large disruptive change?”

Answering these big questions will require profound and outside-the-box thinking. Our very foundations are in the midst straining. We now live in an era where even the traditional nation-state as well as the new global order both seem threatened. Answers to how we will thrive in a post-modern pandemic-stricken world seem stubbornly hard to find. Neither model seems sufficiently effective at providing adequately coordinated leadership or proactive response.

If we move down from the macro level of the global stage down to the size of our organizations (corporations, state/local governments, associations, non-profits, etc.) and other related but long-standing business structures like unions, partnerships, alliances, consortiums, and so on, we see that these too are now struggling to help their constituents in many cases.

The Ways Forward are Unfamiliar and Unknown, But Not For Long

Many better connected and easier to operate digital alternatives — at least in our currently locked down global state — do now exist, but seem either rather immature and/or unproven in comparison. These include global digital communities (yes, Facebook, and others), the larger and older open source groups/projects, and digital communities like LinkedIn and Github do seem to show that massively scaled communities can share information, powerful ideas, and help each other in compelling new ways, as many of us have long hoped. While there are plenty of downsides to these too, because the pandemic resistance of digital networks is outstanding, no other workable new modes exist.

We’re now entering a phase where we must begin to plan for post-pandemic. This does not mean going back to where we were. It cannot, because we now know the reality of the impact of a return of a new pandemic or a newly mutated coronavirus:

It’s simply irresponsible and unacceptable to go back to the entirely too fragile and so easily-disrupted operating models of the pre-COVID-19 world.

What does this suddenly urgent near-future of work look like you ask? No one has all the answers, but the good news is that we’re about to discover very quickly what is working and what isn’t in the vast global living laboratory of #suddenlyremote.

From my conversations the last few weeks with CIOs, my fellow futurists and thought leaders in the Future of Work, digital workplace leads, and employee experience groups (mostly in IT, but some in HR), there’s a recent but increasingly broad swing from the tactical, as in just getting everyone onboard with the basics of working remotely, to the strategic, where we look at where we must now go, both in-pandemic and post-pandemic, and quite possibly the next pandemic.

How Work Will Evolve

From this vantage point, which I am very fortunate to have in the industry, I can see a number of likely outcomes that will allow us to take a precarious economic reopening and flailing early growth and turn it into a stronger story of resilient resurgence, no matter what happens:

  • Designing for loss of control. By taking advantage of the tendency of systems and external agents to use an organization’s people, ideas, resources, systems, and data to do new and interesting things, organizations can deliberately create thousands of emergent outcomes at scale, many of which they have a stake in (see: platforms, ecosystems, etc.) The raw components are well known and understood for making this happen. Now it is an imperative to drive rapid recovery and growth.
  • A strong preference for tools with exponential potential and leverage. The pandemic catches us at a time of exponential change, and is further driving it. We simply can’t fight exponential change with yesterday’s linear tools. Organizations now need access to near-instant response to large events at scale. This is only possible with capabilities that can respond in kind. This means everything from mass decentralized automation and AI enablement to using digital communities and social networks as our primary organizational structures.
  • The rise of fully open and agile new operating models. The biggest question is whether our traditional institutions lead the world out of the pandemic, or will citizens around the globe come together and opt instead for something different using our global networks? We’ve seen the inexorable shift in agile methods in recent years, which came from key insights and experiences in the technology world, and which I’ve long noted has begun to infiltrate the broader world of business itself. The envelope of agile has expanded to something we now call DevOps, and that envelope will continue to expand and merge with mass digital collaboration models that now existing within the realms online forums, enterprise social networks, and team chat channels: Communities of practice, communities of interest, and now, communities of business, a notion I’ll expand on soon as I am currently collecting growing evidence for them.
  • Self-organization, self-service, and pull-based models for reorganization, restructuring, rebuilding, reviving, and thriving. The single most powerful model for work is humans collaborating together in open, transparent, and self-organizing processes. As I’ve often strongly encouraged businesses and people: Let the network do the work. There is no time in modern history where this concept is more important. It’s how we’ll each have enough access to resources, skills, ideas, and capabilities to do almost anything that needs to ne done. We’re already seeing things like this happen such as the formation of the Open COVID Pledge to mobilize invaluable IP quickly to respond to the pandemic in any and all ways necessary. The list of now free, but previously commercial, services available to help individuals and businesses is impressive as is the list of initiatives to help businesses most impacted. Again, all these resources have digital communities or capabilities at their core.

I also predict that our digital communities of citizens, workers, and organizations will be the single most influential and important resources that we have in surmounting the challenges of the current pandemic. It’s an easy prediction, because that’s largely all that government, society, organizations, and our institutions are at this moment. While there are badly needed and greatly appreciated people out there in the real world still growing our food, staffing our hospitals, and keeping the peace, these still represent only a tiny fraction of the total sum of our global cognitive power, operating capacity, and economic capability. The rest, for better or worse, has just gone almost completely digital.

We absolutely require the best ways of operating in this new reality. My point is that we largely have them, but the hard work remains to adopt, adapt, and succeed with them. It will be one of the most profoundly positive changes in human history, unleashing untold autonomy, human diversity, bold new ideas, dramatically transformative action, as well as human freedom and potential. Or not. The choice is ours to make, right now.

Additional Reading

When Our Organizations Became Networks

The Challenging State of Employee Experience and Digital Workplace Today

Revisiting How to Cultivate Connected Organizations in an Age of Coronavirus

My 2020 predictions for the Future of Work

My recent video interview with Bjoern Negelmann about these topics for Digital Work Disruption

Revisiting How to Cultivate Connected Organizations in an Age of Coronavirus

Looking back at it from the vantage point of the current coronavirus pandemic, it’s clear now that most organizations missed a golden opportunity about five to seven years ago. This was the height of industry discussion around and worldwide business implementation of enterprise social networks, a leading form of internal online community.

