Don’t leave digital transformation to IT (or learning technology teams)

In a few weeks time, I will be hosting a panel session at Learning Live on the theme of digital transformation. It is, in various guises, a major theme of the event and a significant preoccupation of the LPI membership. Fortunately, I have a wise and esteemed panel to rely on for answers to “What you’ve always wanted to ask” about the topic.

In preparation I have been doing a little more deliberate reading around the many and varied themes. I cannot decide whether a focus on L&D will help the debate or hinder it? On the one hand, we can concentrate on topics closest to our work and our immediate priorities. On the other a, mistaken, belief that learning is a special case in the digital world leads to many misguided decisions. Specialist learning systems are a major reason why learning remains in a technology ghetto rather than a daily tool kit.

This post by Jeff Imelt, ex CEO of GE is a useful input. There are some helpful observations on leading and organising digital transition in here. Unsurprisingly, leadership clarity, trust and empowerment are crucial factors. As important, is the assertion that digital ultimately needs to be a part of everyone’s day job at some point. Whilst a specialist team may be prudent to gain momentum in the early days, everyone needs to make the change and adopt digital ways of working to sustain the changes. This is worthy of consideration for L&D folks. Many organisations have digital specialist managers and teams (often born from a learning technology background) but struggle to make the transition beyond that point. I would like to hear some views on that hypothesis in the session, from attendees in particular.

Imelt also asserts that digital change cannot be the preserve of the IT functions. In many ways these are outsourced technologies and activities which operate at too great a distance from the core business to generate valuable change. I really like this point. Too often digital is seen as the preserve of techies and systems folks, under-cooking the potential it can have and limiting the radical change needed. Technology as a function is often too far removed from decision making to create far-reaching changes.

In the L&D world, I suspect (and observe) that digital change is often handed off to learning technology teams. This limits the changes required – digital transformation is about people and how they work as much as it is about technology. In anxious organisations, there can be an insulation from digital because it is seen as a specialism of technologists. Successful change will not occur under these circumstances. I would also like to know wat people make of this observation. It has happened to me directly. As Director of Digital, I have been given responsibility for digital transformation with only technology levers on which to pull. The remainder of the department remained distant, labouring under the belief that ‘digital’ would be solved for them and launched at them. No. It didn’t work.

A related challenge to the preoccupation with IT lead implementation of digital change is the misplaced faith in systems implementation as a source of digital change. Fundamentally, the revolution of digital has been a product of the widespread adoption of digital ways of working. Inherent to these approaches is the ability to experiment and adjust to seek valuable solutions. Any transformation means the old rules no longer apply. Systems implementation, by definition, precludes experimentation and denies the arrival of unexpected value. The computer will say no.

ERP systems, of which the LMS is a prime example, will not deliver digital transformation for this reason. They will deliver efficiency, order and accuracy (hopefully) to established systems or in the embedding of new ones. This is not to be sniffed at, but is not transformative. User needs are rarely anywhere to be seen either.

Other digital tools are where signals of value can be found. As a rule of thumb, it is always best to look outside our own industries in seeking clues to make far-reaching changes. Social media, digital advertising and content publishing have some useful pointers to offer in designing a really helpful user experience. (They also have some useful lessons in questionable business ethics to look out for).

Plenty to chew on for that session at Learning Live then. What else?

 

(learning) Culture and technology – muddle or plan?

I am seeking help to lift me from a muddle. Anyone reading this (data suggests that you may be into double figures), I suspect, has wisdom to spare.

The theme of “learning culture” has risen in my working world recently. (It has been there all along, of course, but not so often called out with such deliberation). This lead me to call for help on LinkedIn a week or so ago. I was looking for some clarity on what learning culture is and how to best work towards its enhancement and creation. There are some very helpful contributions in that post. Clarity remains elusive, however.

My best shot at a definition derives from the exchange between Nick Shackelton-Jones and Matt Ash. “A learning culture is a culture in which learning readily occurs”. Nick used the word flourishes. I like that. Yet, with the benefit of a little hindsight, that might denote a strong learning culture. Furthermore, the philosopher in me worries at the circularity of this definition. This is my first fall into muddle.

