How disruptive technology and culture go together

On Monday I had the pleasure of discussing all things disruptive technology and culture at Social Media Inside the Large Enterprise conference aka #smilelondon.

The day was expertly hosted by Marc Wright of simplycommunicate, and Jenni Field of Redefining Communications. It was packed with insights and case studies from comms pros including Larraine Solomon, Head of Comms and Engagement at Monster Worldwide and CIO Bryan Ackermann from Korn Ferry.

Jenni chaired the panel session I was on alongside Dana Leeson of BSI and Wedge Black of Clear Box Consulting and Intranet Now. Jenni, Dana and I run The IC Crowd together, you can join us on Twitter @TheICCrowd.

It was great fun speaking alongside them and we’ve all known our friend Wedge for years, so the 40 minutes flew by. I’ve had our conversation transcribed so you can read what we discussed if you weren’t in the room.

Grab a cup of tea and join me for our discussion below. You can also see conversations from the day on Twitter using #smilelondon.

How disruptive technology and culture go together (or not)

Jenni: Let’s start by defining Disruptive Technology.

Wedge: Disruptive Technology is a serious thing to consider. This is about digital transformation. It isn’t about incremental improvements. So, if we’re going to talk about digital disruption, this is something that can change the business and damage people’s workflows, their daily lives, for a period of time. So it’s a really serious commitment to make. This isn’t about deploying an intranet. It’s about changing the business with tech.

Rachel: Disruption is something which is upsetting, changes the status quo and can make everybody feel quite miserable, so disruption by the nature of the word is something you will try to avoid. Disruption for many organisations may be turning comments on the news articles on the intranet, because that’s not the norm for their culture.

Dana: There’s different levels of disruption, I looked at Cambridge Dictionary and the general definition is, ‘To prevent something, especially a system, process or event from continuing as usual or as expected.’ So, you could say on the maturity scale there’s a level zero to a level five and it’s about defining actually, how disruptive it is. Is it negative? Does it have a positive impact but it is ultimately a change.

Jenni: Can culture and Disruptive Tech work together as part of a well-planned strategy?

Wedge: Well, they better because without the two you’re not going to get nothing. So, we’re talking about how much are you investing in this technology that you claim is going to disrupt and bring benefits as well. Those benefits are only going to be realised if you’re investing in people. When I say investing, I do mean money as well and your communicator’s time.

Rachel:  Any decision you make needs to be based on your culture. You need to know how you articulate your culture. I like a bit of Comms theory, so I use the Deal and Kennedy definition (1982) of culture, which is: ‘The way things are done around here.’ If the way things are done around here is that you don’t use apps, or shiny, flashy, whizzy technology, you just have conversations, when you introduce something shiny and whizzy, technology-wise, your culture needs to adjust.

You have to understand your culture and make smart decisions about what are you introducing and for what purpose.

Dana: I think that disruptive technology is just one medium of helping your culture. Lots of us have grown up where we would hear from different NGO organisations where they’re talking about grassroots movements and it’s about how you can elicit change. Disruptive technology and some of those different aspects of it is actually just helping a grassroots movement but you don’t necessarily need that technology to actually alter your culture.

Jenni: When do you know that it’s the right time to make that investment and make that leap into disruption?

Rachel: You make your decisions after being informed by your organisation. When I joined London Overground as Head of Comms about 10 years ago, I had all of these ideas around how I was going to digitise them and have everyone Tweeting, with amazing digital and social everything. Then I went there and I paused. I did a 90-day plan and just listened. As a result, I realised that would be completely the wrong thing for their culture.

It might have been what I thought was important, but if I’d not listened and just gone in and said: ‘We’re going to do this and it’s going to be great,’ it would have been horrendous because it wasn’t the right thing to do for that culture. So we need to, yes, come to things like this and listen and see what’s out there, but then make decisions formed by the reality of your organisation.

Wedge: I think the time to bring in disruptive technology is when you have to. I’m a big fan of continuous improvement. If you get a new intranet or you deploy a better Enterprise Social Network, ESN, that might not be disruptive if it’s right for your culture. If that’s what is needed and so you can do that with a good deployment and a good engagement programme.

If you’re going to actually revolutionise how people work, change their job role, rearrange the department so they focus on different customer aspects, the things that customers want, that may be disruptive. Only be disruptive when you have to. When the market forces you to. If the environmental stimuli are pressing on your business, then you must adapt. It’s evolution.