Known in shorthand as the ‘ESN’, this emerging class of communication and mass engagement platform was inspired by the runaway growth and success of the global social media revolution. The ESN focused on creating a living, breathing organization-wide digital fabric of open connections, conversations, knowledge sharing, and meaningful collaboration that was as egalitarian as it was eminently useful.

Optimism was rife back then and progress seemed tantalizingly close in resolving the many issues with the aging model of corporate organizational hierarchies. There’s no doubt about it: The vision for the enterprise social network was as utopian as it was grand. I know, because I can count myself as one of the leading proponents of people-connected technologies back in that age. I even wrote a popular book on the subject, when the management and design theory behind it was known as social business.

But the ESN revolution was also grounded in using technology to go well beyond the limiting constraints of the real world when it comes to distance, time, experience, or access to leaders or subject matter experts. The ESN flourished in many organizations, and they still do, though I notice a distinctly more subdued tone today when I talk to ESN owners, practitioners, and the specialized staff that help them run well, community managers.

Back in those days, we eventually accumulated enough experience to know what worked and what didn’t: It was easy to roll out the tools and hard to shift the culture and skills, but as an industry, we largely learned how to make them successful. For those that wanted it, a virtual organization of vibrant digital connections formed a network across the company that became a central conduit for learning, knowledge capture/management, operations at scale, vital peer-based support, and so much more.

Creating a Connected Organization with Enterprise Social Networks and Online Community

However, the ESN was different enough that it required strong stakeholders and passionate evangelists who would rarely leave its side or tire. Since the heady early days, I’ve noticed that ESNs tend to come and go if their sponsors and/or champions move on. That’s not to say there haven’t been and don’t continue to be many success stories. There are.

The Need for Resilient Digital Communities Has Come Roaring Back

Enter the coronavirus. The dasher of hope and changer of worlds in so many ways. There have been few times in history where the workplace has been so thoroughly disrupted as it has been today by COVID-19. The workforces of virtually every organization globally is either on a mandatory work at home policy or soon will be. My analysis of what to do in the early days of being suddenly remote is easily one of the most popular things I’ve written in recent years.

To say most organizations are not ready to become “suddenly remote”, as the phrase of art has become, is an understatement. In short, organizations around the world have essentially been physically disbanded until further notice. This is an incalculable shift. Our Internet connections are now our main lifeline by far to our work lives, to our colleagues, and to our careers. It’s as isolating for many, as it is freeing for others.

As it turns out, remote work is also a profoundly different way of functioning in our jobs that is inherently less social (unless we substantially augment it to be otherwise), more siloed, and disconnected than most of us are prepared for. Especially when we have to work remotely all the time, for days, weeks, or months on end, which is the reality at this time.

The Return of the Enterprise Social Network

In the current period of prolonged dislocation from our old work lives, wouldn’t it be incredibly useful if we already had a robust digital support structure in place? One that we’ve long since carefully crafted and built up from the connections of people that we’ve met either physically or virtually. While we actually have that in the form of our consumer social networks (or at least many of us do), it’s almost completely out of context for our workplace needs.

It’s a shortcoming of our own making. Our attempts to train workers to be digitally savvy has had long and sustained gaps because we’ve been able to lean on our legacy physical skills and environments. In the past, I’ve attempted to describe the necessary digital skills to help workers adapt to this new work more gradually. They are all predicated on building modern social capital, meaning have a broad, diverse, and strong network of connections to people in today’s modern operating environment: The global digital networks that infuse everything today.

Yet in the context of our work at least, most of us are now completely lacking this social capital, these connections, or a virtual community around us, just when we need it most.

Instead, for those organizations that didn’t make the determined and sustained efforts to do the hard work of creating an enterprise social network (or equivalent), the workers who have been tossed overnight into entirely remote working situations are finding it hard going. Their familiar communal work environment is gone. Their outdated tools don’t keep them plugged into the pulse of the organization.

In fact, most workers badly need the resilient and vibrant connective tissue of an ESN, with all its rich user profiles, relationships between far flung connections, countless groups of local experts, reams of searchable open knowledge, and the deep insight that all these can provide to step in for the shockingly rapid loss of our physical world of work.

ESN/Community Practitioners and Executive Leaders: It’s Time to Seize the Day

To practitioners, I’ve started making it clear that this is a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime and historic opportunity to make your enterprise social network save the day when it comes to grounding and delivering a healthy remote organization. An effective ESN can connecting the organization back to itself far better than older tools by focusing on returning and then improving both the cultural “dial tone” and daily bustle of the organization. The practical benefits are significant: Actual outcome-based business impact by improving operations, productivity, and employee engagement. So this is your time to shine, whether you now need to develop an ESN and the communities within it, or supercharge the one that you have.

For business leaders, now is the time to put your organization on a modern digital platform that is far more resilient to disruption and that will both modernize it and make it much more effective. I encourage you to look at the baseline results you’re likely to get, which was published in the MIT Sloan Management Review. Worst case is that you’ll achieve about a 25% productivity increase for your investment, which is fairly modest compared to CRM or ERP systems. You will however be required to invest in more staff than is typical for a traditional IT solution (the why and how many is here, but it’s not large compared to major productivity losses for remote workers without a strong supporting network.) Don’t wait. Support the ESN and online community champions trying to help you.

