Using Online Community for Digital Transformation

Driving successful change in a large organization has always been one of the most difficult activities in business. But for those who are principally tasked with carrying their organizations forward into the digital future, they are currently facing perhaps the single most challenging large-scale enterprise activity of our time. One has only to look at the short-list of needed technology adaptations to recognize the true extent of the challenge.

Part of this is because digital itself is so intangible. It’s hard to understand all the moving parts of the vast technology stacks, ecosystems, and platforms that now surround us because it’s hard to discern them. It’s often even harder to understand the diverse needs, perspectives, and skill gaps of the people that have to change along with the technology.

Thus the popular topic of digital transformation has come full circle back to the change process itself, largely because we’ve found our existing toolkit to be entirely unsatisfactory. For example, we already know that the vast majority of strategic change initiatives employing traditional methods don’t succeed. We also have an increasingly good sense of why this is, and a big part of the reason is that centralized processes break in exponential times (see Martec’s Law.) They quickly become overwhelmed by the scale and dynamics of the necessary change processes, which have to keep adapting and updating themselves in near real-time to stay relevant, often in windows that are hardly more than weeks today.

Enabling Digital Transformation at Scale with Online Community

Consequently, we’ve seen steadily emerging models for change that go well beyond the strategic initiative, the center of excellence, or incubator to push out change into a much broader set of minds and hands, far beyond what we’ve normally employed to drive change previously. I now believe that unless organizations greatly expand the notion of who is involved in change, who can drive it, and how they are enabled, empowered, and supported, they will largely underperform with digital transformation.

To determine how scalable digital change can best be realized and figure out what kind of forward-thinking constructs will be required, I’ve been experimenting for the last several years with employing the very same models that we use to engage in the digital world, to cultivate and foster more dynamic change processes. The ideas of social business and online community, which show how the most scalable, cost-effective, and rich model for working is to enable the network to do the work. I’ve now come to understand that in digital transformation, we have to let the network do the work. Put simply, there is no practical way to achieve the pace and breadth of transformation required in exponential times without using exponential tools.

In the last few years, I’ve been using online community as the platform for change, instead of creating traditional centrally-staffed change programs, and found it far more effective in general. I am not the only one that believes this is a key path forward towards new types of highly potent change models. This is an industry-wide discovery and conversation we are beginning to see emerge in general. We have moved beyond the center of excellence model, which we’ve learned soon bogs down and largely fails to address the scope of enterprise-wide change activities, to a new model I’ve called the network of excellence, for lack of a better term.

Realizing that we need to scale change on a platform

I’m not alone in thinking along these lines. For example, well-known management thinker Gary Hamel has been promulgating this very same idea, entirely independently. My industry colleague John Hagel has also been writing about many related concepts, most recently about how we can scale learning in an exponential world. The highly regarded CIO of the Federal Communications Commission, David Bray, spends a tremendous amount of his energy using social media and other channels to talk about how to broadly enable digital change agents and “intrapreneurs.” There are still others exploring this topic as well.

The subject of learning in particular is a vital one to this conversation. That’s because unless we’re prepared to radically restaff our organizations, mass education for the digital era is required to help our organizations as a whole shift our thinking, behavior, and culture. Great communication is essential also, as we’re learning it is the leading success factor in driving effective change. Both of these activities are best realized using today’s modern digital communications and collaboration tools designed for very high scale, leverage, and asynchronicity: Online communities and enterprise social networks.

While I’ve been “experimenting” with new open methods with real transformation efforts in enterprises to the extent I can the last few years, an emerging model for how to structure and wield online communities to drive these kinds of change has begun to present itself. Far from being a proprietary new way of driving large scale change, I now see that this model, and similar ones like it, are the inevitable direction that change will take.

