The secret of success in digital business: Give it a human heart

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Digital media has revolutionised business

We live in a era when every business is becoming a digital business. As the saying goes, the only constant in life is change. Digital media is at the forefront of many of the changes we see in how businesses work today. The economic climate continues to pressurise business, which means that the demand to embrace the benefits of digital becomes ever stronger – and for good reason. For example, Deloitte’s ‘The Digital Workplace’ shows how applying digital can help with collaboration to solve business problems, help with communications to ensure the right information reaches the right audience, and allow employees to connect across the organisation, to leverage intellectual property and gain insight from one another. Digital communication is clearly a powerful force for good in the workplace.

The importance of an organisation’s human side

Alongside this digital revolution, we have seen the emergence of a deeper understanding of the importance of human factors in business success. The importance of workplace engagement has come to the fore – the idea of: ‘If you build the people, they will build the business’.
Academic studies support the effects of positive emotions and cultures on organisation effectiveness, and leading business thinking increasingly emphasises the importance of business culture to creativity and innovation. A Harvard Business Review’s report sums it up: “a positive workplace is more successful over time because it increases positive emotions and well-being. This, in turn, improves people’s relationships with each other and amplifies their abilities and their creativity.”

A digital-human conundrum

And herein lies a problem. Digital media has emerged as the primary means of communication in an organisation, but there is a price to pay for the unquestionable benefits it brings. Used without boundaries, digital communication can damage the very human dynamics that are equally essential for business success. Nir Eyal, author of ‘Hooked; how to build habit forming products’ says  pervasiveness of technology cuts deep into the inspirational heart of an organisation. “Through people in an organisation always being connected there is increasing expectation to always be on, a sense that always being available is essential to progress, and a reduced sense of control over your own time. All of these combine to mean very high expectations and low control, a combination that is not only counter to creativity and productivity, but can even make people mentally ill

The problem is escalating.  In Collaborative Overload Harvard Business Review showed that ‘over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more’, and in ‘Is Technology really helping us get more work done’ added that though ‘productivity grew significantly faster during the 1990s and early 2000s than in previous years, today, productivity growth has declined appreciably, and since 2007 it hasn’t even kept up with inflation.’

Is digital good or bad for business?

So, it seems that not only are the benefits of digital for business plateauing, but that there is also a significant price to pay for those benefits through the damage done to the human heart of the organisation. This begs the question: Is digital good or bad for business? The answer, of course, is ‘both’. Digital is the classic two-edged sword. The more important question is whether organisations can somehow have the best of both worlds?.

The simple answer is yes. The digital medium is not the issue – the problem is how we manage it. That is, how we control it as individuals and as an organisation. And this presents an exciting opportunity for organisations. By developing a true understanding of where digital media helps and where it hinders, and applying that knowledge by adjusting how they use it, they can move towards that best of both worlds scenario.

A ‘best of both worlds’ digital business with a human heart

Understanding how your organisation communicates

In a recent interview Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, homed in on where to use digital and where human contact is best: “The job of digital communication is to take care of those low-bandwidth conversations, where things are on the record, you don’t have to remember the details, and the content is straightforward. A lot of information falls into that category. And then there are the high-bandwidth conversations, where people may or may not exchange factual information, such as stats, but where a high degree of trust is necessary. These types of conversations can benefit greatly from social signals such as body language and facial expressions’.

Does this help us towards that digital-human nirvana? The recognition of the value of social signals in communication from a leader of an organisation such as Slack is encouraging, but does this suggest the correct approach to find the best of both worlds? To somehow categorise types of communications into ‘low-bandwidth’ and ‘high-bandwidth’ groupings and treat them accordingly?.
If taken too literally, it won’t work. It ignores the many types of problems, contexts, personalities of people involved and level of urgency which means you either would require an unbelievably complex set of rules to cater for every situation, or that we need another approach.

Blending with an empathetic human approach

Commentators are suggesting that as society becomes driven by digital intelligence, it is essential we keep a sense of being human, not just for nostalgic reasons, but to make a better society.
Should we not apply the same line of reasoning with organisations?. A starting point might be to establish guidelines like Butterfield’s and from them suggest where it is imperative to have human contact.
Rather than a set of rules where there is a decision to be made, we should encourage a general empathetic approach drawn from Confucius: ‘Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire’. In other words, when you’re not sure whether to mail or speak, put yourself in the other person’s or people’s shoes, and think ‘what would work best for them?’ And if after applying this filter you’re still not sure, then ‘if in doubt, speak!’ (in person) if only to counterbalance the current opposite default to always send a message.

How can organisations make this type of change?  

It is interesting to note Butterfield’s view that making this important shift isn’t a simple overnight switch. ‘I think it takes time for people to learn how to really use digital communication — to offload the things that are better handled electronically while reinforcing culture and bonds through transparency. When these things happen, in-person communication becomes that much more valuable.’

It is this learning of how to really use digital communication that excites us at Thrive with Digital, and we see this as one of the great opportunities for business to thrive in this challenging climate. We have invested three years looking at how organisations can make that shift to a best of both worlds scenario for organisations where digital communication is cutting into their human heart. To make changes increase workplace engagement, stimulate creativity and innovation, to stimulate a sense of belonging and involvement. To achieve this through meetings where people are fully present rather than distracted by their phones. To filter the type of communication best managed digitally, and those best face to face. To present a human face to customers and partners. To have a sense of managing the digital revolution, rather than being managed by it.


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