I was also struck that, as usual, those outside of the worlds of HR and L&D don’t really care much about learning culture. Or, to be fair, they care for a productive and healthy culture in an organisation. One feature of such a culture is that people in it learn and instruct (maybe teach?). Other features probably include ready communication, shared values, clear objectives and sense of purpose, shared language, trust, respect and the ability to act on decisions. These features carry as much weight as learning culture. All are interwoven anyway as they enable and support each others presence. So it is a muddle…but in a good way.

Then to my second moment of muddle: is learning culture enough for a successful culture? I don’t, at this moment of typing, think so. But in the L&D/HR zone, it tends to be the set objective and therefore risks being insufficient from the outset. Probably.

So, perhaps learning is a necessary but insufficient element of a broader healthy organisation culture. That view is less muddled in my mind. Does that, in turn, mean that pursuing a learning culture is not worthwhile in itself because it falls short of the greater goal? That seems like an odd conclusion. A learning culture seems valuable whether it is referred to as that or not and whether the wider world sets it as an objective or not. It may not be the loftiest of goals but it remains a valuable one. Slightly less muddle.

And so to the “how does one encourage a learning culture?” question. The comments on LinkedIn offered “embedding”, “learning DNA”, “championship”, “allowing time to learn”, “inspiring managers” and “leadership” as important ingredients in the recipe. There was universal agreement that delivery of learning does not contribute much to learning culture, not alone, at least. The human factors are those with most purchase on culture – they are the behaviours that demonstrate what is valued and offer an example to others. When exhibited by those with authority, they have greater influence and impact. Leadership is a crucial ingredient.

In the digital realm, attention tends to focus on technology products and services that enable learning culture. The relative ease with which learning can be made available is a cause for optimism. It has also, I fear, lead to a great deal of digital learning production in the hope that it will inspire learning culture. Experience says otherwise. A common refrain in my line of work is that “we have too much digital stuff”, suggesting that the culture in which the stuff resides is not lapping it up in the hoped for manner. Production and publishing is not a cultural trigger.

Similarly, a golden thread of digital development is that of connection. Digital experiences connect us as users with content and with people. The promise of enterprise social networks is that, at the click of an icon, everyone can connect with everyone and share knowledge across boundaries. Another refrain in my line of work is that “we have implemented Zamster/Buzzplace/Chatspot/Facezone but only a couple of teams are really using it”. Culture beats technology every time.

A case in point: a large UK based public service broadcaster implemented an ‘official’ instance of Yammer to build on the unofficial usage and signs of momentum with the product. This was to be the digital water cooler at which staff would share opinions and ideas on the transformation programme to be unveiled. The starter gun was fired with a post from the most senior of leaders inviting conversation to begin. That post was both distant and tone deaf. It was also the first and only post by that user. There was a brief flurry of activity, the wind dropped and the water was stilled. Hope for an open, technology enabled cultural renewal was beaten out by the cultural reality of a workforce who were conversing elsewhere, if at all.

For technology to usefully enable cultural change, all those elements of positive culture need to be nurtured and supported as well. Which leads me to another (third/fourth?) muddle: the circularity of learning culture and technology. Cultural change will be powerfully enabled by technology but needs the human features for the technology to be relevant and useful. Without the technology, those human features will be more difficult to detect and amplify, making progress much more laborious. If the culture does not have a digital imprint, it is now significantly more difficult to identify and detect. That is one of the effects of a world in which Facebook has 2.2 billion active users.

I think I will pause here in the recognition that this topic is probably impossible to unmuddle. As with much of human affairs, it is complex and defies simple explanation. That also, to me, signals that it is valuable and worthy of pursuit and debate. So I will continue to ponder. Perhaps learning culture is a little like pornography (in only one respect) – very difficult to define but we know it when we see it.

