Two problematic areas for today’s organisations are employee engagement and digital transformation.
Although organisations want employees to share knowledge, care about their work, and embrace digital ways of working, they often try to impose these desires on top of the existing culture of work. And attempts to impose culture change from above will always be met with resistance.
The problem is that we have two sets of forces pushing against each other: an outdated, hierarchical view of work based on a 20th century industrial model of organisation, and a ‘socialised’ view of work stemming from a desire to harness the power of online communities and networks.
These two opposing approaches to organisation are fundamentally incompatible, and this is a key reason why many organisations are struggling with digital transformation. Digital provides an entirely new way to approach work, collaboration, and organisation, but if transformation is undertaken with a 20th century industrial mindset then it will not reap the full benefits that digital offers. This is not a new problem, as Cham (2014) notes by referencing the argument made by Marshal McLuhan back in the 1960s:
“If we try to understand digital transformation with an industrial mindset we are ‘walking backwards into the future”
In the hyperconnected 21st century, we should be designing organisations around community, not work. Millenials have grown up in a hyperconnected age, they instinctively participate in a wide variety of communities, and they expect the modern workplace to function in the same way as their connected personal existence. So it is no surprise that they often become quickly disengaged when confronted with bureaucratic, hierarchical organisations using outdated technologies that bear little resemblance to the community-oriented tools to which they are accustomed.
How can we design work around community?
If you look at start-ups, community happens automatically. Everyone knows everyone else, and has a good idea what they are working on. There are never enough people to do the work that needs to be done, so everyone has to help each other out on a daily basis. There is a strong sense of shared purpose, and an urgency that binds the team together. Each employee has to make important decisions under pressure, giving them a strong sense of connection to the vision and purpose of the start-up. Autonomy and initiative are essential.
And most of all, people talk to each other all the time. There is almost no hierarchy to quash the inherent creativity of the team. All ideas regarding how to improve the business are welcomed, discussed, adapted and implemented.
The challenge for larger organistions and businesses is how to reimagine their operational model around principles of community. If we designed our organisations around community, not just around work, things could be very different.
“Putting community at the centre of the organisation fundamentally changes the motivation to do work”
Communities develop around a clear purpose, and this purpose is what drives people to engage with the community. Establishing a clear purpose for an organisation (beyond simply making money for shareholders) is therefore a valuable way of tackling the problem of a disengaged workforce. Designing an organisation as a community turns it into a place where people are emotionally engaged, share knowledge instinctively, and collaborate on shared projects with a strong sense of purpose. And in a knowledge economy, these three factors are fundamental to an effective, engaged, and digitally literate workforce.
Digital transformation represents an attempt to harness the innate human desire to share useful information and participate in purposeful communities. But any digital transformation strategy that focuses on platforms instead of people is almost certain to fail – successful transformation is dependent on understanding what motivates people to participate in communities.
2014 Cham, K.L. “”Virtually An Alternative ? The Medium, The Message and The User Experience; Collective Agency in Digital Spaces and Embodied Social Change”, 5th LAEMOS Colloquium on Organization Studies Constructing Alternatives: How can we organize for alternative social, economic, and ecological balance?, Havana, Cuba http://laemos.com
This post was co-written with Tony Reeves, Digital Research Lead (Customer Experience), The QoE.