For both, this is the time to learn that advanced preparedness for going all digital is critical. We live in exponential times of change, and this also seems to mean large and more frequent disruptions. Those with the healthiest, best connected, and engaged digital networks of workers will experience the least disarray and breakdown when major events like coronavirus take place. Let’s learn from not making the most of these powerful tools the first time around. It’s now time to fully commit to building the best possible connected organization for next time around.

Final Note: Before you ask me about why ESNs and not team chat apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams, it’s because the ESN scales conversations and engagement up to the size of the enterprise. Almost all orgs are already using Slack and Teams, and it gives them a much narrower and far more limited view of what’s happening. In an ESN, all contributions are visible by default across the whole organization, content types are more sophisticated, and as you can see below in additional reading, they can be used for advance change processes like enterprise-wide digital transformation. ESNs are strategic. Team chat is useful, but tactical.

Additional Reading

Using Online Community for Digital Transformation

More Evidence Online Community is Central to the Future of Work

My Future of Work Trends for 2020 (with Video)

A Checklist for a Modern Core Digital Workplace and/or Intranet

One of the most challenging questions to answer about digital employee experience today is where the center of gravity for it lies. As in, where does the worker, by default, spend most of their time using it. The answer used to be that the worker themselves determines it, often with specific guidance or training, by figuring out how to apply the devices, applications, tools, and platforms to which they are given access, to their daily job. This self-guidance generally defines the typical digital workplace journey even today, and constitutes the sort of benign neglect, throw-it-over-the-wall situation that we current find in many organizations.

Knowing where the center of gravity should actually be has become important lately for several strategic reasons. First, it’s very useful in identifying where digital workplace teams should spend the majority of their design and analytics time so they can ensure what they provide works well and is optimized for the purposes to which its currently being used. Second, because the digital employee experience has become so fragmented and siloed that just finding and navigating apps, data/docs, channels, and experiences has become its own significant overhead, it allows us to identify where we should be integrating said side journeys into a common hub.

Finally, it just gives us a better operating lens to the digital life of the employee and the business: We can see how to better situate IT within the broader worker journey to produce the best outcomes, onboarding and cross training becomes simplified through a more standardized user experience and thus faster/easier, which means satisfaction and retention becomes higher, adoption/effectiveness of digital workplace investments is greater, and so on. Why? Because this lens provides a more systematic and overarching view that aims at overall stakeholder needs better. It also avoids the traditional point solution myopia that makes it hard to see the big picture or understand properly how an IT system actually contributes to the business (a surprisingly thorny problem.)

An Integrated Holistic Employee Experience and Digital Workplace/Intranet

A number of virtual “places” have come and (largely) gone over the years that attempt to partially address the center of gravity issue. That’s because of the significant payoff in doing so compared to focusing on less traveled — off dramatically less, areas of the digital workplace (see: SharePoint team site graveyards, largely abandoned intranets, and almost useless search engines.) There’s also a lot of edge IT to sort through: The average large enterprise has, to the surprise of most I find, between 1,000 and 3,000 applications that run the business.

But in my experience over the last couple of decades, although the number of apps keeps growing substantially, most employees only use a small subset on a regular basis, usually a foundational set that almost every employees uses, then a different set of apps based on their work persona.

Currently, my rule of thumbs is that core employee experience can be addressed by putting the hundred or so core apps (give or take 50, depending on the enterprise), as well docs, comms channels, and systems of engagement, into a more centralized experience. Yes, the future of IT is distributed, but experiences are not. They are the vital new outcome-centered, cohesive journeys that take workers through their role-based processes, tasks, and helps them get to value-based outcomes as quickly as possible.

I would strongly suggest that if we are to see any dramatic improvements to the digital workplace, it will require moving beyond a largely accidental one to a more deliberately designed one, albeit a digital environment where the edges and even much of the center are shaped, personalized, and customized easily by IT, the worker, the local team, and managers as a collaborative effort.

While parts of this notion are now gaining broader acceptance, what’s even better is that we’re now seeing a generation of digital workplace tools emerge that actually enable it (I’ll explore these soon.) Thus, I am now being asked what does such a core experience look like? How does it manifest itself? Is it a Web desktop, smart intranet, a digital experience platform, or a converged mobile app? Is all of these or what? This is what we’re collectively trying to determine, and has been the crux of the issues and roadblocks for so many digital workplace teams of late.

Key Features of a Modern Digital Workplace

Having been on a number of such enterprise-wide digital workplace design efforts in recent years, I can attest to what such a core digital workplace should consist of. Borrowing from my projects with clients, industry research, and analysis, here is what — at an absolute minimum — I believe must be the capabilities and features of any modern digital workplace hub or center of gravity:

  • A central experience accessible from any digital environment the worker will use
  • A consistent usability model to the degree possible given a highly heterogeneous user experience within the hub
  • Foundational feature set (file/doc sharing, content management, task management, collaboration, comms, online community)
  • A straightforward and easy-to-learn information architecture, variable by persona
  • A way to define personas with easy matching to unique branches in the experience, IA, central experience
  • Global search and discovery that works
  • Administration and community management features
  • Robust 3rd party software integrations and app store
  • Online training and digital adoption features, native or add-on
  • Easy-to-add business software integrations (for custom built, internal LOB apps)
  • Customization options for branding, internal whitelabeling, etc.
  • Datacenter locations and choice (logic and data residency)
  • Deployment options (on-premises, cloud, hybrid)
  • Directory integration (people and groups) including multi-directory
  • A persona mapping tool and/or assessment process to take the employee directory and assign workers to personas
  • A rich ecosystem of customers, partners, ISVs
  • Extensibility and integrations via modern microservices/master graph, APIs and SDKs
  • Governance and compliance controls
  • Native-quality mobile access
  • Personalization features (manual or algorithmic, AI)
  • Low code/no code experience and workflow creation by IT or business users
  • A digital studio to design task specific end-to-end business processes across multiple apps
  • Smart assistive AI across ad hoc cross app usage and workflows
  • Reporting tools and workstream/outcome analytics, across integrated apps
  • Next gen interfaces including voice input, voice/video transcription, smart assistants, gesture control, VR/AR
  • Scalability and robustness
  • Security and privacy features
  • No restrictions on who the worker can collaborate with (any audience, inside or outside the org)
  • Data migration/import from older/previous platforms