 

 

 

 

 

Think before you make. There is plenty of stuff already…

I stumbled across this quote whilst listening to a podcast a couple of weeks ago. It is a great turn of phrase and has did not quite leave my mind, where I have been turning it over since.

“Never do for others what they can do for themselves”

Saul Alinsky

I had not heard of Saul Alinsky before. He was a radical of the twentieth century. A leading thinker and practitioner of community organising. He was, it seems, someone who focused in a dedicated fashion on effecting social change. His thrust, as I understand it, is that freedom and sustained change was best enabled where communities are able to resource their own betterment. Acts of charity may feel good but they do not necessarily create the circumstances for sustained change.

My own reflections on the his words are more quotidian. It made me think about making digital content and when and why we might do so. (No mentions in despatches for me).

In the domain of online content, “doing something for ourselves” usually equates to finding something on Google. This is the competition we have for publishing information. Or rather, this is what our content can be substituted with when we make it.

This is a tough challenge as many of us feel, rightly or wrongly, that making stuff is our job. It is a tempting assumption: making something is a ready hallmark of productive effort. We can point at what we have made and measure it.

Making content is also beguiling. (Here I am doing it right now). This is the primary reason why there is so much crap around. Conversely, it is also the reason why there is so much useful stuff around. Google is ever so good at spotting those items and using it is now our reflex. So, as custodians of a good content experience what can we do to avoid adding to the ocean of content already surrounding us all?

Here are some questions to ask before you make something:

  • Does a good enough version already exist on the web?
    • By “good enough” I mean for a user rather than your stakeholders
  • Does that version work for your audience?
    • Find out – don’t just assume
  • If an accessible version exists, can you make a better version? (By better I mean more useful for your audience, not more engaging).
  • Can you make a better version than someone else can make?
  • Or, do you know an expert who can make one – or who you can help make one?
  • Can it be easily found? Or…can you make it easier to find?
  • If there is a good enough version already available, how can you help to make that more discoverable and searchable?
    • Can you add context to that for your users?

Some questions to ask if you are absolutely sure you need to make something:

  • Do you have somewhere useful to put your thing when made? i.e. somewhere discoverable, searchable and browseable*?
  • Is it clear what it is for and why it is there?
    • Can your users find out where it is from and who made it?
    • Can they easily see how old it is?
  • Does the user need to be led through or have something explained or can they figure it out for themselves? (This is an important one – it is very easy to underestimate audience intelligence. Stakeholders and subject matter experts do it all the time).
  • How will your users let you know what they think of what you have made?
  • Can you measure what happens when you publish it?
  • Can they share it?

I would suggest you hold off on making something if you are not confident in the answers to these points. Easy to say and hard to do, I know. But in may experience, these are ueful tests.

* Not sure this is a real word but it seems OK to invent it for this purpose? That is my contribution to the ocean.

Does it matter to L&D that barriers to learning are so low?

Editors note: I arrived back at my blog, after a too-long pause in writing, to find this title saved as a draft. I cannot recall what I intended to write before I abandoned the headline. I do like the ring of it though and have had a go below. Let me know if you think it was worth the effort.

As minds turn towards the Learning Technologies Summer Forum I have noticed the theme of what the learning profession is for is still in fashion.

Sukh Pabial posted on the theme only this week. As a thorough and open-minded thinker, he did not call his position on learning versus (or with?) performance consulting. More consideration required – always a sound judgement. Performance consulting is a great ambition but…can the profession authentically claim that territory? It’s certainly quite a change of pace and direction. David James, his interlocutor, was more positive in that direction suggesting that L&D needs to claim the territory to prove relevance and value beyond training design and delivery. I, rather unhelpfully, think I agree with both of them.

Performance consulting might be the best direction to head in. If so, a lot of change is required. Consulting, in many guises, does not require making anything. Most often, it requires asking good questions and teasing out useful responses. L&D makes stuff as a reflex – sometimes with the questions, sometimes without. Courses, eLearning and content are the go to solutions of the training game. There may be a long journey to go on to earn that consultant mantle.