In the very same way that open source software communities eventually transformed how most software was developed and social media revolutionized how most media content was created, and we see the same advances in crowdfunding and other crowdsourcing methods, the very same shift is now happening to our organizations’ change processes. They are becoming more decentralized, more empowering, diverse, and resource rich by using digital connections to enable wide-scale learning, alignment, communications, and execution around a change process. They are even allowing local actors — and often now even external agents (see open APIs, developer networks, hackathons, startup partnerships, etc.) — to pick up the tools, processes, and lessons learned to change their part of the organization.

Early lessons in using online community for digital change

While the methods and approach we are using to connect together change agents in a community to organize around and realize strategic change are very much still emerging, I can say from experience now that the following is generally required:

  • A community platform. This is a digital forum within which digital change agents will collaborate on and effect change, formulating plans, making joint decisions, and carrying out their efforts, often in very self-organized ways.
  • Facilitation. This is by applying what industry colleagues like Rich Millington refer to as strategic community management, actively facilitating the change process, ensuring those who get stuck get the help they need, and empowering, educating, and orchestrating many points of top-down and bottom-up change across the community, and therefore across the organization.
  • Learning. The community as a whole becomes a massive learning repository, a sort of self-documenting and emergent MOOC for digital transformation adapted to the organization, with lessons learned and best practices culled by facilitators and spread to change agents.
  • Empowerment. A community of transformation spreads knowledge, resources, know-how, and collective energy, enabled by sponsorship, capabilities, staff, and a mandate from the highest levels of the organization.
  • Communications. With rapid change comes an absolute requirement for transparency and clear, open communication. These traits are the natural attributes of an online community, as everyone can see what’s happening and why. As I cited above, this is the top factor for successful transformation.
  • Co-creation. The strongest, swiftest change happens is when there is alignment locally and globally on what needs to be done. Then everyone comes together to put together their ideas and resources to drive digital change.

I invite you to collaborate with me as the digital transformation world begins to adopt the same digital forces of open participation that have remade many industries now, and apply them deeply to our practices and frameworks. For just as the old, plodding, limited, and bandwidth-starved methods of central production are no match whatsoever for today’s methods of digital peer production, failure to adapt has very significant competitive and existential consequences. In short, online community is one of the most powerful methods for achieving almost any large-scale human endeavor, and so I’m pleased to see it arrive to help with digital change.

Can most organizations achieve this? Well, we do know that organizations can’t change unless their leaders change with them, so I do hope so.

Postscript: I’d be remiss in not citing Don Tapscott’s excellent work in identifying and promulgating Global Solution Networks as perhaps the most strategic form of using community to drive large scale learning and change at an intra-institutional, consortia, industry, government, and NGO level.

Additional Reading

A change platform is a priority of the CIO in 2016

Going Beyond ‘Bolt-On’ Digital Transformation

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

The Building Blocks of Digital Transformation: Community, Tech, Business Models, and a Change Platform

I’ve been making the argument lately that the single largest obstacle in successful digital transformation is change itself. Surprisingly, the arrival of new technology is generally not the large hurdle to becoming more digital in a meaningful way, though it certainly represents a large and growing learning curve. Yet learning the new technology is manageable by most organizations in my experience, if they have the will to do so.

Finding the right business models can be a bit more of a challenge, but the process of discovering the best ones is increasingly well understood these days. One somewhat ironic lesson is that we’ve also learned that we usually have to build an audience first, often well before we decide on new digital business models, that are centered around some activity or capability of significant shared interest with the market, before we can experiment and find the right path forward in terms of generating value, such as revenue from sales, subscriptions, advertising, etc.

Online Communities Are the Business Construct That Create the Most Value

From my Enterprise Digital Summit 2016 Paris Keynote Deck

Why Digital Needs a New Mindset

It actually turns out the most important and challenging building blocks for digital transformation is people and the processes that can change them. Thinking in digital terms requires a significant shift in mindset, such as designing for loss of control, understanding the power laws of mass connectedness, the startling revelation that the network will do most of the work, and understanding how open participation is the key to unleashing digital value in scale to our businesses.

