The ESN as an engine for Employee Experience Improvement

The ESN as an engine for Employee Experience Improvement

We have worked with enterprise social networks (ESNs) for over 15 years, helping organisations to create a connected context, networks and communities to support new ways of working and overcome the harmful effects of silos.

In Munich this week, at the 15th Social Connections user group event, it was great to see and hear the commitment of HCL to reviving one of the best ESN platforms – (formerly IBM) Connections, – with plans to integrate it better with the popular Microsoft O365 stack and other tools. There were many passionate conversations and ideas about the value these tools can bring as a foundational platform for the connected company.

Despite providing features and use cases that many organisations are still only just starting to get to grips with, ESNs have not yet fulfilled the potential that excited so many of us a decade ago.

Why? Because although large organisations have slowly begun to recognise and invest in their informal structures, such as networks, communities and distributed teams, they remain wedded to hierarchical management as the formal means to coordinate work.

ESNs, therefore often became community and conversation platforms adjacent to – rather than at the centre of – where work happens.

Over time, ESNs have moved from content to communication to connection to collaboration. But I hope the next phase of development will also focus on capabilities – in other words, using the ESN to help employees identify, define and design the key digital capabilities that will be the building blocks of the emerging, connected, future firm.

As Buckminster Fuller used to say,

“you never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Instead of trying to change the whole organisation, it is better to focus energy and attention on the ‘willing ones’ and try to assist the emergence of the future firm from within the old. In other words, find hotspots of connected, digital services and ways of working, map them, connect them, support and protect them until they are strong enough to survive the gravitational pull of the bureaucracy.

That is not to suggest the rest of the organisation should be allowed to wither on the vine – in fact, the more visible the rise of the future firm, the more likely other people and functions are to want to join the fast track of change.

There are three key areas where many organisations lack the situational awareness to pursue digital transformation effectively, and which keep them in the realm of hunch-based investments, fragmentation and duplication of effort:

  • what digital capabilities do we have, where are they and what are the gaps?
  • where is our digital talent, and what do we need to develop it in the future?
  • which broken processes are holding us back, and where is there scope for automation?

This matters not just because we need better digital capabilities within the existing organisation, but also because the future firm is likely to be structured around more flexible service-oriented architectures that do not depend on manual, people-based management for co-ordination.

In my view, we are leaving behind the era of organisations as a collection of mandated, manual processes whose outputs are held together by a vertically-oriented management hierarchy.

We are headed towards a laterally-connected structure where processes become services, many of which will be automated, joined together by a service platform that represents the organisation’s goals, rules of the road and intellectual property.

Instead of a fixed organisational chart, we need a flexible, real-time map of how these various teams and services combine to create value.

Agile Consultation

This is not just a question of organisational design and architecture, but also of employee experience. It is true (and arguably a cliche) to say that the best customer experience derives from the best employee experience.

But EX is not about interfaces, furniture and fusbal tables. It is about creating an environment where people can do their best work in agile, flexible teams pursuing a common goal.

It is about getting out of the way and removing impediments to value creation, including (sadly, all too often) poor, controlling managers who do not add value to the work of their teams.

The ESN and the digital workplace can and should be at the centre of digital transformation efforts, and this is precisely the kind of meaningful, engaging use case that is often lacking in their adoption.

There are simple things we can do, such as using the ESN to encourage employees to call out broken processes that get in their way.

For example, Hootsuite famously employed a czar of broken processes with a mandate to go round the organisation calling out stupid processes and focusing high-level attention on fixing or replacing them. But we also need to do better at mapping the emerging digital organisation.

We use three main types of mapping inputs to address this challenge:

  • Chatbots in team spaces/channels to gently ask a few questions in return for helping people find what they need, to build a picture of local digital capabilities, talent and broken processes or barriers;
  • Analytics and other data from ESN and digital workplace systems to indicate areas of deep expertise or interest; and,
  • Deep-dive team-by-team enablement to build a richer picture of how the best teams work, identify hotspots of new capabilities or talent and also help them to re-imagine what they do in terms of services and interfaces, rather than just process management.

The resulting maps or catalogues of organisational capabilities and individual or team talents are useful at the local, team level; but when they are aggregated at the departmental level, they can also help areas of the business re-think how to organise value chains and connect teams better, as well as identifying scope for greater automation and talent mobility.

At the organisational level, these maps can be tremendously useful in aligning talent strategy and recruitment pipelines to the real state and needs of the business, and they can provide a top-down view of capabilities that can be combined to create new products and services, as well as identifying gaps to be filled. They can also inform digital investment and business model innovation.

Of course, this is not just a bottom-up discovery process. The same approach can also be used from the top to set strategic capability and talent goals, and give direction to new capability development and local hiring.

For the more digitally-fluent and ambitious parts of the organisation, a map showing the contours of the future firm and where new digital capabilities are developing can encourage connection, co-development and mutual support; but it can also aid navigation of the emerging future firm in a way the formal org chart cannot do.

And finally, by putting measures around digital capability and talent goals, and then asking employees how we are doing in terms of continuous improvement, it is possible to build a real-time assessment of how digital transformation is proceeding and where improvement efforts can be best applied.

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