Updated: Nov 30, 2021
An interview with organizational workplace expert Jane McConnell.
For nearly two decades Jane McConnell has been helping the world understand the role that digital technologies play in transforming the modern workplace. Jane’s landmark annual report, The Organization in the Digital Age, has stood among the clearest and most prescient guides to the radical changes that we have all experienced in our work lives.
In 2017 we sat down with Jane to mark the 10th anniversary of her report. We talked about why the intranet world was still stuck in first gear with mobile, the explosion of enterprise social networks, the ‘opening up’ of intranets to the outside world and how, through all the changes in technology that we’ve seen, our flesh-and-blood employees remain the killer app for organizations.
Since then, the world has only continued to accelerate. So we asked Jane to sit down with us again to discuss the state of the art and to see what she is working on these days.
“It’s clear the traditional intranet is no longer meaningful. It became like blinders, limiting sideways vision.”
1. Jane, probably the most provocative thing you said in our last conversation was “Intranets as we know them today are an endangered species, on their way to extinction.” Let’s get right into it. Do you still stand behind that statement?
Absolutely. The era we live in now is one where organizations are struggling to stay ahead of the game. Employees are increasingly frustrated with institutional limits on what they can do and how. That is one of the trends I saw over the last 3 years of my research on the organization in the digital age. It’s clear that the traditional intranet is no longer meaningful. It became like blinders, limiting sideways vision.
2. In 2017 the mobile intranet was lagging behind. Organizations that delivered a first-rate mobile experience for consumers were often delivering a third-rate experience for their employees. Since then mobile has continued to eat the world, and the workforce has become more nomadic. Is the mobile intranet catching up?
Yes, definitely. I know several large organizations where the mobile intranet is the only intranet.
As you know, in my work on the organization in the digital age, I defined a foundational framework of 9 dimensions, one of which is the Individual. The Individual dimension has grown significantly faster than the others. This means people are beginning to take control of where, when and how they work. The mobile intranet is part of that movement. It means people can seek and read information and share with others via the intranet, using it when they wish and where they are. This is a huge change. People are no longer stuck to their desktops.
3. Intranets have long been private spaces for use by employees only. We saw that changing suddenly as the rest of the web became more open and interconnected. We were seeing intranets that served partners and customers as well as employees. And some that integrated content from hundreds of sources outside of the business. Has this trend continued or is the pendulum swinging the other way again?
The trend has continued, fortunately, but not fast enough! I say this because a weak area for most organizations is lack of awareness of what is happening around them in the outside world. Employees need to be encouraged to join external networks and invite outsiders to come to their companies for peer-to-peer exchanges.
Even leaders often have limited vision of the constant change that is going on and the new sources of competition coming from different places: startups, faraway countries, and even other industries. There’s a lot of cross-industry products and services coming out. Companies are no longer staying in their lanes. Some examples are Sony, the giant we know for electronics and entertainment, has started to produce electric parts for automobiles. Fujifilm, the camera company, has a brand of cosmetics, Astalift, based on antioxidants used in its core business. This was unheard of in the past.
4. Four years ago, enterprise social networks were hot and increasingly ubiquitous in organizations. Less certain was whether they were adding business value or creating a distraction instead. At the time you rated their success rate as low to moderate. Now that we’re past the experimental stage, would you answer this question differently today?
Yes I would. For many organizations, the enterprise social network is the place where things happen. Unfortunately, some people recreate the same old organizational silos on the social network, but many have realized the value of opening up. I know a global sports equipment chain that does not allow groups on their social network to be created around functional roles. All groups must be topic, problem, task or client-related.
5. In your opinion what are the best sources of information today for organizational workplace leaders?
I don’t want to make specific recommendations but will share my own approach. I use Twitter as an identifier and filter of people and ideas that interest me. Based on tweets and keywords, I have created 10 or 12 private lists (on Twitter). This is my go-to place on a near daily basis. I also have found LinkedIn becoming more useful than in the past. There is a lot of self-promotion on it, like all social networks, but it’s easy to cut through the BS and hide or unfollow people who are not bringing value. Another thing I use LinkedIn for is seeing who my connections are connected to. I have found some very interesting sources of ideas that way, people I had not known myself. When I request a connection, I always explain why – what it is in that person’s work or profile that interests me. That works well.
6. Looking ahead, what are the most important developments you see in organizations today?
I have written about the increasing gap I saw in my data between the Individual and Leadership.
This all led to my current research about the gig mindset inside organizations. For me, this is one of the most important emerging trends, one that in my opinion can profoundly change how companies work. I carried out a new survey about the gig mindset inside organizations and 300 people around the world participated.
7. What do you mean by gig mindset? Are you referring to the gig economy which is exploding in many places?
No, I’m talking about a new mindset inside organizations. I have written a book about it which will be published in the spring. The title is The Gig Mindset Advantage: Why a Bold New Breed of Employee is Your Organization’s Secret Weapon in Volatile Times”. It will be available in April 2021.
Here’s a direct quote from the first chapter where I set the scene:
“The gig-mindset is a way of working where people take initiatives, experiment with new methods, and share their work openly. Gig mindsetters network extensively, interacting, sharing, and contributing information with others. They keep their eyes on what’s happening in the external world. They do not hesitate to question the status quo and often come up with new ways to deal with problems and challenges.”
In that chapter, I talk about civil disobedience from gig mindsetters who are striving to bring benefits to the organization and how they too often find themselves working against willful blindness on the part of management. This leads to different outcomes, some positive, some neutral and a few negative. I have numerous examples in the book.
8. What might tomorrow look like?
I have developed six case studies I call “Stories from the future”. They are real life examples of organizations who have already engrained or are beginning to cultivate a gig mindset culture inside their organization. They are inspiring examples and illustrate that it truly is possible. It means looking at the workplace with a new lens and moving forward in what I define as a structured way or a spontaneous way. I define each of the two approaches in the book, and personally believe both are possible.
One thing is clear. In order to survive, organizations, especially the large ones, need to learn to work in a different way. The Gig Mindset Advantage offers examples and practical guidelines to help both individual and leaders to do this.
You can read the original interview with Jane from February of 2017 here: LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/whos-boss-now-technology-future-work-scott-mcdonald/
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