To be fair to David, his position is that L&D (and any other function) needs to focus on helping to solve the problems of the workplace. This may or may not require learning. “Reducing friction” is his desired result. This will help people (not necessarily learners) get to their goal with as little unnecessary effort as possible.

I wonder though whether this is the most pressing challenge for the profession. What it is called is an attractive side-show. It’s purpose and value are central, however.

The barriers to learning have fallen away…

The central challenge for L&D as a function in the digital age is that anyone can now do it. It seems to be very easy for learners to satisfy their learning needs without help and support of an L&D professional. The combination of Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, LinkedIn and Twitter make for an excellent tutorial environment for many many needs. It is also increasingly easy for intermediaries to take the place of the L&D function with no professional background and heritage. The mighty and impressive Stack Exchange is an excellent example, providing direct access to qualified and recommended expertise and experience for developers. It has grown into an indispensable tool worldwide. Not an L&D manager in sight.

Sunlight is a slightly different take on a similar outcome. A relatively fresh start-up, it claims to facilitate access to “any course, book or event in the world”. In a well managed product package, with a pre-set budget allocation for users, a trusting workplace can step away from allocating and assigning learning and let the business, its managers and teams decide what and how to learn. It focuses more clearly on user choice than a traditional learning system might.

Similarly, a motivated and moderately aware subject matter expert can be found and asked for advice. Some of the most valuable will create and publish their advice freely and openly. The now hackneyed examples of the YouTube “How to…” videos are commonplace: boiler maintenance/make up/gardening/guitar playing etc. etc. . Some of them are great. Some should not be allowed out of the house. But the platform helps raise the best closer to the top with useful signals of relevance and popularity.

Clearly, these tools can be facilitated and guided by L&D folks as part of the services and tools the consultation recommends. The point is that this is no longer a necessity. As with so many industries and professions, L&D is being disintermediated  in the digital world. The value of the learning professional is in the expert facilitation of access to expertise and experience. Direct access at the moment of need makes that value harder to demonstrate.

As L&D folks we need to be very clear about the extra value we are adding to those, enormously successful and popular, self-help learning products. (My own dealing with SMEs suggests that they do, often need help in editing advice out. Their enthusiasm often overcomes the need to delete some of their advice before pressing ‘send’). There needs to be a clear role that the user or the expert is not fulfilling on their own. I suspect that the value is best found supporting the extraction and distribution of expertise in a way that users find most helpful. Then getting out of their way.

A value to L&D is often ascribed from the curation of the best content on offer to save learners time. This does make some sense – choices can be hard to make amongst a genuine array of options. That curation needs to stand up to comparison with good search, however (and yes that means Google). There is a role for flagging official and sanctioned content in the corporate context. That might take some experience and organisational knowledge to achieve, It also needs official approval. I wonder if the skills of the librarian and editor are helpful here as well – curation is not the sole province of L&D.

Barriers to learning are so low now:

  • Platform barriers are only a matter of time and effort – WordPress, YouTube, Facebook Workplace, LinkedIn etc. are available for many requirements
  • Content development is a falling barrier and has been largely removed (WordPress again and H5P etc.) unless you are unfortunate enough to require SCORM compliance to hide content in an LMS.
  • Audience access is available more readily – it is always hard-earned however
  • Cost of production continues to fall and production values are not always the barrier they used to be.
  • Content supply is no longer a challenge as discussed above – content organisation is certainly needed but that is not the sole province of L&D and other publishing sectors set the standard in this respect.
  • Connection with individuals and groups is enabled via social media (although some horrible business practices have eroded trust and greater care needs to be taken in those waters). Actually, good old email has a useful role to play here too.

All of this has a rather negative ring to it on reading it back before I press publish. That is not my intent. This post is born more from curiosity in trying to answer the question I found earlier. Everyone is trying to do a good job. Furthermore, one of the greatest features of the L&D world is that everyone is trying to help people realise their potential and make personal progress. Few professions can claim that territory so readily.