Dana: Disruption is a natural step of when something is wrong or is failing and if things are still working it’s just about that continual improvement. The operational efficiency is the term that I enjoy to use at BSI.

Jenni: How much Disruptive Technology is too much disruption?

Rachel: I think if it disrupts what you’re meant to be doing as a business. If you’re introducing loads of new disruptive tech because it looks like a good thing to do you may actually just be increasing the noise in your organisation.

I find that when I’m analysing organisations’ internal comms channels, that they keep adding them.  My question is ‘OK, great, so what did you retire when you introduced the new thing?’ and often they’ll say: ‘Ooh. Ooh, no we didn’t.’ So, the noise goes up.

So for me, the disruptive technology when it’s too much disruption, when there’s too much noise. When you can’t cut through.

Dana: Too much disruption is when it’s killing the business and market. Too much disruption is when it’s not linked to a strategy and not linked to objectives and goals.

Jenni: That’s it. Just have objectives and goals? That nicely summarises that point, I think. Let’s have questions from the audience…

A1: I actually think the idea of disruption is real but it’s a bit of a myth because everyone thinks that technology changes by the second, by the minute. It actually doesn’t, in my opinion. So the question back to you, don’t we think, is technology happening too fast or is it sometimes happening not fast enough? Is disruption a real thing or a bit of a myth? 

Rachel: I had a bit of a rant on Twitter earlier about we are still having the same conversations we were having the 10 years ago. I actually scrolled back through my Tweets and I found one from 2009 while I was sat at the back earlier about Yammer. Is it good, is it bad? What do we think? And I’m like pretty sure I saw that Tweet today, as well.

So I don’t think it moves too fast. I think our understanding of the purpose has been slow to catch up. So, not just introducing something to have it, but defining a purpose and a business case. A business use for it. That has been a longer, maturing conversation. So, I think, yes, there’s more platforms, yes, there’s more choice, but I think that we need to do our homework first.

Dana: I think maybe in your organisations, I know particularly in ours, we’re having conversations of where we are preparing for our market disruptor, our Uber, our Airbnb, but we’ve been talking about that now for a couple of years and if we are having that much time to actually plan for our market disruptor, is that a disruptor? So yeah, I’m with you on that. I think it is, for certain markets, it can be quite quick, but for what we’re dealing with here and now, I do think that it actually is more of just little enhancements and little changes and it’s just trying to mirror that activity.

Wedge: But to be a little bit empathetic, I’ve been doing a lot of user research recently, which can be surveys, but it often comes down to face-to-face interviews and people have told me that they’re just tired of any change. So, a year ago, they were told, mandated, Yammer is the way we do things now and then last month, Microsoft Teams became the new thing and we didn’t retire any channels.

There was no stop, start, continue analysis of what we’re doing to the front line. So the front line aren’t tracking how fast technology is changing, they’re just noticing when someone above says ‘Hey, you’ve got to do this now,’ and they think ‘Why? Two months ago you told me it was something else.’ That’s the frustration.

Jenni: Do you think that comes back to the fact that there is no silver bullet to solve some of the challenges that we have around communication in the workplace?

Rachel: The silver bullet for me is insight. It’s true insight from your organisation. The word audit means to listen and that’s what we need to do constantly. Listen to our organisation. No one knows it better than our employees. When people bring me in as a consultant to help them communicate, I listen to their employees, because they know way better than I do. That’s really important for us as practitioners.We need to listen and our employees will tell us what’s working and what’s not.

Wedge: I’m absolutely jumping on this listening point. If we’re doing our user research to find out what people’s problems are, maybe a few years ago when it was a little bit green, I would go away with that information and I would think and cogitate about what solution I would then provide to them.

I feel a bit bad about that now, because now I realise, those people who were telling me about the problems? They can imagine the solutions if we give them the framework of what’s available. So more than listening, true involvement in the solutions, because they’re on the front line and you just said, they’re the best people to know it.

Rachel: I think it’s also about asking the right questions. If you ask people what they want, they’re say posters and apps and if you go back a year later and say, how is it working for you, they’ll say there’s too many posters and apps. So just the semantics in us asking, what do you need? What information do you need to help you do your job? Then let’s talk technology. To me, that’s critical.

