Transform Work to Transform Culture

Most organizations want members of their workforce to be more collaborative, share information, and make better and faster decisions.  These pursuits are often termed workforce culture transformation.  For very large organizations, for example, elements of the federal government, this can be a daunting aspiration.

Consider experiences with two examples of transforming work.  Over the past couple of decades, computing and networking have transformed the processing of paper into processing computer files of documents, spreadsheets, and presentation slides.  My paper files have all but disappeared, replaced by over 50,000 files on my laptop.

All of us have learned new skills as this transformation has evolved.  For example, efficiently finding items among 50,000 files requires an organized hierarchy of folders with file names that include dates of creation or update and version numbers.  Further, Y2K taught us a bit about specifying dates.  I will be all set for Y3K!

The second example of transforming work is much more recent.  Over the past year, we have, perhaps unwillingly, embraced Teams, Zoom and other platforms for online meetings, education, and virtual get-togethers with family and friends.  There are social limitations, e.g., no after meeting drinks, but online gatherings are better than expected.

Another transformation, less of work than personal life, is how we shop.  Online retail was quickly growing before the pandemic, but has subsequently accelerated.  I bought all the new furniture for my apartment in Washington, DC while sitting in a comfortable armchair with my laptop.  When I arrived in DC, everything had arrived, watched over by the concierge.  I still find it amazing that you can buy a couch this way.

The “work” of our professional and personal lives has been transformed.  Has this made us more collaborative, inclined to share information, and better and faster decision making?  Consider these experiences:

  • My network of professional relationships has greatly expanded due to meeting attendance being logistically much easier.  In addition, the number of people viewing my public presentations has been much greater than when limited to physical attendance.
  • My inclinations to seek information to support problem solving and decision making have steadily increased, as has my willingness to share information, especially if the information is publicly available, but the recipient was not aware of this.
  • My decisions are better informed, both by evidence sought and by comments and suggestions from people in my professional network.  Decisions are faster, but whether they are better is still uncertain.  I have been able to get rid of bad ideas quickly.

There is a pervasive factor underlying these experiences.  I trust the people with whom I am interacting to be open and honest.  I trust the information sources I query, particularly if the people I trust have recommended these sources.  I trust the dialogues associated with the decisions entertained and scrutinized.  A culture of trust is precious and a culture of distrust can be totally debilitating.

Returning to the original question of cultural transformation, I think it can reasonably be argued that the transformation of professional and personal work has affected the culture of work.  Notice that all the changes indicated have resulted from the experiences of working differently, not from training on how better to collaborate or make decisions.  Training on how to work differently is nevertheless warranted.

Another factor is the design of work.  Work tasks that are redesigned to require collaboration and require access to and sharing of information are likely to facilitate and enhance these behaviors.  If it is required that decisions be evidence based, workers will learn how to access, analyze, and present evidence, perhaps abetted by appropriate training.  These skills will likely help them with career advancement.

Technology and circumstances have transformed how we work, but these changes have, quite reasonably, focused on how to do the work as we have long done it.  We now have the opportunity to redesign this work to better leverage these pervasive capabilities.  I expect our collective redesign of work, if fostered by trust, will further transform our culture of collaboration, information sharing, and decision making.

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