Maybe this is a useful, analogous way of thinking about the issue. If you were an investor (a VC perhaps), looking at the ease of learning stuff and offering learning without specialist help, would you invest in an L&D service versus a digitally enabled self-help service? An investor would look for signals of sustainable value and for evidence of a long term return. Investors don’t typically back the traditional intermediaries unless they have found a new role to play in the value chain.

That feels like the role to try to play.

Making a start on digitalness part 3 – organising for digital

It has taken longer than I hoped to get round to this post. This is the third in the series of loosely themed pieces about what it means to ‘be digital’ and some ideas on how to make a start. The first and second pieces are available for the curious/persistent reader.

The impetus to write this post came from leading the first of a series of sessions for Digital Leaders on Developing a Digital Mindset. Future sessions in London and Leeds are available as part of their Academy courses.  The sessions are short, workshop style events aimed to give those with less hands-on experience some ideas and techniques to consider in their work with their teams. The premise is that we all need to be more digital – so how might we go about it.

During the session there was discussion about technology integration programmes in organisations and the fact that they are often pitched as transformation efforts. This, in turn, lead to exploring the notion that ‘being digital’ is not really about technology  – or that, technology alone is insufficient for real digital change. Technology programmes can generate efficiencies, speed and lower cost (they can also deliver none of those things, at their worst). But they probably won’t change the organisation much, and are less likely to change it in the far-reaching ways ‘transformation’ promises.

Some of the most significant elements of a digital mindset are how groups plan, behave and organise. Being digital is about people more than it is about technology (or at least as much) – hence the significance of culture. The ways and means of systems implementation will not support or sustain a digital mindset. Don’t be fooled by systems implementation houses that pitch this as an outcome from use of technology.

Anyway, with that in mind, this post is about organising for digital. Again, in no strict oder of priority, here are some of the most important features of digital organisations or teams. They are:

  • Flat (or flatter). This is not to say that there is no hierarchy. Some people are in charge and need to be (some decisions will need a ‘buck stops here’ approach). A flatter team or organisation will, however have shorter routes between a decision and action. It will also have less mediation and introduce less confusion between a decision and the enacting of a plan to carry it out. (Empowered and accountable teams can get things done with less fuss. as explored in Post 2). From my personal experience, the BBC is not a flat organisation – it is lumpy and bumpy in arcane and vertical ways. Time to and from a decision to action is best measured in planetary metrics. Spotify, on the other hand, is pretty flat and swift in movement and action.
  • Open (or tending to openness). This goes hand in hand with flatness and trust. It is easier to get things done quickly if access to information and to people is more open. Open document stores and open access to performance data are principles that digital organisations have been energetic in adopting. Team members are trusted to use data responsibly, making the apparent risk of open sharing lee problematic. (Organisations with a parental leaning will struggle to adopt digital ways, I believe. They are better suited to programmed waterfalls and the committees needed to steer them).
  • Accessible. Teams working in an open environment are easier to access – and anticipate ease of access in turn. This is partly a facet of openness and the access to information that results from it. It is also a cultural feature that allows for access to expertise and experience throughout an organisation. The structure and model of Stack Overflow echoes this across technology disciplines, being built around the expectation that access to expert guidance is readily available. Tools like Slack and Trello facilitate open access.
  • Small. A productive digital team tends to be a small team. Or, not too big. It will be large enough to get stuff and be self-contained but not so large that it becomes unwieldy, slow and over complicated. Jeff Bezos still stands by the principle of Two Pizza sized teams at Amazon. The optimum size of a team is one that can be fed by two pizzas (probably in the range of 8 to 10 people, depending on pizza size and appetite). It is easier for this size of team to take decisions and to communicate those decisions and share relevant information. Big is not beautiful but a large organisation can have many two pizza teams within it.
  • Multidisciplinary. Those small, self-contained teams are made up of the required skills and capabilities to be self largely self-sufficient and productive. A productive team will have the ability to:
    • Gather and analyse data and communicate information and usable insights from it
    • Design, test and improve a good user experience (this will include but not be limited to user interface and visual design)
    • Develop and test code – or at the very least, have access to and control over developers
    • Manage a the activity, inputs and outputs of the team, most often in the form of an agile project manager
    • Take responsibility for marketing, communication and distribution. Otherwise known as “if you build it they really might not come”.
    • Manage the product and define the roadmap around user needs and priorities
    • Manage the product and define the roadmap around commercial needs and business outcomes
  • Flexible. These small and multi-disciplined teams are easier to form and reform around shifting priorities. There is less organisational heavy lifting required on behalf of the business. Similarly, extended and complex orientation is less likely to be needed as new teams group around their objectives. More mature digital organisations will also have developed production tools and infrastructure which supports this flexibility and can be applied across many or all areas of business.
  • Clear.  Whilst the objectives of the team are clear, this is equally true of the individuals of the team. A smaller team is easier to direct in this respect. The daily stand-up of the agile world supports an open sharing of the activity and next steps of all team members. Accountability is individual and well as team based, as is responsibility.