The details of what some of these features actually consist of is an exercise for broader industry discussion, which I plan to continue collaboratively online. But it’s safe to say that I think most practitioners would support the majority of what’s listed here. However, I would go a step forther further and underscore that each and every feature is the absolute minimum acceptable set today to achieve an effective digital workplace and employee experience.

The Next Digital Workplace Will Not Resemble Today’s

I also believe large forces and missed opportunities are at work, given the rapid growth we’re seeing in shadow IT for digital workplace, the relatively dire state of the overarching tech-enabled employee experience (workers are generally just clamoring for the rudiments to actually work well, and only 22% think they have a good employee experience at all reports Deloitte). The implication is that most enterprises are not even delivering the fundamentals well, much less zeroing in on the right feature sets that will move them into the future. Instead we are focusing on isolated, over-centralized, one-size-fits-all content-based experiences, and neglect the overall condition of the journey. Instead, we must shift focus to more holistic and connected app-based experiences explicitly designed to deliver the meaningful and effective user experiences that we so deeply wish for and desire.

For the better, the approach of rolling out a largely disconnected grab bag of apps from a checklist is no longer a viable strategy for tech-enabled employee experience. Instead, the modern digital workplace is becoming much more of a common fabric upon which we can design, contextualize, analyze, and optimize the worker experience. It is also highly malleable, 1:1 personalized, and hyperintegrated. Finally, this new smarter digital workplace is anticipatory, predictive, journey-based, data-driven, user-obsessed, and design-informed, including, perhaps most importantly, explicit design for loss of control.

Additional Reading

The Challenging State of Employee Experience and Digital Workplace Today

A Comprehensive Overview of Modern Digital Workplace Trends and Emerging Practices

My Predictions for the Future of Work in 2020

The Challenging State of Employee Experience and Digital Workplace Today

It’s a very difficult time to be in the business of providing a digital employee experience today. By digital employee experience, I mean the totality of the end-to-end digital touchpoints that a worker uses to get their job done. This view is also sometimes called the digital workplace, and it includes all the devices, apps, and data that a worker employs in their day-to-day work, whether it’s company provided or not (as we’ll see, an increasingly fraught topic.)

But digital workplace is now seen by many, including by myself, as an inadequate and incomplete construct. Certainly, it consists of the local intranet, computer desktop, productivity tools, enterprise search engine(s), collaboration apps, and line of business systems, most of which was acquired and deployed with almost no thought to how they should fit together as an overall digital journey.

In other words, though I now see more and more digital workplace groups within organizations who are actually in charge of it, the reality is that we’re a long way from a consistent, seamless, effective, widely adopted, and well-designed digital workplace.

The Complex Digital Workplace Landscape of Apps, Data, and People We Must Design Into an Employee Experience

The Issues in Realizing an Effective Digital Journey for Workers

There are a complex and interrelated set of factors on why digital workplace is in reality very much on the ropes in many, if not most, organizations. In my view, the critical factors are:

