Beyond the Individual – A Major Turning Point


…… Part of The Basics series. First published in August 2015 ……

Beyond the Individual to the Organizational Commons

Digital transformation starts with the individual. As digital spreads inside an organization, from person to person and team to team, the organizational commons begins to emerge. However, organizations quickly arrive at a make-it or break-it moment. Either digital remains an ad hoc, nice-to-have activity, or the organizational commons takes shape and digital transformation gets real.

By organizational commons, I mean networks and communities where resources, information and content are created by many and accessible to many. The determining principles are shared contributions, shared responsibilities and shared benefits. The commons is the springboard to digital transformation.

We Are at a Major Turning Point

The commons upsets the status quo in many organizations. Based on trust, the commons cannot flourish without radical changes in leadership and management practices in most organizations today. We have made progress but have reached a standstill, hopefully temporary.

Individual digital capabilities have increased significantly over the past 8 years.

Today, in 60% of organizations, people can share information directly, using blogs, wikis or other tools. The figure was 25% in 2007.

Platforms for organizational commons are now in place.

Today, 66% of organizations have deployed collaborative platforms. The figure in 2008 was 10%.

However, digital capabilities and the commons do not yet translate into operational reality.

The figures below are from 2014, but the responses in 2013 were approximately the same.

  • Only 4% of organizations said it is very easy for people to learn and develop their skills and knowledge in the natural flow of work.
  • Only 4% said it is very easy for customer-facing people to find the information and resources they need to do their jobs efficiently.
  • Only 1% said they are very confident that their organization can retain the knowledge and know-how of experts and specialists when they leave the organization.

The Main Hurdles Are in Mindset, Not Technology

For several years, the top obstacles cited in the surveys have been decision-making by consensus, internal politics, competing priorities, fear by management of losing control, and hesitation to rethink how we work.

Organizations with maturing digital workplaces report fewer obstacles. They also describe their work cultures as having a strong, shared sense of purpose, distributed decision-making and control, and freedom to experiment and take initiatives.

This makes sense: A shared sense of purpose means priorities are clear; politics have less impact on decision-making. People are working in the same direction and can be trusted to make decisions. When people are free to experiment, and failures are considered learning opportunities, hesitation to rethink how we work is not a major obstacle.

Trust Is the Missing Element

In this new era where many people are digitally capable, and collaborative platforms are deployed in many organizations, what is required for the step change to a digitally enabled organization?

The answer is trust. There is not enough trust inside organizations. Trust is lacking from the top down, from the bottom up and across organizational groups and silos. Many leadership and management practices are such that people find themselves with little control over their workplace, in competition with each other and, in general, feeling they are part of an “us versus them” dynamic.

An organizational commons is based on trust. Without trust, sharing will not happen freely. Without sharing, the commons cannot exist. Trust engenders distributed decision-making, working out loud in a spirit of transparency, and willingness to experiment — all necessary attributes for digital transformation.

A Common Agenda for All of Us: How to Use Digital to Enhance Trust

I propose the following points for thought and discussion over the coming months, and hope readers will share their experiences, and add to the list in the comments following this post. For each point below, the challenge is how to make it part of the natural way of working.

Rethink leadership.

We need to recognize that leadership is the ability to influence change, and not a question of position in a hierarchy. The edges of the organization should be leading digital initiatives: operational, sales, marketing and customer support teams — all close to customers — are well-placed to drive strategy, create value and play a leadership role.

At the same time, senior leaders need to go beyond vocal support for digital initiatives, get involved personally and show sustained commitment over time.

Humanize processes.

The performance management process can be made more human and meaningful through on-going conversations using of social collaborative technologies rather than yearly formal meetings.

Energize individuals and groups.

We need to recognize the value of the individual as part of a larger whole. Rewards and celebration of achievements should be based on group rather than individual performance. At the same time, entrepreneurship must be encouraged.

Communities are a major force in building connections across silos and bringing people with shared purposes together. They need to be given resources, consulted and recognized as key players in decision-making.

Listen to change activists.

Every organization has a few change activists — rebels in the work environment who see something they want to improve and don’t accept the answer this is how we do it here. They go outside normal channels, ignore the chain of command and incite others to join in their actions. These people are an invaluable source of feedback and can become your partners in digital transformation.

Digital Transformation Comes Down to Human Transformation

We talk about digital transformation but we’re really talking about is human transformation — new ways of working that are more collaborative, open, and based on principles of trust and sharing. It is up to all of us to build our organizational commons knowing that true leadership — the capacity to influence change — is in all of us, wherever we are and whatever we do.


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