Digital transformation is an exciting thing, and all the more so when it happens at the breakneck pace of the last two years. But not everyone in an organisation will have the capability to share in that excitement. Today's workforce labours under intense social and economic pressures worsened by political tension and inequality, and people are responding by demanding more say in their working life.
“A majority of workers want more involvement, more say in their jobs on a whole range of issues than they're experiencing today, around new technologies,” says Thomas Kochan, the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Speaking at the People Matters Workforce Productivity Conference this February, he pointed out that if employers plan to bring new technologies into the organisation, the full commitment of the workforce – including skills and mindset – is needed.
But to engage workers in such a way, the entire conversation around technology needs to change first.
“The debate around how to use technology in the past has had way too much hype about how many jobs are going to be destroyed or created. That debate must now shift to be about how we can use these technologies effectively, to engage in more productive work and build more equitable and inclusive organisations. And to do that, we have to integrate these advancing technologies with the way we work and the work systems that people are engaged in on a daily basis,” Professor Kochan says.
Start with a process that's both top-down and bottom-up
Integrating technology and work systems calls for what he describes as a “revolution in the way in which we bring digital technologies into our organisation”.
“The traditional way this sequential process goes is, a vendor approaches us or our IT professionals propose bringing in a technology that will solve some of the problems we have. And the vendor, or the IT people, design it and then implement it, and then at some point, the HR staff is asked: 'Do we have the right workforce? Or do we have people with old skills and not enough people with new skills?'”
That sequential strategy, Professor Kochan says, has failed even in such large companies as GM and Tesla. But what has succeeded is designing the technology and the work systems and bringing the workforce in on a continuous basis right from the beginning.
“Make sure we know what problem we are trying to solve,” he urges. “Make sure that we use a user-centric problem solving approach, that we bring the workforce in to tell us where we can use technology effectively. Don't rely just on the vendors or our IT specialists, but make them partners in this process with the workforce.”
“And we have to be clear on what the business problem is, not just use a vendor's product."
"We have to ask people to help us define it, and we have to bring them in at that early stage of the process. This has to be a top down and a bottom up process. Bring in the people from the frontlines, bring the engineers, bring the middle managers to help define what the problem is.”
Train people even before the technology arrives
When introducing a new technology, the standard process is to bring it in, and only then train people how to use it. But this doesn't work so well, says Professor Kochan.
“We have to train people before the technologies arrive. Because if we wait to train the workforce when the technologies are there, it's too late. At that time, people are nervous, they're stressed, they think they might lose their jobs. They don't think they've been involved and they can't learn effectively...they can't really embrace the technologies,” he explains.
Instead, he proposes that organisations should follow the lifelong learning and learning-on-demand models that large corporations like IBM have already invested heavily in. Such learning systems are ideally linked to performance management systems, promotion systems, and compensation systems; they give employees the opportunity to train not just for the jobs they are currently in, but the jobs they can move to.
Most importantly, the skills that organisations provide to their people need to go beyond the hard tech skills that are in such high demand today.
“Equally important, and sometimes in shorter supply are the social skills. How do we communicate? How do we lead teams? How do we have a diverse and inclusive and receptive work setting and make sure that we're managing in ways that bring all parties into this process?”
“These social skills tied with technical skills are the ones commanding the best salaries in our labour market today.”
“So as we design learning systems, let's make sure we balanced them so that both sets of skills are available to everyone.
Most of all, make the transformation inclusive and equitable
Organisations don't often pay enough attention to whether their digital – or in fact any kind of transformation – benefits all employees equitably. Nor do they always ensure that employees are treated well even if they can't adapt. But this is a major mistake, Professor Kochan warns.
“There will be some people whose jobs will be eliminated. That's the history of technological change,” he says. “But people watch how well we are treating those whose jobs are at risk. Are we providing them with compensation? Are we providing them with the training to get new jobs? Are we allowing them to transfer to where the new work is? If they have to leave the organisation, are we helping them to leave with the resources that allow them to have a respectful and reasonably secure life and find other opportunities?”
It's not just about fairness, he points out. It's also about what is known in socio-psychological research as 'survivor syndrome', the negative effect on the remaining workforce who are still with the organisation.
“In times of transformation people see others leave and ask, 'Am I next?' And they get very rigid, resistant. They're not able to learn effectively or to adapt, because they're afraid that they will be the next victim.” And that, in turn, drags down the ability of the rest of the organisation to transform.
Ultimately, says Professor Kochan, managing transformation in a way that engages the workforce is both a challenge and an opportunity, and the way it is done – whether old methods, progressive methods, or some mix of the two – will strongly affect the outcome.
“We have to recognise that technology is not just going to be driven by the laws of physics. We have choices: we can use technology to replace human judgment, or we can use it to augment human judgment. And how we use it will influence whether we can get the full benefits of these advancing technologies.”