Technology Isn’t Enough to Empower Employees, Even in a Digital World
Over the last 10 years, a basic shift has occurred from an IT-deployment view of the world of big systems and even bigger projects toward a people-centric and user-oriented view of hardware, information, and human collaboration and networking. Consumers have adapted rather quickly to this shift: If it is not useful, delete the app, the data, and the humans we choose not to network with.
While consumers are free to pick and choose the technology they will buy, the information they will access, and the degree to which they will network and with whom, managers and employees within companies are more constrained by the processes, structures, functions, systems, and technology the company invests in and deploys over time. So we have a fundamental dilemma: How must leaders align and transform their legacy business to take full advantage how people, information, and IT capabilities can interact in a rapidly changing, digital world?
Clearly, business managers and CIOs are lagging. They are still transitioning to a world where employees have the wherewithal to use information to positively impact individual, team, and company performance. We call this view “the power to know, share, and act,” and it has three interrelated dimensions.
The first dimension has to do more and more with how well people in a company collaborate internally and externally. It is driven by shared purposes and depends on the maturity of people to be honest and truthful with each other and transparent in learning from mistakes and failures. It requires building trust to share individual and collective knowledge and in being pro-active in discovering and using knowledge to impact performance. These standards for collaboration, of course, are unevenly practiced at companies where command and control and siloed cultures still exist. While the power to collaborate is less tangible and visible to many managers, we believe that it is increasingly a competitive differentiator between individuals, teams, and companies.
The second dimension is the power to discover, manage, and use information for individual and group problem solving, innovation, and decision making. Here we get to the essence of how people sense, collect, organize, maintain, and process data to effectively use information in companies. Increasingly, this element is becoming an essential foundation for leveraging digital technologies and impacting business performance. Information-oriented business models are incorporated in many digital companies right from their inception but are more difficult to develop and scale in large, established companies.
Think about the challenges that a global company like GE faces when CEO Jeff Immelt is trying to incorporate the “industrial internet” across its diverse businesses and on a scale that can transform a company that generates revenues of over $150 billion. How and will the GE corporate culture incorporate the power to “informate” its products, services, and solutions for business customers to grow the bottom and top lines of the company globally for shareholders in the next five years?
The third dimension is the power to use digital technologies in meaningful and differentiated ways for customers, employees, suppliers, and other partners. How well does the company use these tools for innovation, decision making, business-process design, and operations not just internally but also in its eco-system? The good news for leaders of established companies is there are many digital tools available and there are numerous examples of how digital companies have creatively used them across most service, product, and process-oriented industries globally.
The bad news is the tools can now be used and sourced by any company that has access to the internet and the old IT-deployment (or “design to build”) paradigm that still exists at most companies accustomed to forcing big systems on users will not work in a “design for use” digital world where employee’s needs come first. Again, while there is evidence of a shift in enterprise IT to more user-centric and agile ways of developing and deploying apps, the world of corporate IT is dominated by legacy infrastructures, hardware, systems and, unfortunately, some IT people.
Leadership teams serious about giving their people the power to know, share, and act in an increasingly digitally-enabled business world must overcome these challenges:
Deepening their own knowledge and commitment. From what we have observed in our executive education courses, we believe that executives at many companies lack both the knowledge of what digital transformation of their businesses will require and a commitment to changing their organizations’ cultures.
Creating a cadre of IT managers attuned to the new digital world. Deploying new technologies alone will not guarantee that people throughout the organizations harness the power of those technologies. It will also require learning how to use those technologies to collaborate and manage and act on information in radically new ways. To help in this transformation, the IT function will have to shed its enterprise IT mindset and embrace a user-centric view of the world. Perhaps this is the time, at last, that the “I” in CIO gets the attention and focus it deserves.
Transforming legacy IT. This is no longer a choice companies have; it is a competitive necessity. The front- and back-office systems of digitally enabled companies must be joined together. Historical distinctions between front- and back-office systems and processes must give way in a digitally enabled business world.
Measuring and developing employees’ information capabilities. Workers’ power to know, share, and act can be measured and developed in a digital context. However, business leaders must be committed to understanding how mature or immature their information-oriented culture is within a company and what steps they can take to improve it.
The discovery and deployment of digital technology often overshadows the human dimension of how people collaborate to share knowledge and insight, manage and use information, and effectively use digital tools to impact their performance and the company’s. Leaders must step up to the challenges of making these elements of going digital visible and actionable.