Jon is included in this article on developing internal relationships in the digital workplace published on the UNLEASH conference site.
Despite what the article suggests, he didn’t actually say that the US is behind the rest of the world - simply that each country / region experiences it’s own unique challenges.
Here’s the full interview:
Tell me a little about your professional background and organization
I am a consultant at The Social Organization and focus on helping companies develop innovative people strategies, often based on ensuring people are able to work together effectively.
I started my career in engineering and IT and when I came into HR started with an engineer’s perspective on designing and managing HR processes. But I was fortunate to get a job as HR Director for EY which even then was a very people focused, progressive firm. That experience led to a growing interest in organisation development and a desire to really understand people and the way we learn, become engaged, work together and perform. I still think that it is really important for HR professionals - understanding 'the business' is vital but our real difference comes from our understanding of the people within in. Technology is important too and I’ve maintained an interest in this since my days in IT (including an early involvement in UNLEASH’s original format, HR Tech Europe). Today’s digital workplace provides a major opportunity for HR to impact the business through people.
What are the biggest benefits and challenges of today's digital workplace?
The digital workplace enables us to get work done differently and better, and most importantly, work done that we would not have been able to do before. This applies particularly strongly to communication and collaboration, analytics and AI. For example, in organisation design, the digital workplace is now one of the most important elements of an organisation, and can have as much if not more impact on people’s ability to work, as the structure and processes we use.
The most common challenge in using the digital workplace is that unlike most IT systems people generally do not need to use it to get their jobs done, as the benefits are often organisational rather than individual. People have therefore got to understand the needs and broader benefits in using it, and to be engaged in supporting their organisation by doing the right thing. This means that the digital workplace needs to be designed for people, meaning that we now need to be very serious about the employee experience resulting from its use. An area that often gets missed is that the digital workplace needs to align with, ie to support and inform, the rest of the organisation. The physical workplace is particularly important and the digital and physical workplaces need to encourage the same type of behaviours and provide a similar type of experience.
Why are interpersonal relationships important as teams grow more digital and/or remote?
Relationships have always been important. The most fundamental idea behind organisations is that a number of people working together can achieve more than the same number of people working on their own. But this will only be the case if their relationships enable them to do so. More recently, relationships have become even more important. The amount of knowledge available and being generated is leading to greater specialisation in people’s roles. At the same time, the issues confronting organisations are becoming increasingly complex. This leads to growing demands to bring various people with different skills and perspectives together in teams, other groups and networks.
These demands are only going to increase. As AI takes over a lot of work currently performed by people, the main area that will be left as our competitive advantage is the ability to have relationships with each other. Virtual and remote working make it more difficult to develop the quality relationships we need and therefore make this resource even more important. Put all of this together and we'll soon need to start thinking less about people as knowledge workers, and more about ourselves as relationship workers, where relationships are the core aspect of what we do.
What tools or best practices can leaders employ to foster good interpersonal relationships in their digital workplace?
I think the key is to manage the implementation and maintenance of digital workplaces as organisation development interventions, not as IT. It is really critical to involve people, and to design for people. HR’s increasing interest in design thinking and its use of personas and journey mapping is really useful here. The implementation also needs to be supported by broader OD activities as, for example, it is easier for people to collaborate online if they know the people they are collaborating with offline too.
Other simple, human actions can make a big difference too, for example giving the workplace a human name that people can relate to. Community management is vital and is a great role for people in HR to take on. In many ways community management is the new HR - as in, traditional HR has been about individuals and human capital, the new HR is about relationships, communities and social capital.
Aside from the U.S., do you see any particular region or industry doing an especially good job at cultivating these relationships?
I am not so sure the US is doing a good job actually. I think Americans' sense of personal identify means that communities often end up as groups of people shouting at each other and it can be really difficult to get people to cooperate and collaborate with each other to their full extent. True community needs a sense of what’s in it for us, not just of what’s in it for me. I also think there is this strange thing where HR excellence is a power law whereas it is a normal distribution curve elsewhere. Ie there are a small number of truly excellent organisations but an awful lot of mediocre ones focused on hiring and firing too. Those from the later group are going to find developing relationships, and therefore getting the best out of their digital workplaces really hard to do.
Asia has the opposite problem in that there is a lot of focus on groups but there is the downside that people can also disappear and lose their sense of identify within them. Out of all the countries where I have worked, I would say that South Africa is the best placed. They have enormous technological challenges but once these are sorted, their culture of allowing people to sit around and talk things through will act as a huge advantage there.
One of my now favourite books on social organisations is Jody Hoffer Gittell’s book on organisation development, Transforming Relationships for High Performance: the Power of Relational Coordination. I only read this after writing The Social Organization although I did refer to her previous write up of coordination at Southwest Airlines in my own book.
Relational coordination is defined as coordinating work through high quality communication, supported by relationships of shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect. These dimensions foster communication that is sufficiently frequent and positive.
