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 Co-Authored by Steve Stanton and Frank Wander

Digitization is everywhere.  

Organizations in every sector are rushing to deploy new technologies to automate their processes in reaction to intense competition.  It’s inescapable and it changes everything.  It’s changing the products and services organizations provide and the shape and behavior of the organizational models that create those offerings.  It’s changing how organizations interact with their customers, suppliers, regulators, and shareholders. Digitization’s impact is vast and still growing.

Internally, digitization is driving new process capabilities, catalyzing organizational delayering, and offering new approaches to connecting employees together. As tasks get automated, and the role of employees change, the impacts are felt in the role of management, the nature of leadership, and the cohesion of the work community.  

And, of course, it’s impacting the number of jobs, and the fundamental nature of work and workers. 

As organizations add new technologies, they typically face a stark choice -  automate the work or augment the worker.  On one hand, automation simply eliminates the worker. On the other, augmentation keeps the worker but requires enhancing both their capabilities and motivations. A fully augmented employee fully understands what they need to do, has the capabilities to do it, and the desire to do it well.  Check out the employees at an Apple Store’s Genius Bar, to see what augmented work truly looks like. 

So, leaders must now begin to understand what roles and processes are assets, and which are expenses.  They must also articulate which ones are strategic, because they help them grow their business, and which ones are the costs of keeping the doors open.  Categorizing everything this way enables leaders to understand where workers should be augmented, and where they should not.  As always, companies must grow assets, and lower expenses.  

Digitization Challenges the Very Nature of Employee Engagement

The relentless march of digitization is destabilizing everything in its path and transforming the rules of engagement. Approached insensitively, digital transformation presents a significant threat to employee engagement; however, if approached thoughtfully, it offers a major opportunity to inspire workers, deepen their engagement and motivate them to actively transform their organizations.

Threats to engagement from digitization:

  • Increased uncertainty about the future as technology-driven layoffs abound
  • Diminished job security in the face of escalating automation
  • Fewer career advancement opportunities due to flattened organizational structures and smaller staffs
  • Fewer jobs stresses community building
  • More complex work as humans and technology must coexist in more ways and more frequently
  • More and better digitized tools will require more training. Will organizations invest?
  • The accelerating pace of change means a constant need to reinvent yourself
  • The loss of autonomy as decision routines are automated and more work becomes autonomic
  • Less privacy as a tradeoff for better security
  • Constant scrutiny and feedback
  • More work rigidity due to inflexible software

 Opportunities for deeper engagement from digitization:

  • Increased opportunities for meaningful work as low value added tasks are automated
  • Lower barriers to entry for entrepreneurs (when everything is available on demand)
  • Better availability of training materials makes continuous learning a satisfying reality
  • More information availability assists in less guessing and more data driven decision making
  • More and better electronic connections between employees - smart human nodes in a big network, resulting in larger, better communities
  • Improved transparency boosts morale (done right it is a strategic advantage)
  • Better feedback from automated metrics
  • Better training due to new training tools

 Obviously, many of these threats and opportunities are flip sides of the same core issue.  The possibility for enhanced engagement will depend on how these issues are resolved.



The New Rules of Digitized Engagement

These seven elements should form the foundation of your approach to engagement in the digital era:

Trust becomes even more important in a digital world as “fake news” and data overload make it critical to have confidence in your communications.  This means believing that what your boss says is true and that organizational pronouncements are also true and not propaganda. It means that when your organization says your job is secure, it really is.  Trust drives engagement when your organization’s actions are in alignment with its mission.  Unfortunately, it is often lacking.  A 2014 survey by the American Psychological Association revealed that 1 in 4 workers don’t trust their employer, and only half feel they are transparent (Link). 

Transparency must grow simply because digitization makes secrecy more difficult.  When everyone is sharing data, and spending much of their time communicating, transparency becomes a critical enabler of Trust. For example, this means sharing good news and bad, and being allowed to see what might hurt you.  Transparency grows when everyone is educated on how the organization actually works, not just their local department; transparency enhances innovation by inculcating a feedback-driven culture where it’s safe to make mistakes as long as you learn from them; and, transparency also encourages experimentation.