  • Employee experience is proving to be a more complete and effective view of digital enablement, but comes in at a harder-to-address and rather disruptive angle. The employee experience takes into account a much more complete view (physical, cultural, and technological) of what employees should have addressed in their digitally-enabled work lives. Yet this view, while likely to produce substantially better outcomes if it’s realized through this lens, is highly problematic in that it clearly straddles at least two major organizational silos: HR (the people component) and IT (the digital side) in order to achieve, plus some other groups as well, including everyone from facilities to compliance and regulatory. Getting all of these groups to work together at the same time — and with the same vision — is very challenging.
  • Apps have proliferated by the millions and become hyperspecialized. Every function in the business (marketing, sales, operations, legal, HR, etc) are getting highly targeted apps that they can use to address their work much better than the general purpose, one-size-fits-all that IT much prefers (for cost, manageability, governance, etc.) Consumer and enterprise app stores are filled with countless solutions that will do exactly what you need for an individual task. The supply side of IT has become so vast and large that it’s almost impossible to be a departmental conduit for it (like IT is supposed to be) or design up-to-date experiences around this galaxy-sized pool of choices.
  • The cloud (especially SaaS) and mobile app stores have definitively disrupted IT, creating vast and rapidly shifting Shadow IT dominions on the edges of organizations. While ERP, HR benefits systems, e-mail, and the proverbial cafeteria menu/corporate HQ driving directions pages on the intranet don’t seem to be affected, everything else, starting with CRM and going deep into every corporate function, satisfying near every user requirement, whatever it is, for cheap (often for free), available right now at a button click, has upended the game. Marketing departments are almost certainly the leading example of this: The excellent Scott Brinker has been tracking the vast explosion of apps in this category, going from about 150 in 2011 to a staggering 7,000+ in 2019. What’s more, the churn in the category is astonishing, with 83% of marketers ripping and replacing key apps each year. Other functions are seeing similar proliferation of choice as I’ve shown in the past (and they’re often very good options indeed), though not quite to the degree that marketing groups are experiencing.
  • A strong desire and legitimate need to have a more integrated, centralized, simplified, and streamlined set of digital workplace tools. The above trends are driving a strong inclination — even an imperative in many organizations I speak with — to create a center of gravity for digital work. This is where apps, data, and people are brought together as much as it makes sense and where functionality can be more easily accessed and used (and searched), without switching between hundreds of apps or importing/export data all day or struggling to get co-workers to join and adopt yet another new app, service, channel, or collaboration tool. I’ve called this the digital workplace hub, and something like it is needed, though arguments have been made (by me as well) that mobile devices and their operating systems are ultimately heading in this direction. Enterprise apps such as Slack, Box, and others have increasingly managed to create large numbers of integrations to business systems that workers can use, though said workers are not actually trained for the most part how to benefit from or use these emerging hubs.
  • Design is absent from the overall digital employee experience. We simply haven’t used employee experience as the lens to consider what we should do, and moreover, we haven’t had the tools or composable apps to achieve a more designed experience. With the widespread rise of microservices and easy-to-integrate online apps via APIs, this is now all changing. We are now able to carve out and bring together the features, experiences, and journeys from most of our IT systems into a more comprehensible design that’s better designed (though, never finished and very much co-designed with individual workers, who already do most of their employee experience design day-to-day.
  • The need for digital workplace, and consequently now employee experience, to reflect a wider range of an employee needs, to drive overall engagement, which digital tools are actually very capable of delivering. I often say that nothing is worse that hiring smart people and then giving them poor tools to do their job, or just as bad, a terrible overall employee experience. We simply have to do much better with design of our employee experiences.
  • Limited tools, platforms, models, or prior experience to dealing with all of this in our industry. To be clear, we are in uncharted waters here. Never has the digital workplace or employee experience landscape ever been anything close to as large or complex as it is now, and it will only get worse for most. While I am tracking some early lessons learned, new tooling, and initial planning/design frameworks, we are in early days. As with most of digital, we will all have to get very good at complexity management at high scale.
  • High levels of technical debt and insufficient willpower or support to comprehensively address the core issues. I’ve talked about issues of ever-faster accumulating technical debt before, and it can’t be forgotten how much this hold positive change back. Cloud will help for a while, but new architectures are going to be required.

How Will We Overcome These Challenges?

What is IT, and indeed, HR and the whole organizations due to address these very considerable obstacles and headwinds? That is the question. I’ve argued that the methods that we ar led to by the concept of Design for Loss of Control will be key. I believe in this more now, than ever before.

People will also be key to this. While cultural change will be the hardest and take the most time, we don’t have to wait for it. Harnessing and enabling change agents who are hungry to improve their local digital workplaces and employee experience will provide a lot of the scale and local change that we need. Other techniques are emerging, such as digital adoption platforms. I am actually very hopeful that we’ll get to a much better place, but not until we’ve learned a lot of those hard lessons. I’ll be surveying our BT150 digital leaders en masse early this year to see what they’re doing to improve this state of affairs. I’ll release the data when I have it.

Until then, we have to take what we’ve already learned to heart and apply it: Use employee experience as the master lens over it all, and use exponential methods to realize it. Collaborate with everyone in our organizations that we’ll need to make it a reality. Measure and improve it often. Be inclusive, and don’t overcontrol. Good luck.

Additional Reading

Creating the Modern Digital Workplace and Employee Experience

How to Develop the Minimum Viable Employee Experience

Tech Foundation for Employee Experience: An Integrated Stack

Four Strategic Frameworks for Digital Transformation

Collectively, the world of business and IT just isn’t learning about effective ways to digitally transform nearly as quickly as it could be or should be. However, as we reflect on previous efforts, we can begin to see why this is: Lack of good storytelling, inadequate structuring for speed and agility, poor sharing of effective best practices harvested from hard-won industry experiences, or having these lessons collected together into understandable and applicable frameworks that reflect the realities of how hard large scale digital change really is.

We almost universally know now we must adapt to the digital future, to change and grow. But how best to do it remains the top question.

We’ve also learned along the way there are numerous submerged obstacles to digital transformation that won’t be denied and must be overcome before we can really even get started. Sometimes, as they say, we must first go slow to go fast later.

Stubborn and long-standing issues related to technology like technical debt or poor master data posture, to name just two, threaten to derail efforts before they even start. Issues related to the nature of people take up the rest, and can sometimes seem intractable.

Four Frameworks to Describe and Drive Digital Transformation

Consequently, in my work advising and/or leading digital transformation efforts, I’ve developed and refined four key frameworks built out of years of repeated use and validation in organizations around the world. These reflect many of the central issues that I believe we’ve learned that we must address and then codified them into a plan that most organizations can execute against. The motivation: I’m asked for what frameworks to use for digital transformation more and more frequently these days. So I thought it would be useful to share them along with some key insights in how they were captured.

An Adaptable Framework for Digital Transformation by Dion Hinchcliffe

The Adaptable Digital Transformation Framework. This originally came from my exploration of the organizational culture issues and long-term journey with digital transformation. It’s also one of my oldest and most seasoned frameworks.

This framework reflects at its core an ongoing cycle of (hopefully, self) disruption, refinement, growth, and renewal, backed by key pillars including culture change, leadership, goals/roadmap, business redesign, communications, education, and skill building. It also makes the key point that emergent innovation is perhaps one of the biggest outcomes, enabled by the key digital era technique of designing for loss of control, such as critical strategy of turning your business into an open platform that others can build on at scale.

A Digital Transformation Initiation Framework. I used to get asked more often than now about how to get started with digital transformation than I do today (as the majority of organizations have already begun in some way.) This framework focuses mostly on the first 100 days of an organization-wide effort and reflects the key activities that must occur.

