Digital transformation: How community and collaboration drive results

What can internal community management bring to your digital transformation efforts? Grassroots support for change, for starters
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The “smack my head” moment came for Rachael Happe, co-founder of The Community Roundtable, as she was reading a PWC article about  digital transformation that started with “Mandate change — don’t just talk about it.”

“Maybe that’s why so many organizations fail?” she lamented in a Tweet, adding (when prompted for clarification), “Change cannot be mandated. You can bribe/punish people into it but you won’t get their best work.”

In fairness, I’m not sure PwC authors Tom Puthiyamadam and David Clarke meant to state that change can simply be mandated, only that leadership commitment is an important starting point for what they call digital “transcendence” (because “transformation” is such an overused word). The PwC article ends with a discussion of how people and culture can be critical to transformation.

Still, Happe, who has studied the dynamics of communities and collaboration in the digital world for years — and is working on a book titled “Control is for Amateurs” — thinks it’s telling that consultants lean toward putting a leadership mandate at the top of their list.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

Happe has always argued against emphasizing the features of digital community tools rather than the human qualities of the communities they enable. Her organization brings together community managers, professionals who promote the health of internal and external communities.

"You’re going to get to change much faster, and more sustainably, if you give people equal power.

“All this top-down change drives me crazy,” she says. “Yes, absolutely it’s important to have managers on board – without them, it doesn’t work. But step two is you’re going to get to change much faster, and more sustainably, if you give people equal power.”

Success is much less likely if your objective has no meaning for the people in your organization, she says. “When you exert pressure on someone, their visceral response is to push back.”

Happe’s concept of more distributed leadership reminds me a bit of the API-like, componentized organization that MIT’s Jeanne Ross talks about as one of the common themes among companies that have been successful with digital transformation. (This is outlined in "Designed for Digital," the book Ross co-authored with Cynthia M. Beath and Martin Mocker.) One difference is that Ross and her colleagues studied autonomy (and accountability) for teams more than individuals.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Are you collaborating - or chatting?

Happe’s organization, The Community Roundtable, was created around the time of a surge in interest in company-wide enterprise social networks. Today, that enthusiasm seems to have faded, while more compartmentalized collaboration tools based on team chat, like Slack and Microsoft Teams, are ascendant.

She is seeing a resurgence of interest in customer-facing digital communities but says many organizations seem unwilling to invest in internal community management.

“The joy of Slack is it’s pretty unstructured,” she says, which allows employees to start interacting quickly. The tradeoff is the interactions in chat-centric collaboration environments are more transitory, with less emphasis on organizing and capturing information for future use. To paraphrase: If you can’t find something with a quick search, you may not be able to find it at all.

The organizations that have continued to invest in internal communities see the benefits when they need to enlist employees for a big initiative. That’s because employees have more faith that they will be listened to (and won’t face retaliation if they state uncomfortable truths), Happe says.

She mentions one client that recently conducted a worldwide “strategy jam” discussion about new directions for the company, which worked because employees had years of experience with respectful collaboration in a digital community. “Those employees will have a far better understanding of the company strategy than if you gave them a 20-page document and said ‘Here, read this.’”

Taking an open approach to collaboration pays off at those times when you need to move fast, notes Jason Hibbets, senior community architect at Red Hat. "When working openly on a project, you'll spend more time up front gathering input and feedback. But once you make a decision, you can execute quickly. This is the value of working openly and inclusively: People who might disagree with the decision felt like they were consulted and should have a clear understanding of why the decision was made."

[ Read also: The challenges of decoding open source DNA, by Jason Hibbets. ]

A CIO's perspective on community and digital transformation

So how important is community to digital business transformation? I tried bouncing Happe’s ideas off Les Ottolenghi, former CIO of Caesars Entertainment and the Las Vegas Sands. “Most of the digital [transformation] value comes from a reduction in friction and time,” Ottolenghi says. “It is an opportunity to connect better with other people.” He agrees that cultural change is certainly part of achieving digital transformation.

As a technology leader focused on business results, Ottolenghi was more interested in talking about the phenomenon of “two-sided” or “multi-sided” platform businesses that make their money by bringing together multiple parties, while minimizing overhead. “You connect the buyers and the suppliers, or the makers and the taxers, set the standards, and take transaction fees on exchanges,” he says.

That’s the story of Amazon versus Wal-Mart or Netflix versus Disney, in Ottolenghi’s mind. Similarly, he adds, the most profitable opportunities in gaming revolve around digital gaming, not casinos.

“To move in that direction, depending on the hierarchy of your organization, it may be only a few people at the top you have to convince,” Ottolenghi says. “But I would still say you have to infuse this in the culture by leading by example.” A good culture change program would include initiatives across human resources, benefits, and internal communications groups, he says, and also tools for employees to help them get their jobs done. 

Collaboration tools that help turn employees into digital natives can be part of that, Ottolenghi says. He is also interested in tools that apply artificial intelligence to the challenge of recognizing patterns in corporate communications and collaboration.

For example, by mapping information flows across the company, digital systems can start to detect how often an important email sits unread before being acted on. The holy grail of such analytics is to reap the value of all employee digital contributions, not just data entered into a form.

“You figure that out, man, and you own it!” Ottolenghi says. “That’s where you’re going to be able to slingshot past your competitor.”

[ Is your digital strategy up to date? Read also: 8 digital transformation trends for 2020. ]

David F. Carr is a writer, speaker, student of digital business, and the author of "Social Collaboration for Dummies." He previously served as an editor for InformationWeek, Baseline Magazine, and Internet World and has written for Forbes, CIO Magazine, and Defense Systems.