Time becomes the scarcest commodity in a digitized organization.  As emails eat up hours every day and meetings consume days every week, it’s absolutely critical that employees have time to think.  If they don’t, all they can do is manage symptoms and operate in reactive modes.  When digitization enables thinking time, employees can create more thoughtful plans and scenarios, and solve problems rather than just manage symptoms.  If you are interested in digging into this, here is a link to a long video, No Time to Think, that explores why think time matters, and what to do about it.  

Tools represent the working partnership between man and machine. Instead of replacing humans, automation can provide AI-driven decision support that complements human perception.  Technology enabled learning and execution tools can provide performers with access to the right data, at the right time, in the right format, to make optimized decisions or to take the appropriate actions. When CSRs use context-sensitive buttons on their screens to answer complex customer questions, this synergy becomes obvious.

Training investment becomes the new source of competitive advantage. If employees are truly the organizations most precious assets, then training is the way to increase the value of those assets.   Happily, technology is accelerating innovation in the training world in terms of both content and delivery.  Increasingly, customized, just-in-time (JIT), e-learning is being made available to employees around the globe.  As analog traditional training goes on-line, peer-to peer learning in communities of practice can make best practices available everywhere instantly. A large global electronics company has embraced their internal social media as a way to connect employees around the globe with thousands of ongoing conversations about products, processes, and customers. All of this enhanced capability both allows better employee execution and job satisfaction.

Teamwork multiplies in terms of value creation and employee satisfaction as market turbulence requires new levels of interdisciplinary collaboration.  As intranets weave organizations together into tight networks, increased cross-functional cooperation will knock down the walls of dysfunctional silos.  As networks of networks proliferate, teamwork across organizational boundaries will proliferate solving market eco-system problems and will help make partners out of adversaries. Deploying cross-functional teams, as many car manufacturers have done, both accelerates time to market and enhances product functionality as employees cooperate beyond their functional silos.

Talent becomes the major source of competitive advantage.  Advanced technologies always degrade into commodities, but capable and engaged employees can adapt to ever-changing conditions.  Digitization is shifting the mix of capabilities needed for success, as emotional maturity and agility become capabilities that computers cannot copy.  Automation does not change the need for augmented employees, it only enhances the need for human talent.  In this recent article, Why Employees at Apple and Google are More Productive, you’ll learn why time, talent and energy are used by top performing companies to build an unbeatable workplace.  What is the level of organizational drag and productivity where you work?

Smart organizations will understand that work requires both automation and augmentation.  People are your greatest asset because they bring technology to life.  To ensure that augmentation is complete, leaders must look beyond software and tools, and beyond thinking of employees as costs, and develop new and innovative approaches to engage their augmented employees; they must understand the difference between talent assets, and talent expenses.  Only then can they invest wisely and achieve the full benefits of digitization.


About Steve Stanton

Steve is the author of the recently published  book, Smart Work: Why Organizations Full of Intelligent People Do So Many Dumb Things and What You Can Do About It.”  He is a pioneer of process innovation. For thirty years his work has been focused on improving the capability of organizations to transform themselves. Mr. Stanton is also the co-author, with Dr. Hammer, of “The Reengineering Revolution” (HarperBusiness) and the Harvard Business Review article “How Process Organizations Really Work.” Mr. Stanton holds an MBA from Harvard and a BA from the Berklee School of Music.

About Frank Wander

Frank Wander, a former turnaround CIO, is founder and CEO of PeopleProductive (, a workforce productivity company that helps customers get the best out of their people.  PeopleProductive is Talent Management Reimagined®.

He is also the author of Transforming IT Culture: How to Use Social Intelligence, Human Factors and Collaboration to Create an IT Department That Outperforms (Wiley Publishing). This unique book is the very first operator’s manual for the human infrastructure, and will help you successfully transform your leadership style and your organization.


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