By Gloria Lombardi

Every organisation should be developing their digital workplace. It’s not about one, single solution, but about understanding all the many and varied tools and digital experiences staff need and have when working. Leaders and managers should understand that data is an asset, and should be looking for ways to use business intelligence to inform decisions and create new opportunities. The business needs pushing in new directions, but strategy and decisions need to be supported by relevant information, and considerate of employee productivity and satisfaction.

Yet here we are, 18 years into the new century, and many companies still don’t know how to define, manage, or develop their digital workplace. Too often, internal processes are antiquated, relying on laborious manual steps. Worse still, managers fail to grasp the true meaning of ‘transformation’, and don’t fully consider the people and process changes required when new technologies are deployed.

“Management doesn’t care very much about the digital environment of employees. Strangely, they care more about the physical environment but the digital workplace has been massively neglected. Senior managers pay no or little attention to their the intranet,” says intranet maverick and worldwide experienced consultant, Gerry McGovern.

MARGINALIA spoke with McGovern to explore what organisations should be doing to ensure they create an effective, 21st century digital workplace. In this interview, McGovern suggests a radical change of leadership style and organisational culture, which puts the individual to the centre of attention. He gives practical examples, and also shares some emerging trends coming to the workplace.

GL: What is holding organisations back when it comes to their ability to create a digital workplace that employees find easy to use?

GM: The core problems are lack of management, focus, and engagement. There is a historical lack of respect from management for employees. Employees are given poor systems and expected to understand how and when to use them, even when things take longer and they can’t see the benefit.

If we compare the quality of internal versus external digital tools – enterprise software versus public consumer software – they are like night and day. There’s a vast difference in the quality of the experience they deliver.

Management doesn’t care very much about the digital environment of its employees. Strangely, they care more about the physical environment but the digital workplace has been massively neglected. Senior managers pay no or little attention to the intranet; so employees struggle with subpar software and become disengaged, partly, because the digital tools they’re forced to use make everything so arduous and have steep, and costly, learning curves.

GL: What do employees need and want from their digital workplace?

GM: Employees expect just the basics from a digital workplace. People have been shown by Amazon, Google, and even Twitter, how easy things can be. So, they just expect things to work and to be relatively simple. They certainly don’t expect to have to deal with a torturous, horribly designed, IT system.

Most organisations are not delivering the essentials, and so employees are frustrated. It’s essential that information and processes are up-to-date and accurate. But the ability to manage and make information findable in most organisations is still terribly poor. It’s down to a lack of management; there are no quality controls, and no processes for removing out-of-date and irrelevant information from the intranet, the document management system, or the various project management ‘systems’. Metadata isn’t used in a consistent manner, to make information findable. People think that they just need to buy a search engine to solve all their problems, but content and the search engine needs good management. It’s the maintenance of standards and day-to-day management that’s missing from the digital workplace.

GL: What types of organisational models could help companies thrive in this and the next decade? Are you seeing any emerging trends?

GM: New organisational models are indeed beginning to emerge. Everybody talks about collaboration, which is more than a practice; it’s actually a journey to a new model. A collaborative approach to organisation is at the other end to hierarchy; I think traditional, strict, hierarchical organisations are not fit for purpose in the digital economy. They are too slow, too cumbersome, and they don’t create the desired results in many business situations.

More collaborative types of decision making are emerging. There’s a different model of management that is much more focused on evidence and much less on traditional hierarchy and ego. Leadership becomes more humility driven. The management structure is more data driven, more flexible, and adaptable. Those flexible organisations have an obsession with simplicity and reducing complexity. They have a constant strategic focus on simplifying the life of the employee and internal processes.

GL: What should traditional organisations do to become more future-ready?

GM: Focus on less, and do it much better. Improve the tasks of the employee – whether it’s collaboration or product development or whatever it might be.

Focus on the crucial task, what I call the ‘top task’ of the employee, and streamline it in a iterative model via continuous improvement based on the evidence of the worker’s ability to actually do those tasks. So, manage based on the outcomes of individual rather than the ‘opinions’ of the manager. That is a real shift.