Whilst seemingly idealistic the approach is extremely practical. It is presented as a high road strategy of smarter, more efficient delivery contrasting with the low road of reducing wages and working conditions. High road strategies are fundamentally relational because employee skills need to be connected through relationships in order to create value. “Human capital is only half the story - it is through social capital that human capital is combined and leveraged for maximum impact.”
Relational coordination is supported by relational leadership and is required to provide relational coproduction for clients. Supporting my focus on both social architecture and organisational society, Hoffer Gittell notes that organisational structures can either weaken or support relational coordination and also that relationships emerge in ways that are not entirely predictable and are therefore difficult to change and sustain intentionally. She therefore presents a Relational Model of Organisational Change which consists of three complementary, synergistic and integrated sets of interventions which link the main elements in my Organisation Prioritisation Model:
1. Relational interventions disrupt and transform relationships patterns and are based on organisation development and positive organisational psychology. The interventions build a safe space for humble inquiry, enabling people to transform themselves and the way they see their roles in their organisations, trying out new role relationships and role modelling positive relational behaviours.
I particularly like HG’s suggestions on using a relational coordination survey (a very simple organisational network analysis / ONA); liberating structures for emergent design (eg appreciative inquiry, open space, fishbowl, etc); facilitated dialogue through conversations of interdependence and perspective taking through improv.
2. Process interventions focus on the work itself, helping people visualise the work they are engaged in and identifying opportunities to improve it through process mapping, considering organisational microsystems, goal clarification, structured problem solving and experimentation.
Relational and work process interventions tend to be seen as complementary but separate. However, there is value in bringing them together, eg positive deviance and appreciative inquiry are introduced as tools for relational intervention these can be used for work process interventions too.
3. Structural interventions provide the required new roles to push against our our natural homophily and hardwire new teamwork dynamics, replacing the traditional bureaucratic structures which can undermine these. For example, narrow spans can be used to create more intimate and informal relationships between supervisors and those on the frontline, supporting shared objectives, coaching and performance assessments, especially for those working in interdependent roles. “The solution is not to get rid of structures but rather to redesign them to support the reciprocal patterns of interrelating that we ned to meet performance pressures.”
Structural changes are especially important when people do not know each other personally and in order to scale and sustain relational coordination. Important structural aspects, which are generally familiar but can be used in more relational ways, include:
It’s a good list though I think there are a lot of other opportunities too, and this is where The Social Organisation really focuses.
Relational coordination contrasts with traditional bureaucracy where coordination takes place mainly at the top of the organisation and employees are divided into functional areas of expertise. This helps people understand the whole system, reduces the impact of status differences, and increases adaptive capability.
Note though that, as I also suggest, self management is not a mandatory aspect of the approach. Hierarchy is not meant to require domination or power over someone. Reporting arrangements simply describe each person’s realm of autonomy. But people do need a horizontal as well as vertical view of their organisations in order to be empowered and use their autonomy effectively. We therefore need to concentrate on HG’s interventions rather than the removal of management or leadership.
And we also need relational leaders who can facilitate relational coordination amongst frontline employees. This requires reciprocal, fluid relationships between workers and managers which recognise the authority in role and in which managers learn from workers’ deeper, more focused knowledge of the work, and workers learn from managers broader contextual knowledge. HG again uses Southwest Airlines as an example of relational, or connective leadership:
“Herb Keller is not your average CEO. He really cares to let people know he cares… He sets the example of respect for everyone. All are important. Treat each other with the same respect as our customers. So people are happy… I can call our CEO today… he listens to everybody. He’s unbelievable when it comes to personal etiquette. If you’ve got a problem, he cares.”
I liked this new post on TED about Margaret Heffernan's ideas on social capital:
“Social capital is a form of mutual reliance, dependency and trust. It hugely changes what people can do. This is more true now than ever. It’s impossible in modern organizations to know everything that you need to know. What you need are lots of people who know lots of different things. Collectively you’re smarter."
Heffernan was talking about an individual's social capital but the same applies to organisations too. We need to focus on collective, not just individual intelligence. Hence social not just human capital.
This is an interesting article from Dave Ulrich suggesting a shift from individual development to a focus on organizational needs:
"This pivot from individual to organization is not my personal desire, but based on research and experience. In Victory Through Organization, we report data from 1,200 businesses and 32,000 people. We measure business outcome with a 6 item scale. We then measure the competencies of the individuals within the 1,200 businesses and the capabilites of the 1,200 businesses. Our statistics show that the organization has 4 times the impact on business outcomes than the individual competencies. Experience confirms this in sports where the leading scorer in soccer, basketball, hockey and other team sports, is on the team that wins the championship only 20% of the time. People matter, but organizations matter more. Individuals are champions, but teams win championships."
You can read more about Dave's perspectives in his foreword to The Social Organization.