Dana: You have to be careful with what questions you ask and I think this is where trying to actually speak with some of the experts out there about trying to not ask those biased-led questions. So I don’t know if anybody’s heard about the BA experience where when they were re-launching their whole Club World, that’s the business class, and they were introducing the Club Kitchen, so that’s where you can go up and get your snacks and they asked all of their all of their members, ‘What kind of snacks would you like? Here’s the healthy snacks, here’s the not so healthy snacks,’ and everybody, everybody answered healthy snacks. If I’m on an eight-hour flight, I want healthy snacks. They ignored that and they put a combination and they then looked at what different snacks were taken after a six month period, it was all the unhealthy snacks and the healthy snack weren’t touched at all.

Wedge: So as always, behaviour trumps self-reporting.

Wedge: People say, ‘I’d like more documentaries and I want to read factual books on holiday,’ but what we actually watch is trash. People watch trash at the weekend. So when we say we have to ask people about these solutions, what I mean is I want to understand their job because they might say that they want post-it notes and apps but actually their behaviour tells me they want desktop.

Dana: Yes, so we think that there is a silver bullet of activities but then what we do from those activities and those information that you get from your colleagues from the organisation, that’s where it’s different and unique to your organisation.

There can be transferrable interesting nuggets, whereas from Monster, you learn that they did one specific activity, you need to modify it a bit. But then you could actually take that theme.

A2: So, how do we change culture without forcing that change, because that’s just going to put people’s backs up and it’s just not going to work at all. Driving people to use different method and means of communication and all these new tool that we’re going to be giving them. If we sort of put it in their face, I think they’re just going to reject it.

Rachel: I agree with that. You can’t change – and particularly culture change – something by doing it to people. It’s for them and with them. So the mindset has to be, understanding where you are now and where you want to be and then making incremental steps and it’s with your people. It’s not just, ‘We’re now going to be collaborative.’ Particularly when thinking about working out loud and collaboration, it’s a mindset shift.

It’s the opposite of how we’re taught. We’re taught to shield our work at school, to keep our knowledge as power. Keep it to yourself. If you’re moving to a collaborative culture where you’re saying the complete opposite, you’re re-educating people, so you need to do that with them and they have to understand what it is you’re intending to achieve. You can’t just say ‘We’re now going to be collaborating,’ and I’m going to log on to here, to Yammer, for ten minutes and be social. It just doesn’t work like that at all, So I hear you. It’s identifying why you need to change your culture. What is it that’s broken, what isn’t working very well and you do that by gathering insight from your employees.

Dana: And sometimes it’s just observing what actually your colleagues are doing. So I think that we actually can change culture. When I started at BSI almost ten years ago, there was a defined dress code to the point where the previous CEO would send out a memo if you saw people not wearing that specific dress code. But people slowly stopped wearing ties, people slowly started wearing jeans, people slowly started working from home and then our culture has changed to being more of a, ‘We’re 60% occupancy in a building. So, we’re not going for 100%.’ We’re doing smart working principle.

We do remote-based working. It is where can you work in a meeting room or in a stand-up desk or in a project table, and so forth, and that’s been the response because of some people actually just making the change themselves and that’s how our culture has changed.

Wedge: It is about the timeframe. Deploying new technology into your digital workplace might take you less than a year. But getting the ROI or rather getting the benefits out of it because of people using it in an appropriate way for them is going to be staggered.

If you have stakeholders asking you for, ‘What’s the ROI, how do we hit our KPIs? These adoption rates on the first week of launch.’  I don’t care about adoption rates in the first week of launch. Everyone’s going to have a look. We’re all going to rubberneck and say, ‘What have they done to us?’, but the real KPIs are what are people doing a year later with or without our governance? Without or without our permission.

Just talking and just agreeing you can’t force culture. I think if we do push culture with additional regulations or additional governance, you’ll find that you’ll swing it, but like with many things with humans, it’ll come back to the mean, so if we push it too far with technology by taking things away from people or governing them to the nth degree, we can push culture but it’s going to swing back to the mean.

Whenever I get stuck on understanding culture, I go to Dave Gray in America. He does something called culture-mapping and icebergs, so you should check out Dave Gray.