However, shifting the mindset en masse of the large number people that exist in the average enterprise (i.e. tens or even hundreds of thousands of workers) is not something that can be done to them, but can only be done with them as Euan Semple frequently likes to point out. So, what’s the single best venue in which to engage significantly in a time efficient and sustainable fashion? I now suggest that the most likely and cost-effective vehicle for this that we know today is online community.

The building blocks of digital transformation is a topic that I recently had time to study in depth as I prepared my closing keynote for the always terrific Enterprise Digital Summit 2016 (formerly the Enterprise 2.0 SUMMIT) in Paris this month.

Step 1: Gather Stakeholders into Communities of Digital Change

The fundamental building block of digital transformation is therefore not technology, but people, a much more challenging proposition. However, if we can somehow connect the collective workforce in the organization together in an effective fashsion to begin a shared and dialogue-based process of learning, understanding, experimenting with, and then carrying out the tasks of digital transformation across the enterprise as a much more aligned and self-supporting way, then we are much more likely to succeed. As I’ve discussed, we’ve even started to witness evidence that IT is shifting in this direction steadily, with the rise of empowered change agents and even unexpected source of pre-existing tech change using forces like shadow IT as a key resource for creating decentralized technology adaptation across the organization.

But it all starts with community, for which I believe the evidence is now clear is the most powerful way of organizing human activity and creating shared value yet developed.

Step 2: Assemble a Modern, Market-Facing Technology Stack

From there, we do need to look at the technology lens at what our business does and how it does it. We can no longer realize all tech change ourselves, as our competitors have already learned that the single greatest force for value creation is capturing and wielding community contributions of customers by the millions via mass co-creation, and business partners by the thousands (see APIs + hackathons). I recently summarized the many other emerging enterprise technologies we must consider all the time as well, but the most important ones are customer facing and involved in co-creation.

We therefore must instead now becoming highly competent in building strong and effective architectures of participation, as most digital leaders harness the vast capacity of the Internet to do most of the value creation:

The Digital Business Stack: Marketplace Driven Engagement & Value Creation

Step 3: Create and Nurture Digital Experiments

From there we can combine people-led digital change at scale with a portfolio of digital engagement and experience technologies and processes — that must prominently include market-facing community — to begin creating, launching, and growing healthy and vibrant new products and services. Growing hacking in fact, has become an important new technique used by top Internet companies to ensure early lift and adoption, and has been a key subject of interest by top technology leaders like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. So grow the results of digital transformation this way, then generate revenue:

Digitally Transforming a Business with Growth Hacking, Business Models, and Community

Step 4: Get Serious About Revenue Models

Finally, the last building block is digital business models, which one the service has a successful audience or community, can be experimented with and validated, though certainly some services, such as sharing economy ones, can monetize from the outset, though often at break even levels. Below is a representative list of some of the most common Internet business models, though by no means all the possibilities. For example, there are at least 18 separate known business models for open APIs alone. The high level Internet business models break down like so:

Common Internet Business Models

For a more complete exploration, please view the video of my closing keynote on this subject in Paris on June 2nd, 2016:

Or download a copy of the Slideshare deck that I presented with.

Additional Reading

How IT Can Change For the Digital Era and What Leaders Can Do About It

The digital transformation conversation shifts to how

More Evidence Online Community is Central to the Future of Work

Within the last month, two new industry reports have been released that shed important new light on how we’re going to be organizing and operating our organizations in the coming years. Many of you know my point of view in this regard: Social technology has at this point largely transformed the consumer world, yet the increasingly outdated digital landscape of business frequently continues to rely on creaky and rather limited technologies such as e-mail, document repositories, intranets, file sharing, and so on. So it’s always instructive to see how far we’ve actually come in places, and how much we have left to go.

The first report is The Community Roundtable’s excellent annual State of Community Management for 2016. While I’ll provide a fuller write-up on ZDNet soon, it’s clear from this report that the model of online community continues to rise in prominence and attention as a superior operating model for activities that involve a large number of people that have common interests and need to work together on shared objectives.