Understand what is critical to employees to do their job on a day-to-day basis. Then, measure it through an observation of the user experience, the employee experience: observe what people are doing and record the evidence, for example, noticing that, ‘50 percent of our sales reps cannot find an up-to-date sales presentation’. Report the metrics around the ability of the workforce to do critical tasks in their day-to-day work – show management and stakeholders what works and what doesn’t work for employees

GL: You mentioned ‘humility’ earlier. Similarly, a business professor at the University of Virginia Darden School, Edward Hess, believes that, ‘humility is the new smart’, highlighting the criticality of this skill in the technology-driven age.

How can you actually teach humility to organisations?

GM: It can be difficult to teach humility. But if organisations constantly focus on the evidence, they can better create a sense of humility in some people. For example, saying, ‘We tested what you said would work. Actually after testing it, we found out that it didn’t work’. By relying on evidence, people can avoid ego traps and opinion-driven decision making.

So, constantly test and observe to see if any particular idea works or not. Often, when people test their ideas in real situations, they realise that those ideas are not, after all, quite as smart as they thought they were. Theories need testing, rather than trusting blindly.

The opposite of humility is the ‘godlike’ sort of management structure, where people just make decisions based on their gut instinct, and rely on their position of authority They do not look for, or need, evidence.

In contrast, a ‘humanity-based’ management model comes about when individuals constantly seek evidence to make the right decisions. We will never have all the information, nor all the answers – the world is too complex. But we can make better decisions when we use our experience in-sync with evidence, and alongside our colleagues – we need diversity, not group-think, when making big decisions.

We need to know how to know rather than to know the actual answer. We can know how to get the answer. We don’t necessarily know the answer straight off. Jean Piaget, the developmental psychologist, said “Intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do” – we need to be humble enough to know when we don’t know stuff, and intelligent enough to know how to find out more.

GL: Can you share some examples of organisations that have embraced a culture of humility?

GM: Successful companies are emerging with newer, better models for engaging employees and empowering them.

Google, for example, does not have the classical organisational hierarchy. They are much more consensus driven and collaborative; they have flatter structures. There is less dictatorial management than in traditional companies, which are harder to change because they often have 40 or 50 years of management legacy.

Facebook is another example. A Product Manager at Facebook gave a talk once, saying that managers at Facebook have no authority. ‘They cannot tell anybody to do anything. What they are good at is influence, and they are always looking for the evidence’.

Amazon is a strange type of environment: it is ‘difficult’ in some respects, but very driven, and with a culture of evidence as well. They are constantly testing and experimenting, and making decisions based on what is actually working and not working.

Zappos is another interesting example of a culture that is quite different from a traditional, ego-based, hierarchy structure.

GL: This is a period of time when everyone talks about predictions for the New Year. And MARGINALIA is about the future of work. We certainly don’t have a crystal ball, and, using your humility argument, we should say that we don’t have all the answers.

But do you have any expectations or views to share with MARGINALIA for what could happen in 2018 regarding the evolution of the world of work, and the digital workplace, in particular?

GM: Generally speaking, it’s interesting to observe what has happened with Slack over the last couple of years. Slack shows how digital workplace systems do not have to suck; internal tools can be relatively easy to use, and useful in the process. Slack brought to us the possibility that we can develop and deploy enterprise systems which are actually useful and easy to use. However, the consumer-oriented user interface may have brought ease of use, but many organisations use and abuse Slack to the extent that people are swamped with notifications and banal conversations. We must remember that new ways of working are needed when we adopt new systems.

An ‘awakening’ is happening inside workplaces. The youngest generations are just much less accepting of the extremely poor quality internal systems that their older colleagues were forced to use. There is almost an internal revolt against horrible systems; they’re simply not willing to accept the low quality tools that have been delivered by the organisation in the past.

In some instances, IT strategy is just ignored and people just find their own tools – often cloud services and mobile apps. If IT and management do not rise to the challenge, they are going to find themselves redundant.

A while back, we had the bring your own device (BYOD). Now we have bring your own technology and software – bring your own everything. So, what’s the purpose of managers if employees have to find the right tools to allow them to collaborate efficiently? What is the future of the IT department if they don’t own or support cloud services?

The trend is continuing: employees are designing their own digital environment, influencing their colleagues’ ways of working, and bypassing traditional management.


Learn more culture change and task-based intranets within the digital workplace directly from Gerry McGovern at his upcoming workshop in London on the 23rd of January 2018.