There’s a lot of talk about the future of work…

Technology is indeed connecting us in ways that improve communication, discovery and connectivity. The world is becoming a much smaller place as a result. Chances are that you are connected in one network or another to people in at least 12 other countries. Although social networking and smartphones are relatively new as a staple in the everyday life of adults and kids, how we as consumers use these networks and devices is outpacing how we as employees use technology in the workplace. Over time, how we make decisions as consumers, what we come to expect from the companies that we do business with, and simply how we want to work with them is shifting the balance of power away from today’s business models to the connected masses.

Seems logical and almost commonsensical. The challenge however is that companies are anchored by decades or years of technology investments and the existing philosophies and processes that govern and support them today. But it doesn’t stop there. These connected customers though aren’t the only ones we need to understand, they also represent a growing percentage of our workforce.

Fighting Fire with Fire Will Only Burn Everything to the Ground

In my research, I’ve found that many executives are well aware of the onslaught of new technology. Many however, are unsure of how to solve the problem or even address what the problem really is for that matter. There are those in IT who are drafting new plans that alter long-established roadmaps to evaluate emergent social and mobile technologies. Some are bolting-on trendy technologies onto legacy systems to apply what will only prove to be a temporary fix. As my friend Stowe Boyd, a web anthropologist and futurist often says, “You can’t teach old tech new tricks.”

Either way, social and mobile threw a curveball. It wasn’t just because the technology overtook the world in a matter of a few short years, it’s that social media and mobile apps changed the behavior of people who use them. Suddenly businesses have to rethink…everything. Yet, how they’re structure today symbolizes an old guard of command and control approaches where employees use technology bestowed upon them because it was gospel. In today’s world though, all I can say is “good luck with that strategy.” More often than not, the technology we force onto people forces them to conform to a way of work dictated by technology and those who govern it within the organization rather than use technology as a seamless enabler to get work done, individually or collectively, the way that people organically use technology in their personal life.

Technology is most effective when it is invisible.

Throwing technology at the problem isn’t the answer. Technology is an enabler and we must see it for what it unlocks or facilitates. But that comes down to us not as information architects but as architects of collaboration and work to do something greater than what we accomplish today. With all of the hype, and fatigue, around new tech, it’s easy to get caught up in what’s hot and what’s next.

Technology is part of the solution but it’s also part of the problem.

In my research as a digital analyst and anthropologist, I explore the dynamics of human behavior from a bottom-up or escalation perspective. The conundrum facing IT and businesses overall, is that the philosophies and systems governing the way we work are traditionally designed from that of a top-down approach. Yet how we use technology in our real life is completely different than what we use or how we use it to get the job done.

Businesses can’t look at new tech as a solution until executives understand what it is they’re really trying to solve for or enable now and over time.

Intranets languish.

Knowledge sharing isn’t shared as much as businesses hoped.

Collaboration tools inhibit true collaboration.

Mobile access looks and feels nothing like the way our personal mobile apps feel and function.

So what’s the answer?

Social streams that allow people to feel like they’re tweeting inside their company?

Geo-location apps that allow them to check in to cafés or meeting rooms?

Facebook-like collaboration networks that allow employees to network and work with each other.

Shift to iOS and Android phones and tablets because you have to thanks to the momentum of employees + BYOD (bring your own device).

Cloud anything…because cloud!

Gamification rewards to incentivize people to use internal tech because they get points and there’s a leaderboard to show who’s winning?

It all sounds like it will work until of course, it doesn’t.

Why is that the case?

The answers are simple yet revealing…

When Technology Fails

When I study why technology fails to change behavior internally, the reasons always seem to surprise executives, but rarely do they shock employees.

  1. Older managers disagree philosophically with how younger employees work in general.
  2. Systems architects don’t get today’s employees.
  3. Technology is too painful to use and there’s a lot of it.
  4. Workflow is imposed rather than designed to emulate how people naturally use technology to communicate and connect.
  5. Legacy processes and reporting systems actively discourage people to adopt something new.
  6. Legacy philosophies protect those who work in dated paradigms rather than encourage aging workforces to gain new expertise through learning and collaboration.
  7. Management doesn’t actually reward cross-team collaboration as part of the day-to-day work.
  8. Incentives to change do not align with employee goals and aspirations.
  9. Leadership does not lead by example.
  10. A lack of vision as to why new technology will enable business goals and why employees should buy-in.
  11. BONUS: The culture of the organization is more rigid than adaptive, which inadvertently undermines any hope for innovation

Depending on the culture of the organization, this list only grows…often unwieldy like a weed. Pulling the weed out buys time, but it grows back. You have to get to the root of the problem and solve for it as it lines up with the ultimate vision of the company. And sometimes, because things are so different now with market and employee behavior, that vision may need to be renewed or completely revised to mean something, to be relevant now and in the future.

Things must change, but change begins with seeing and approaching this challenge cum opportunity differently…

This is a time for leadership…not the conventional management systems as we know them. Change doesn’t have to come from today’s executives or managers however. What’s important to understand is that change can come from anywhere within the organization. Anyone can assume the role of leader as long as they have vision for what’s possible, courage to break what isn’t yet fully broken, and passion to mobilize people to unite in transformation. This sense of conviction is contagious and when approached with a human and business focus, even executives can’t help but listen…and learn. I guess that’s what this is about. We have to learn to learn again and that will only help us lead.


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