There are many ways to get things done and no set of guidelines can simply be applied to the unique circumstances of any organisation. Unlike systems, these ways of working cannot be implemented to a preconceived plan. These things take time and effort to bear fruit and find the right shape and size for the circumstances. They are worthy of consideration, however and it is relatively easy to give them a try and adapt them to your needs. Easier and cheaper than a technology programme that is.

 

 

 

 

Digital or hide! (take 2) – technology hiding places in a digital world

[NOTE: This is an updated and revised post from June of last year (2017). Prompted by David James in his recent post about selecting an LMS…or not.]

A couple of things have given me pause in my digital convictions in the last few weeks. As a traveller on the information superhighway in the mid to late 1990s and then a journeyman of the Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 eras (I’m not sure it matters what they mean either), the notion of being digital and getting into digital just seemed obvious. Why wasn’t everyone doing it? There was nowhere to hide. “Digital or die!” we yelled in smug tones. I think the sentiment still stands but it’s not as cut and dried – or rather, I now see that it is not as cut and dried.

The thing is, hiding places from digital seem to be really commonplace. They may be diminishing but there are still plenty around. Some of them offer camouflage and plenty of food drink for a good long while as well. Many folk are still holed up in them. Maybe the call should be “Digital or hide!”.

Being digital or becoming digital is obvious. There really is no excuse. The problem is, doing it properly is really quite hard and involves quite a lot of work for quite a lot of people. It also involves change. Not merely technology change but changes in people, attitudes and beahviour. Hence the hiding. Change is a popular thing to hide from. For a while – until it finds you.

I have referenced this article before and will do so again: “It’s change management. It’s not complicated; it’s just hard.”   It is a great description of the skills, practices and attitudes to genuinely make digital change work well. It describes the different factions in the Obama campaign of 2012 and the hiding places of teams who are convinced of their world view. Everyone had plenty to learn and it was painful at times and valuable all of the time. The ethics of the choices made shoud not cloud the cultural and behavioural changes.

In more recent years, I have been involved with Learning and Development and L&D folk. I have wondered why the industry has changed so little despite the use of so much technology and so much use of the word Digital. My hypothesis (for today at least) is that technology has become a place to hide for L&D in a digital world. The exhibition floor of the Learning Technologies event is dominated by various forms of LMS vendors, content authoring tools and systems and eLearning content suppliers. At the risk of sweeping generalisation, these are technological developments to simplify and add efficiency to training. They are technological places in which teams and departments can hide from digital change.

The familiar systems of the L&D world and the neighbours of HR and related enterprise systems, have created and solidified the processes by which organisations work. A digital disruption of those systems entails a disruption of process and roles. A very uncomfortable kind of change.