If there is something I’d tweak about this now it’s the “honesty assess” task in the first column. I’d underscore it far more. That’s because most organizations aren’t going far enough in the deeply reflective examination and soul-searching they must conduct early-on at every level to understand what they’re really facing when it comes to digital change and adaptation. This step must be particularly emphasized in the framework or organizations will struggle to even start the journey. Technical debt and master data barriers are just the start on the technology side. Culture, inclination, skill, and talent are bigger issues and are softer human ones that are very challenging to resolve. For many organizations, these obstacles will take far more than 100 days to overcome.

Other than that emphasis, I’m pleased with the current state of this framework, even if too many organizations don’t take the cultivating and full-scale activation of change agents nearly to the level they should.

Modern Digital Leadership Unleashed by Network Effects: Digital Transformation

A Leadership Framework for Digital Transformation. More of a process flow view than a prescriptive view on how leadership should go about digital transformation, this framework is useful for showing how critical it is for executives and digital change leaders are responsible for defining a new business future state, rich in new products and services in the realm of customer experience and digital platform. The major change I’d make today is that recent data now shows that the CEO is now the leader most often involved in driving forward enterprise-wide digital transformation, and I’d position it so in this picture.

The Digital Transformation Target Model: Customer Experience, Employee Experience, and Supplier Experience

The Digital Transformation Target Model. Less of a framework and more of a description of the transformation journey from silos of function (marketing, sales, delivery, operations, customer service, R&D/innovation) to the three main experiences that must result from a successful digital transformation. Right now, customer experience is the focus, with employee experience a distant second, but supplier experience is finally bringing up the rear and becoming a genuine conversation. I’d not make many changes to this view based on recent lessons learned, and organizations should take this view deeply to heart in their efforts in digitization.

Frameworks: A Living Artifact of Digital Transformation Knowledge

One unfortunate fact is that organizations often developed or adapt their frameworks from the material they encounter, such as the ones above. But they fail to make it a living artifact that captures lessons learned and teach those that must join in and continue the journey.

Thus, if there is a lesson learned above all, is that as digital transformation becomes a long-term journey that organizations will remain on as long as they exist, they must do a much better job in capturing, codifying, and spreading the learning of what works and what doesn’t, as it changes and evolves through time. In fact, learning is ultimately the primary activity of digital transformation, so any successful effort will tend to emphasize it and capture it in their own frameworks.

Additional Reading

The Digital Power Values for The New C-Suite: The Modern Mindset of the CEO, CIO, CMO, CDO, CCO

Why IT Leaders Struggle with Digital Transformation

The Leadership Challenges of Digital Transformation | The Conference Board

Why Microservices Will Become a Core Business Strategy for Most Organizations

As an industry, we have collectively returned to that eternal debate about what constitutes a largely technical evolution versus when an important digital idea becomes a full-blown business trend. This has happened before with Web sites, e-commerce, mobile applications, social media, and other well-known advances. It can be hard to remember that at first these were looked at as mostly technology sideshows. Yet they all went on to become serious must-have capabilities on the business side.

Microservices is now a current topic of this debate, as the overall approach is perhaps the most strategic technology trend that’s come along in quite some time. First, a brief definition: Microservices provide a well organized digital structuring of our business capabilities that are exposed to stakeholders who need what our organizations can do, and are usually accessed via open APIs. The concept is now poised to — sooner or later — become the primary digital collaboration fabric with all our enterprise data, IT systems, 3rd party developers, business parters, suppliers, and other stakeholders.

So, you read it here first: Microservices are how most organizations will eventually conduct the majority of their business, internally and externally.

Yet there is still considerable debate and confusion about whether microservices are merely just slightly more elegant network plumbing of our digital systems, of if they actually represent the primary conduit for operating our organizations. I fall in the latter camp, as this platform way of thinking in general has steadily emerged as the leading model for composing and integrating networks of systems and organizations. Don’t get me wrong: We had SOA, Web services, and APIs before — where I once posited that this would turn into a global service phenomenon, which it has — but these each had key details missing or not quite right. At this time, microservices does appear to be the best model we have, honed and culled from over a decade of thousands of organizations experimenting with various approaches.

I am now also clearly seeing from many of my CIO and IT contacts that developing a microservices strategy is rapidly becoming a key priority this year. Not sure that this is broadly the case? Just take a look at the recent JAX Enterprise IT priorities survey, which shows that microservices are currently the 3rd leading IT priority, nearly eclipsing the big trend on the block, cloud computing, one of the other hottest IT topics of recent years.

Yet microservices are often conflated with concepts like APIs, for which there is indeed a considerably close relationship, and so can often be relegated to the ‘we’ve been here already’ bin.

Why the sudden popularity and interest in what appears to simply be a more refined technique to easily integrate and communicate between digital systems? For almost all the same reasons that the Business of APIs and the API Economy had their days in the sun: Microservices take so many of the lessons learned in creating more composable, reusable, and platform-centric version of our digital organizations, strips them down to their very basics in terms of design and consumption, and then places them at the very center of how our organizations operate. (Note: Not everyone would agree at the strategic level that microservices should be designed and offered at the business domain or architecture level but many, including myself, do.)

Naturally, the question is why would we do this, and why would it be just about the most important thing we could do to enable a host of vital business activities and outcomes? Put simply, microservices hold the promise of truly unleashing the greatly underutilized assets of our organizations, both strategic and tactical. These assets include everything from data to talent to innovation, and up until now, we’ve been doing it piecemeal and without a real enterprise-wide design (though I’m cautious about overly top-down efforts here as well.)

