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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tactical improvements to existing ways of working

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

Strategic Benefits of Strategic Workforce Collaboration with Enterprise Social Networks

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

Supporting tacit interactions: Complex, highly variable problem solving

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

Tacit Interactions: Last Bastion of Productivity Improvements for Social Business

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

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

Re-imagining institutional practices: Fundamentally rethinking business

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

Rethinking Institutional Practices with Social Buiness

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

The business case for digital progress

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

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

Update: Adding the 25% overall productivity stat for enterprise social networks from MIT-SMR.

Additional Reading

Digital Priorities for the C-Suite in 2015

The Role of the CIO in Digital and Social Business Transformation

How Leaders Can Address the Challenges of Digital Transformation

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

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

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

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

The three new categories of digital collaboration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The emergence of unified collaboration

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

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

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

Additional Reading:

How to Deliver on a Modern Enterprise Collaboration Strategy

Realizing Effective Digital Collaboration in the Enterprise

Rethinking Work in the Collaborative Era

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