In the digital world (perhaps in any world) we are not learners, we are workers or doers. This is well summarised in this piece by David James  (him again) surveying the landscape on the 10th anniversary of the iPhone. Learning and Development is stuck (or hiding) in the act of making learning (training content) for digital users who are trying to get things done with a different toolset. Ever increasingly we get those things done with simple personal tools on our hand-held computers. The shape and size of training formats fits poorly with our digital productivity and communications tools. Those formats though are the output of the systems that are woven in to structures and processes of our organisations. A change here is likely to have the look and feel of real disruption. Real disruption is most uncomfortable…back to the hiding…

I will try to swerve a rant by restating the sentiment I opened with. These changes are hard to respond to and pervasive. Whole systems and language are at stake. One possible step we could start to take is to apply some of those simple personal productivity steps to our work. Use the tools we know and love as users and apply them as workers. Not to make learning but to help people with their working problems. This might be some content, pointing to content, connecting people, offering safe spaces to experiment.

This opens the possibility of Two-Speed IT. On balance, I welcome the two speed approach if the one speed model has too few gears to sufficiently speed up. Two Speed IT gives an organisation the familiarity and reduced risk of running legacy systems whilst deliberately experimenting and piloting swifter digital tools. There are resource, investment and communication complexities here but it is better than waiting for vendors to roll out upgrades at their own pace. It also helps us learn more quickly – a hallmark of digital ways of working.

There are many, many possibilities, of course. All are worthy of consideration.

Firstly, however, we need to seriously ask if we are hiding behind something.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making a start on digitalness Part 2 – digital culture

My loyal readers (perhaps both of you) will recall my threat to prepare a series of posts on the theme of becoming more digital in your work and organisation. The first post on digital behaviours received enough of a response to warrant the second in the series (i.e. there were no real insults and some modest applause, for which I am very grateful). So I am making good on my threat.

This second post will concentrate on digital culture. This is a laden and wobbly phrase in itself and needs some definition to be more useful. By ‘digital culture’, I mean the expectations, values and principles of the people and teams involved in making digital things. This does have a vital relationship to the broader definition of digital experiences in society, politics, media, the arts, education and other areas of society. The fundamental impact of digital change on how we all work is caused by our experiences as users of digital products and services. We bring the possibilities of making, communicating, collaborating, buying and selling as digital consumers into our working lives (or we try to) and inevitably our working life starts to change.

The pace of that change is set by organisations and teams that have actively embraced digital ways of working, consciously and unconsciously. They get valuable stuff done so much more quickly than any traditional form of organisation. In culture terms they look, sound and feel different as well. Different things are afforded importance and priorities look different too. This is the territory of this post.

None of this is to say that there are not problems with digital working culture. Many of us will recognize the fervour of the agile zealot and their liberal sprinkling of an arcane and alienating barrage of jargon. (Agile has reached such a level of maturity that it has become professionalised with the ring of accountancy and law in its education and specialist language). Like any evangelical fundamentalism, that approach is simply not helpful.

What follows are the elements of the culture of digital working that are most interesting and valuable. These are gathered from my own working experiences and observations – this is not a workplace survey. They overlap with behaviours a fair bit, of course.   These cultural imprints are signals of healthy and productive ways of working.

In no ranked order, a digital team will:

