For most big companies, strategic initiatives are all about innovation, mobility, being social, getting closer to employees, working contextually, and creating networks of people. As we move more and more into the second machine age, we find ourselves digitizing culture and, to support that change, implementing platforms that foster these huge organizational changes. The simple boss, manager, employee hierarchy doesn't seem to fit anymore.
Digitizing company cultures requires an understanding of the workforce that goes beyond KPIs, targets, or systems. Of course we implement innovation platforms and invite everyone to add their ideas, collectively crowdsourcing them. We add rapid mobile app development tools and personalized apps to reach employees on their personal and company devices. We provide social solutions to allow for contextual working and creating networks of people. But all of these initiatives success lay in the hands of the end users; if they aren't going to use your platforms, they will vanish much like most of our hair did over the past decades.
Adding Science to the Bigger Picture
In sociology there is a perspective called symbolic interactionism and it is influential in many areas of the sociological discipline. In ways it is so incredibly simple and almost childlike logic that if you blink your eyes you'll miss it. These quotes from Wikipedia gets to the core of it, describing the three perspectives symbolical interactionism is based upon:
- "Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things."
- "The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society."
- "These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters."
So what does this tell us and more importantly how are we going to use this in our efforts to digitize a company's culture and make work better. Basically this sociology perspective teaches us that humans interact with each other through symbols and these symbols can include anything like an HR form, a salary slip, a scrum meeting, the way we say good morning, the drinks we have on a Friday afternoon, and so forth. A symbol is the communication with one another on the same definition of a situation. That's great, but still so very abstract.
A Practical Example
Let's say I have a mid-year review with my manager and together we go through the form HR has come up with and we have been doing this for the past few years. This form would be a symbol in which we both know what to communicate, in what way, and in what timescale. We are communicating on the same definition of the situation, namely my progress within the company. So now comes next year and HR has changed some of the fields of the form, renamed it, and changed the layout. All of a sudden my manager and I go through the form but we get confused because there's different questions in the form; heck the entire form doesn't resemble what we filled out last year. Maybe we might fill it in wrong, maybe we might have to go to HR and ask for clarification. The communication of my progress within the company is no longer being reviewed in the same definition of the situation.
Think about the Implications
It's these changes in symbols we force upon the workforce by implementing new platforms, e.g. email versus microblogging, conference calls versus physical meetings, suggestion box versus innovation platform. We tend to forget that humans have their own interpretation of everything around them and from that interpretation define their way of working. If we change these ways of working without very clearly defining the definition of the situation, we will face reluctance, unwillingness, frustration, or even anger. We need to make sure everybody is on the exact same page and knows what is being asked and why, then we internalize our new symbol. A process called roll-making and roll-taking is at the heart of implementing changes to symbols.
Find the symbols in your company's culture ranging from the way drinks are organized on Friday to HR forms. And if you choose to digitize that behavior, create extensive campaigns to explain the new definition of that situation. Use forums, innovation platforms, and microblogging to get feedback and get discussions going. Don't be afraid to change what you thought would be the greatest solution of all time. And most of all, have patience and keep explaining. Don't go and change everything at once; come up with a strategy and take small steps, organize think tanks, and organize campaigns.
Don't forget that all people have their own interpretations and base their interactions with the company on them.