Microservices: Building Blocks of the Modern Digital Value Chain

Microservices, by virtue of offering a well-structured way to engage and integrate with the world at large in scalable, digital terms, now appear to hold the answer to enabling faster digital transformation, lowering our levels of of tight coupling and technical debt, and substantially increasing much needed levels of IT integration. More centrally to business impact and growth, they also make it possible for us to build and cultivate bigger and more robust digital ecosystems with our stakeholders. This includes 3rd party developers and business partners to our very own workers and customers.

For me, I first saw the writing on the wall several years ago when I was helping develop the API strategy for the CIO of one of the largest organizations in the world. We had just completed an all-day workshop studying the benefits of opening up systems and data more simply and easily to make them as consumable as possible. I stressed these key points: 1) Open APIs make it far easier to create and innovate on top of existing IT and data, 2) they make it easy to create additional value many times over through nearly effortless integration between systems, 3) they achieve this asynchronously and highly cost effectively by systematically designing a high leverage and productized point of global interaction upfront, instead of hundreds of expensive point-to-point integrations over time. Upon reviewing this, the CIO suddenly sat back, the light clearly having come on, and said, “I get it now. The logical conclusion of all of this is that we need to provide a URI for every piece of data in our organization.” He was exactly right.

Put simply, this means that every element of enterprise data would have a unique link to it through a well-defined interface, which anyone can easily find and use to (yes, securely) access it and update it if appropriate. As I’m fond of saying, civilization advances when formerly difficult things become easier. This is exactly the vision behind microservices: Build and provide an incredibly simple and straightforward way of exposing our businesses in a highly useful and constructive manner so that the effort to connect systems into value chains becomes essentially near zero in practical terms.

Mindset: What Would Happen If Anyone Could Build Anything On Your Business?

The question I then put to those still trying to understand all this is the following: If we could access all our enterprise data simply and easily and could then integrate systems together with just a few lines of code, what could we do this with power? Virtually anything we can dream of, with almost no economic, technical, organization, or political barriers to achieving whatever we — or, and this is the big key, others — could dream of doing with our systems and data.

Because once strategic microservices that enable this are operational, then anything is possible. That’s because virtually all of our enterprise data can be reached, it can be harnessed, analyzed, and it can flow through to wherever it needs to be to extend and empower the stakeholder/customer experience. In fact, it’s the most potent way we know of yet to create and capture shared value and to do this so efficiently that literally orders of magnitude more high value integrations, connections, and innovations will take place (see: How Amazon Web Services makes most of Amazon’s profit.)

So why hasn’t this happened except in organizations at the very leading edge of the digital maturity curve? Because it takes 1) an understanding of the vital — even existential — importance of doing so in order to rapidly gather around a vibrant ecosystems of app creators, integrators, partners, suppliers, customers, and stakeholders and 2) the pre-emptive removal of the aforementioned economical, technical, organizational, and political barriers to doing so. In short, creating microservices, though they themselves are profoundly elemental network-accessible business capabilities to our organizations, takes real work, much of it consisting of softer, non-technical obstacles in the realm of culture, mindset, inclination, and leadership.

We already see examples of this happening at the enterprise vendor level. A particularly compelling example of a global set of microservices that expose much of what an organization does is Microsoft Graph, along with their microservices-friendly Service Fabric. While some will quibble with whether MS Graph is a set of microservices in the pure sense, the point is this: Much of what Microsoft offers its customers via its products is accessible within a well-organized enterprise-class set of data services. This is strategic to the point that Sayta Nadella has even called Microsoft Graph their “most important bet”, for all the previously cited reasons.

Microservices are also well established at some of the leading organizations in the world, including Amazon, Netflix, Uber, and a good many others. Less clear is traditional enterprise adoption at the strategic level, though my personal anecdotal evidence is that this is now very much underway in a growing number of organizations. Another proof point of expected growth is that business consulting firms like Deloitte are seriously talking about microservices as enablers for open banking and other industry transformations.

Microservices and Business: The Future

However, in today’s extremely fast-moving world, coming to the conclusion through a largely accidental and piecemeal route that microservices are the future will simply take too long from a competitive standpoint. This will result in a very much less than optimal set of services for your stakeholders. Thus, my advice on microservices in the enterprise is currently this:

  1. Most organizations should now begin a concerted effort to create an enterprise-wide set of microservices. And do it as a part of an overarching business strategy.
  2. This effort should be decentralized but a centrally coordinated effort. To be used to identify and design needed microservices.
  3. A commitment must be made to be in the business of integration and dynamic digital value chain building. Half measures have long-doomed efforts at SOA, APIs, developer networks, etc.
  4. Use design thinking to understand the needs of microservices consumers, then meet them. Understanding what the needs are, and being deeply empathetic to key issues like ease-of-use, performance, and the right to build a 3rd party business on them is key.
  5. Operate your microservices like your core business. Because they soon will be. Invest in them, advertise them, evangelize them, encourage usage, support them, and generate revenue with them.

A growing number of organizations I work with, including most recently one of the largest federal government agencies in the U.S., are now fully cognizant that most of their business will soon be conducted through digital channels. That aforementioned agency is already doing over a quarter of its business through APIs, and expects it will be over half in the next few years. They believe moving from data-based APIs to business-oriented microservices is their next task to go to the next level. So should it be for most organizations.

For the enterprise, achieving success with microservices is certainly possible through a patchwork of department APIs that are designed and operated without an overall business strategy, design, or structure. Or we can adopt a holistic microservices approach to create a more uniform, rational, consistent, and contextual set of open digital capabilities that also forms the basis of business strategy and architecture for the organization. The story is unfolding rapidly, and as I mentioned, I’m seeing an all-time high interest in microservices at the most strategic IT levels. Now that story must be told, understood, and realized on the business leadership side as well.