  • Put user needs and motivations above other concerns in their designing and making. A hallmark of many digital businesses is an argument between a product team and a sales team about protecting user experience from commercial imperatives. (A note for Enterprise Software vendors – customers and end users are not motivated by the same things).
  • Seek evidence in decision making and feel discomfort in a lack of evidence. Some digital teams will refuse to decide until data is available, insisting on testing to see value before acting. Great discomfort is felt in lack of evidence and acting without it is rash and risky. Judgement is important and well used, it is also honed and sharpened by the evidence of testing. (This is an excellent trait and to be applauded).
  • Have a focus on evidence and demonstrable evidence encourages honesty. This is not to say that digital fibs are never told. It is to say that evidence of the effectiveness of decisions tends to offer fewer hiding places and encourages a conversation about observed data rather than opinion and hope.
  • Be empowered and will probably expect empowerment. This is most likely to take the form of being to be able to run and manage a product or project with a good degree of latitude. Command and control is an unlikely success in a digital environment – those horror stories of managers signing-off social media posts is not fiction. It is not culturally digital either.
  • A digital culture will tend to be open – or tend towards openness, at least
    • Information is shared freely. Digital teams will often invest effort in tools to make information easily and readily available. It is not a surprise that the Wiki, Github and blogs were born of early stage digital activity.
    • Access to information is therefore expected by the workforce or by project team members – if a decision is taken, it should probably be available somewhere to been found and referenced
    • Expectations of sharing are prevalent – this is one of the reasons Slack has been successful. It allows the meeting of that expectation to happen in quick, simple manner when it is at its most useful
    • Product performance is open too: many digital teams will be located with a  screen in their eye line showing a live monitoring of a crucial metric for all to see. Everyone will know how things are going – what kind of a difference my effort is making.
  • This is important as it is relevant to a culture of accountability. A digital teams empowerment to take decisions is married to an accountability to deliver results. As an organisation matures, the metrics describing those results will become more discerning and probably more accurate. Digital businesses are data driven so, metrics are well thought through and will focus team effort.
  • An accountable team tends to be urgent and oriented to action. This is in part due to the goals being clearly set. I believe there is more than that alone. A good digital team, although not unique to the digital sphere, wants to have work to show for their efforts. They want to make something for their users to appreciate. Hence the focus on “shipping product”.
  • Another lens on urgency is a desire to act at speed. For many digital teams being slow (or feeling slow) is by nature a poor quality output.
    • “Good enough is great” is a well known rallying cry of the urgent. To be clear, this does not open the door to a compromise on quality. It centres on the idea that good enough for the user (by their definition) and in their browser to use is better than delayed polish. (I wholeheartedly agree with this – the L&D world has work to do).
  • Digital teams have a strong learning culture – perhaps the strongest. Coupled with the urgency to make and ship is the urgency to always improve what is shipped and how it is made. Hence the desire to learn.
    • Review and improve is an expectation of digital workplaces. The sprint retrospective has enshrined this in the flow of agile work. The team will know when things are working poorly and equally know that there is a regular and frequent opportunity to understand that and make changes. The result of the retrospective then becomes the plan for the next phase.
    • Test and improve equally drives the product focus. The question: “How well is our product/content/experience working?” is always ringing in the air. The reflex to seek evidence then creates user tests to gather that evidence and measure progress as changes are made. (Typing this out really does make it seem so obvious – it is quite strange that we don’t all do it all of the time).
    • Each one teach one. I am not aware of a profession that is as dedicated to the development of skills and knowledge as the world of software development. It is a very progressive approach to raising the tide of skills for all. (In quite stark contrast to cultural failings in other respects).  Stack Overflow is probably the greatest testament to this culture. It is a heavily relied on resource to help developers and related digital professionals move through problems, seek advice, request and gain instruction. The best contributions are voted up and the best advice rises to the top. There is much to learn for all of us from this model.
    • This learning culture does not rely on learning specialists, it is part of the fabric of the culture. Training courses are available and the excellent Pluralsight has become a fixture – I don’t sense that they are the foundation though.
  • All these cultural elements need a certain flavour of leadership to thrive. This also tends to be different from the traditional. It is:
    • Present and active – communication is frequent and easy to access. Social tools are used more readily and (hopefully) without the antiseptic filter of the internal comms group
    • All that empowerment and accountability is facilitated by an atmosphere of trust from leaders and managers who have clearly set expectations
    • I hesitate to use the ‘authentic’ word but there is a clear thread of personal and direct communication styles in digital leaders. Just as consumers have a sensitive nose for nonsense in the public sphere, employees can spot a line being spun from a great distance
    • Digital leadership needs to be simple, clear and focused – like a good product

Reflecting on the above points, I think there is much to learn for corporate functions here. A great deal of lip service can be paid to these cultural elements and little real progress is made. It is easy enough to find digital teams in our organisations or in supplier businesses and partners to spend a little time with them and see how they operate. The point about learning culture is worthy of focus.

Having spent some time in an amongst the L&D world, I believe there is much to learn here. Also much to test and improve, of course.

So, next will be, at some point, a post about digital organisation I think. Worthy of further word count?