As my industry colleague Alan Lepofsky likes to say, without aiming our new digital technologies and cultures purposefully, there is little point.

Key Aspect of the Future of Work: Online Communities Aimed at Shared Purpose

Particularly significant in the report was this year’s exploration on the oft-discussed and little resolved issues of calculating hard return-on-investment (ROI) for community. While in my experience online community is a far superior — albeit still emerging — new way of working for a wide variety of use cases than traditional methods, both internal and externally facing, The Community Roundtable tackled the issue head on in this year’s report to determine ROI from this year’s participants in the survey:

While there is a wide range and many communities do have negative ROI rates that are likely due to their young age, small size or immaturity, many more demonstrate compelling returns that should satisfy stakeholders.

Successful internal communities are more valuable, on average, than their external facing peers and those community programs that addressed both audiences had an ROI in the middle. Overall, communities average an annual ROI of 942% – suggesting that most community managers have nothing to fear from calculating their community’s ROI – remembering that it is the start of an ongoing dialog about value and how to grow it.

The numbers overall are impressive, and shows what I’ve seen consistently: The return on community is not only enough to justify the initial investment and is superior to most competing methods, but is also more than enough to properly fund the ongoing effort with a properly sized team. This especially means dedicated, professional community managers, which are perhaps the top success factor for communities, yet too often neglected in my experience. In short, we can now quantify how online communities and enterprise social networks offer significant value to the typical business. In any case, the numbers make the case on their own:

The ROI of Online Community by Use Case

From here we can see from the data, which Rachael Happe indicated to me recently in a discussion was from their largest sample size yet, is there is serious, immediate, and significant value in both internal and external communities. This continues to validate why online community should be a central plank of your digital strategy, and a core component of your digital transformation efforts.

Also, it’s worth noting that online community is also a key platform for enabling digital transformation, a key topic that came up last week in Paris by many practitioners at the Enterprise Digital SUMMIT, where I was speaking. I’ll explore that issue in more depth as well soon.

The value of social in the back office

The second report is “How social tools can reshape the organization” from the McKinsey Global Institute. Authored by well-known McKinsey partner Michael Chui — whom I finally got to meet recently in New Orleans at the Enterprise150 event — and several co-authors, the report delves into some recent findings on business impact with community and social tools that is worth exploring.

Social Tools and Community Enable Digitization and Performance

Particularly notable was the report’s finding that for any business activity which has been digitized, on average half report that incorporating social improves the digitized process even more, whatever the process. What’s more, specific business activities show a much higher level of improvement if they are digitized and made social, both (see chart above.) These activities include order-to-cash, demand planning, research & development (R&D), supply chain management, and procurement. These aren’t necessary glamorous aspects of our business, like marketing or sales, which are more often associated with social business performance but they are vital and important:

To digitize all processes, both internal and external, the results suggest that social tools can help. For every process where their companies are digitizing and using social tools, respondents agree that social technologies have enabled their use of digital overall. This is true even for the back-office processes where few respondents now say their companies are using social tools. In fact, social’s effect on digitization is greatest for the internal processes where social tools and digital activities are least common.

This data clearly shows that many efforts could be seeking higher levels of easily accessed value in places other than where we’ve traditionally focused. This also means that if you’re already digitizing something, it makes sense to make it social too.

Additional Reading: Enterprises need a (social) platform to drive change

In short, the case of online community is now stronger than ever: More data is available than ever before which shows substantial, sustained, and transformative value can be created by working in more open and highly participative models, as long as we’re sure to connect our activities to purpose. One of the things that struck me most in Paris last week is how many use cases that the latest case studies cite, far beyond simple knowledge sharing and management that used to be the central business case. It’s very encouraging to see our industry reach a new level of maturity and data-based value, though to be sure, there is still much more to do in most organizations.