Update on September 20th: A few commenters have noted that they don’t think that most organizations believe microservices and APIs are actually viewed as business strategy, much less core to it. However, supporting many of the assertions I make above, I recently encountered a recent study from Cloud Elements. Their 2018 integration survey (which included 400+ companies, 27 industries with 26 outside of tech including finance, communications, engineering, and transportation on 6 continents) reported that 61% found APIs to be critical to their business strategy, and 85% fundamental:

APIs (open access to microservices) is Essential to Business Strategy

Additional Reading

My current Astrochart for the New C-Suite: Microservices figures prominently as a key C-level technology and business strategy

A Discussion of the Past and Future of Web APIs with Dion Hinchcliffe | InfoQ

How can businesses keep up with tech change today? | ZDNet

Designing the Digital Workplace for the End-to-End Employee Experience

As digital becomes instrumental to virtually every aspect of how we do our work in organizations today, two parallel and closely related concerns have joined the industry discussion. These two concerns, workforce engagement (which technology can very much help with) and the employee journey, have risen as urgent topics and joined the overall conversation about the needed capabilities of our work environments. This is because the designs of our future digital workplaces will so deeply inform and define these issues.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that most enterprises are still not adequately addressing how to effectively develop and maintain a straightforward and effective approach to technology enablement of the most important activities in the workplace. The proximate cause is sheer complexity as well as experiential noise, mostly of too much information with too little filter. Yet ironically, our businesses actually need to incorporate more technology and data into work procsses, not less, to do our jobs better and evolve the organization.

Thus, the way workplace technology is selected, provided, situated, and supported as a whole has proven generally insufficient to the task of addressing the trio of concerns I’d outlined above. We also have some significant new headwinds that aren’t helping and must be addressed constructively: Pronounced channel proliferation and fragmentation as well as an explosion of apps that run or better enable the business, especially in the mobile space. We generally need these applications, but not when their isolation (most don’t connect well to other systems) and fragmented data creates cognitive overload or involves too much effort for us to effectively use.

The Digital Transformation of the Workplace for End-to-End Employee Experience

Thus I still see many too many workers that in their day-to-day jobs still have to focus on spending much of their time feeding their work systems manually, via import/export and numerous other means, cobbling together an ad hoc experience across dozens of apps, just to prepare to begin their jobs for the day, instead of focusing on the more strategic higher-order knowledge work at hand.

The bottom line: Most practitioners I speak with believe there is plenty of room to improve this situation considerably, but aren’t generally sure how yet. Because of this unclear path forward, most of workplaces are still not expending any real effort in developing a more workable and usable overall employee digital experience. This is a major lost opportunity and it ultimately fails to serve our workers, our organizations, and our customers in vital ways. What’s more, it’s only going to become more of a challenge in the near future as IT continues to proliferate in every part of our enterprises.

Yet I do find that some of the solution(s) to this situation — and which will take real vision, commitment, and sustained change to realize — do exist in early form and are increasingly at hand.

Reconciling digital workplace with employee experience

To address all this, a while back I suggested that we were going to have to develop multi-layered strategies based on one or two experience hubs to cope with the increasingly dense and rich landscape of digital workplace tech. Sooner, rather than later, that we’re going to have to make the user experience, data experience, and community experiences more connected, holistic, and integrated, into some form of better integrated whole that probably looks like a) an enterprise social network, b) an intranet platform, or c) other experience platform where the employee digital experience can be better designed, orchestrated, simplified, aggregated, and connected to the apps and data needed to get work done.

I still believe this, but I also now realize that even with this we’re still neglecting the overall picture of employee experience, something that human resources (HR) has long focused on but that IT generally has not, even though our workplaces have inexorably become more and more digitized.

The opportunity is clear: By apply coherent purpose and design to the full end-to-end employee experience (pre-hire, employment, and post employment) — yet also proactively allowing ‘eccentric activity’ all around the margins that will drive needed the digital competition for new ways of working (and therefore rapid forward progress) — we can simplify, streamline, and direct the design of our workplaces (digital and physical) as it relates to technology to realize a far better employee experience.

To be clear, we won’t — and can’t — design or control the entire employee experience. That’s simply not possible, nor desirable, in today’s highly complex, fast changing, and sophisticated operating environments. Instead, we’ll use a design for loss of control mindset to transform the employee experience while focusing on the major use cases and employee journeys that matter most, while letting local change agents pioneer new ideas around the edge.

Using Design Thinking and Digital Workplace Strategy to Design and Develop a Better Employee Experience

To realize this change we’ll need to make digital workplace a higher order design journey with close partnership between HR and IT (really, in my projects, it’s mostly had to be the CIO and CHRO, who almost exclusively have the purview to mandate bringing together employee experience of every kind under a single umbrella.) Organizations that go from an accidental digital workplace to a more designed one will have much better results with their overall employee experience as well as targeted use cases (typically sales, project management, operations, product development) that have both high impact and strategic significance to the organization.

I’ll be exploring this confluence of the three main organizational experiences (worker, customers, and supplier) increasingly as part of my work in understanding the digital leadership issues in the enterprise. I believe these must be the primary focus of our organizations going forward, and addressing one helps address the others.

Catch me in person: You also can join me in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on May 21st, 2018 to further this discussion as I explore how to apply design thinking and digital workplace strategy to end-to-end employee experience from my latest digital workplace project efforts.
Engage Workshop, Rotterdam, Netherlands with Dion Hinchcliffe and Ellen Feaheny on Digital Workplace and End-to-End Employee Experience