Dana: Dave Gray’s also fantastic for if you’re doing conversations with people who are wanting to listen, without just going with that question, ‘What do you want?’ He’s got a fantastic book and website called Game Storming which has loads of different activities that you can do depending on what you want out of it.

A3:  What tech is often viewed as disruptive that you think is actually essential and businesses just need to adapt or suck it up?

Dana: When we first introduced Skype for Business which was Lync, which was Office Communicator, that was seen as quite disruptive in 2012 as people could see if you were available.

Rachel:  I think sometimes it’s comments. I’m still having conversations with people who are saying, we’re not quite sure about turning on comments on news articles. Why? What is it you think is going to happen? People might be negative. Yes they will, but then you can see it. That’s a good thing. Because they’re going to have those conversations anyway. Great to have it in a space where you can respond and I feel like I’m on repeat.

But for some organisations that feels massive, a huge step change and a mindset shift to, ‘We’re not in control of the conversation.’ Guess what, you never really were.

Social media and particularly in internal social media is a conversation owned by the organisation.

It’s not a comms thing, it’s nothing to do with us. Yes we’re championing etc, but it’s a conversation owned by the organisation. Comments are an amazing way to really understand what people are talking about.

Dana: I find the telephone is actually my most disruptive technology. You could be really in the zone e.g. writing a strategy paper and somebody continually calling you, then leaving a voicemail, then messaging you is disruptive.

Wedge: What’s essential is editing or reviewing one single document, probably in the cloud, probably in your intranet. I’m still helping organisations move away from attaching documents to email and saying, ‘Hey, Sandra, John and Malc, can you please review this.’ No, send them a link to the one single document and you can all deal with it together.

Jenni: How long do you think it’s going to be before that’s the norm?

Wedge: Well, I’m going grey now, so–

Jenni: One last question.

A4:  There’s been a lot of Tweeting today about measurement but it’s a thing that matters to us, it’s culture. Is there a way that we can meaningfully measure that or do we just know it when we see it?

Rachel: Measurement is the Achilles’ heel of internal communicators. It’s not a dark art at all. Measuring internal comms and measuring culture can be done. It should be done, but for me, it’s understanding what it is you’re trying to achieve. What is your measure of success? Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it matters. What is it you want to measure?

One of the biggest problems we have is we focus on outputs, not outcomes as internal comms people. We get obsessed with clicks and obsessed with ‘Likes’ and we don’t think about the outcome. So I think for culture it’s all about the outcome. So what is that outcome that you’re trying to drive within your organisation? That’s where we need to put our energies and our focus.

Dana:  That’s a cracker of a question. I think what you also need to remember that if you’re looking at, kind of, measurement of something culture that could be a bit more difficult. It’s how you contribute to that because it could be many other elements that are not for us in the room, solely us doing. I think it’s not like we did this one activity which means then we did something to decrease something by 20%.

Jenni: I think there’s something to be said if you look at Simon Sinek – he has an interview with somebody where he talks about the love that you have for your partner and he says, ‘Right now, how much do you love them? And now, measure that love,’ and that’s really hard to do because it’s actually a relationship and culture is also about relationships. So I think Rachel’s right and the guys are right, but I think there’s something in there about how you quantify your culture and your relationships outside of work and whether we get stuck trying to do the same in the workplace when actually it’s not overly necessary.

Dana:  I don’t even think I would even try to do measurement on culture at the moment because I don’t even know where I would even begin and I know that for some recommendations, but if you don’t know Simon, please do watch his Ted Talk with “Start with the Why” or “Leaders eat last.” They’re fantastic videos and books. Really fantastic.

Jenni: One more, last one. So this is from Liz. “As you’ve mentioned that disruption should only happen when you have to. Many organisations have included the digital transformation as part of their strategy in anticipation of changes in their industry. How should Internal Comms enable this? Should we lead by example?”

Wedge: Somebody said that a CEO wanted the Comms Team to go to them and say, ‘Here’s how I can help you achieve our business goals?’ So that would be a yes, Liz. On the hand, I might say no, because we have to be aligned with the business. We’re not leading the business. So I said yes and no.

Rachel: I think Digital Transformation is such a misnomer. For me, I really struggle with it because if I ask people to articulate what does that mean? What does transformation mean? What does good look like? How are you going to get there?

Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on the All Things IC blog 14 November 2018.


  1. […] published on the All Things IC blog 14 November […]

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