The Hardest Lesson of Digital Transformation: Designing for Loss of Control

It goes hand in hand with another key principle that sets digital strategy well apart from many other traditional ways of achieving organizational objectives. One of the counterintuitive lessons of digital and social business is that the network itself can and should do the majority of the work, if you’ll only build a little social capital and then enable interested participants — people, in other words — access to a platform that allows the co-creation of shared value at scale. Oh, and yes, you must provide a good motivation for doing so, but they’ll often figure that out too.

By “majority of the work”, I mean that aligned stakeholders in digital platforms that allow participation will help produce literally nearly everything of value to them, from co-creation of content, activities, ideas, to even the very management, governance, and gardening of the digital ecosystem itself. The lesson here is clear from the consumer world where pioneering services such as YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn have long proved the viability and repeatability of this model on a global scale: Today’s most successful open digital platforms create virtually nothing themselves directly. Instead, they have gone through great lengths to provide a carefully constructed platform for their communities of millions and millions to do it indirectly instead.

It’s the asymmetric warfare model for the digital age and far too many organizations do not fully understand how profoundly the rules of business in the digital era have changed. Consequently, they are often at loss on how to lead the organization to better adapt. The test question is this: How can any traditional, internal, do-it-all-the-hard-way model for value creation compete with the hypercharged mass of networked participants — aka social business — that digital savvy organizations have gathering around them and are choreographing to create far richer results, often many orders of magnitude richer than the old guard methods?

The Key to Digital Transformation: Loss of Control

While the consumer space has seen the most success with this model, we now have good evidence that this is happening in the traditional enterprise with organizations like Bosch, Deutsche Bank, and a good number of others, that the same approach is making it into the business world. For the organizations that can fully tap into their stakeholders and inspire them to co-create the future together, nearly anything is possible, and consequently the competitive stakes are unsurprisingly, enormous and have been reshaping industries for the last decade, first media and software companies, and now nearly every industry with the rise of the sharing economy.

But successfully adopting a native digital perspective requires mastering a mindset that traditional management culture is both unfamiliar and rather uncomfortable with. Frankly, of all the top obstacles to digital change, very few are technological. They are almost always barriers created by people, and of the mental barriers, this is perhaps the most foreign concept of all: Deliberately giving up control in a conscious and designed way over your organization’s digital results, while guiding the emergent outcomes in directions that are good for both your business and your stakeholders. As I’ve been clear about before, this very much does not mean all positive control, just the non-essential elements (which admittedly is still most control.)

The motivation for doing so is very clear: Industrial age management structures, while effective (albeit with considerable cost) at producing linear output predictably, actually fail to tap into the lion’s share of potential value. A recent study by Cross, Rebele, and Grant of several hundred organizations only underscores this point:

[The] research we’ve done across more than 300 organizations shows that the distribution of collaborative work is often extremely lopsided. In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance. Their giving mindset and desire to help others quickly enhances their performance and reputation. As a recent study led by Ning Li, of the University of Iowa, shows, a single “extra miler”—an employee who frequently contributes beyond the scope of his or her role—can drive team performance more than all the other members combined.

The key is understanding why this is such a powerful concept and the key to digital business, is realizing that the more control you give up and relinquish to the network, the more value comes back through peer production. A lot more. The secret lies in having something of value in the first place, that can be somehow enriched by others. This is where having a digital platform becomes essential, one that is designed with an effective architecture of participation that opens up your data, processes, distribution channels, supply chain, or anything of value that is digitally connected in some way to your organization.

The good news is that what a successful architecture of participation looks like, at least applied in generic terms, is increasingly well understood for many important digital business activities, even if it surprisingly is missing even today from many views of the digital enterprise, such as this one from McKinsey.

Common Architectures of Participation

Architecture of Participation Target of Open Participation Extended To Typical Value Change/Magnitude
Crowdsourcing Any type of digital content Interested parties 10x-1000x
Working Out Loud Work narrative, process, product Any stakeholders of work output 2x-10x
Affiliate E-Commerce The digital sales funnel Any interested entity with traffic 1.5x-5x
Open APIs Corporate data External partners desiring to innovate with the data 1.5x-100x
App Stores App ecosystem Developers seeking customers/revenue 100x-1000x
Online Customer Service Community Customer issues/problems Those willing to help 1.3x-3x
Digital Change Agents Platform Unmet digital needs in the org Those interesting in solving them 1.3x-3x

What’s worth noting is the powerful amplification/scaling effect that digital architectures of participation have. That’s because the cost of being connected to everyone who is already connected drops, like everything digital, quickly towards zero, as does the cost of creating and operating a platform that provides your carefully exposed points of participation to those stakeholders.

In effect, nearly no older way of working, managing, or doing business can fight the power laws of digital systems, which continually apply exponential forces to make value creating activities much faster, cheaper, higher volume, better quality, and so on.

This then is one of the key drivers to digital transformation and why it has such urgency. To get to the other side, however, requires a major shift in understanding where the majority of business value comes from, how best to capture it in digital markets, and what kind of thinking it require to design products and services that operate in an increasingly peer produced world. In other words, genuine hard work of creating the cultural, process, and organizational shifts that will lead to digital adaptation.

Perhaps most importantly is understanding is that shifts in mindset are the key to entry to digital business in general. When thousands of startups do little but obsess around the clock about how best to use the mass global connectedness we’ve attained with the Internet to achieve the previously unachievable — and most traditional businesses are not — we will almost certainly miss the very opportunity we were trying to accomplish with our old command and control methods. For sure, the jury is still out for many on the digital economy and who will ultimately be the beneficiaries, but to not even understand the game means that organizations are flying blind. And that’s the worst environment to achieve control one can imagine.

Note: I’d be rather remiss in not giving original credit for the Design for Loss of Control meme to the great JP Rangaswami. The concept goes right to the core of how to remove the many significant barriers that hold back digital in most organizations. Startups famously don’t have those blinders build it, the rest of us have to do a lot of relearning, and JP was instrumental in helping us see that.

Additional Reading

Shifting the Meaning of Business Hierarchy to Community

Designing the New Enterprise: Issues and Strategies

How Should Organizations Actually Go About Digital Transformation?

This is now the question that is top of mind in a large number of enterprises today, as speeding up adaptation to rapidly evolving digital markets is now not just a requirement to grow today, but increasingly to survive.

This is not incautious language and I’ve been pointing to the relatively urgent data for several years: One major slip as organizations fully digitize their workforces, supply chains, and externally facing products and services is easily enough to put an organization into significant and potentially permanent decline.

Recently, I’ve seen increasingly precise frameworks and round-ups — such as this great summary by Fabien Osmont — emerging lately on what companies should be doing to prepare for the full-on of digital transformation. One of the latest is BCG’s new transformation process for CEOs looking to make major changes. I’ve further argued that 2015 is the year that digital transformation should be taken on as a first class citizen all the way up the board of directors, something that’s gratifying being borne out in actual practice now.

Initiating Digital Transformation: The Journey for Board of Directors, CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, CMO, and CDO and the Communities

Such depictions of the necessary steps are certainly welcome, but should only be used as a starting point and with a large grain of salt given how much we still have to discover: We are still in the cave painting days of digital, as I like to say, and possibly the single most important activity of the entire effort is to be avid learners of the lessons that result. And then respond quickly to them. If there is a second urgent lesson coming from the stories of digital change, is that swiftly making moves builds momentum and can make leaders almost uncatchable. It’s one of the reasons that continuous delivery is a common component of high performing digital teams.

Another item unfortunately missing from almost all of the many views of digital transformation today, is simply the significant inherent structural barriers to change, including lack of effective mindset for digital. The processes and frameworks almost always greatly under-appreciate how much change — which is rapidly growing — in the digital world, and how poorly prepared, both in terms of scalable, repeatable processes for change and to the organization’s natural inclination to pro-actively seek urgent changes out. Over the last several years, it’s become abundantly that traditional, linear processes just aren’t up to the task, yet that’s what most still prescribe.

The inadequacy of traditional processes for digital change and evolution became obvious years ago when we learned traditional project management fared rather badly when applied to IT and software development in particular. This realization spilled over to many other arenas. New open methods emerged that were much more effective in a fundamental digital arena. These included open source methods, agile development, peer production, crowdsourcing, mass collaboration, social business, devops, and so on. Not coincidentally, each one of these advances ended up involving open, self-organizing collaboration among many well-informed individuals, instead of a few central leaders. And each development was a breakthrough in terms of performance, but confined mostly to digital domains.

Now the same is beginning to happen with business, with new digital era management methods informed how we can better run our organizations. Change agents loosely connected to transformation efforts by networks, as I explored recently, are now the order of the day, skipping past those unwilling or unable to join the organization in building towards the future, finding those most passionate about and willing to lead the change with local knowledge and motivation.

Communities of Change Agents Key to Sustainable Digital Transformation

Organizations, if they even hope to have the bandwidth and capacity to sustain change, which I’d observe, is essentially becoming continuously, must structure their digital transformation effort in a new way. Gone is top-down change. Gone are hulking centralized bureaucracies that have limited ability to effect change across today’s large global organizations. Instead, lightweight nimble networks of change agents across departments, divisions, and teams that align themselves to the organization’s journey is what will be required. Is this the open, crowdsourcing of transformation? Yes, and much more.

Based on a growing number of examples from top companies, I believe it’s now clear that new models and methods are the only real way to sustain change and any transformation process must acquire and wield them at the core of what they do. Leadership is still required to focus, guide, and inspire, but the work must be done by the entire organization (or least the parts most willing to.) I’ve synthesized a model for how this will look above, involving all the key stakeholders in the entire organziation. I encourage your input on how we can improve it based on the latest experiences in the field. I believe it’s an incredibly exciting time to be in business, and it will be a rewarding one for those that apply the right new methods, matched to the contemporary operating environment in which we find ourselves.

Additional Reading

The Strategic Role of Digital Networks in Corporate Leadership Today

The Role of the CIO in Digital and Social Business Transformation

Closing the gap between executives and digital transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The need to greatly augment our IT ‘metabolism’

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

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

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

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

Blazing a new IT trail: Internal competition and change agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Reading:

Going Beyond ‘Bolt-On’ Digital Transformation

Closing the gap between executives and digital transformation

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

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

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

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

Internal and External Digital Chang Factors Impacting the Enterprise Today

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

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

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

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

What Skills will Self-Sustain Digital Workers?

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

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

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

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

Today's Digital Workforce Skills

The Essential Next-Generation Digital Workplace Skills

Working Out Loud

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

Digital Sense Making + Personal Knowledge Management

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

Open Digital Collaboration

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

Related: How to Deliver On A Modern Enterprise Collaboration Strategy

Network Leadership

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

Radical Transparency

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

Digital DIY Know-How

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

Letting the Network Do the Work

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

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

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

Additional Reading:

What is the Future of Work

Rethinking Work in the Collaborative Era

Let The Network Do The Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Reading:

Shifting the Meaning of Hierarchy to Community

The Role of the Leadership in Digital and Social Business Transformation

Designing the New Enterprise: Issues and Strategies

The emerging case for open business methods | ZDNet

What Is the Future of Work?

Going Beyond ‘Bolt-On’ Digital Transformation

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

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

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

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

Enterprise Digital Business Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking Like a Digital Business

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

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

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

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

Additional Reading:

The New Top Level Operating Models of Business

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

Shifting the Meaning of Hierarchy to Community

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

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

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

Management Hierarchy versus Online Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Implications of Networked Work Hierarchies

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

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

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

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

Related: Rethinking How We Transform Our Organizations for the Future