The Digital Age Requires a New Way of Working

Edward D. Hess and Kazimierz Gozdz ,

Global high-speed connectivity, smart technology infused into every business function, consumers and customers linked and empowered through social media, and Big Data generated by the Internet of Things throughout one’s ecosystem and value chain — these realities will produce high cognitive and emotional demands on humans for the highest and fastest levels of critical and innovative thinking,  hyper-learning and decision-making. And since those tasks are optimized through effective teams, the highest levels of human emotional and social intelligence will be required.

That will be a challenge for many companies because of factors such as suboptimal employee engagement, internal corporate politics or the maniacal focus on efficiency that constricts learning, innovation, creativity and experimental risk-taking. Such environments are generally characterized by internal competition and gamesmanship, hierarchy, ego, fear, fiefdoms, and philosophies exemplified by expressions like “go along to get along,” “the boss knows best,” and “don’t challenge the status quo.”

What You’ll Need

What will be needed in the digital age is a work environment of Psychological Safety that enables an Idea Meritocracy evidenced by candor, challenging the status quo, data-driven decision-making, permission to speak freely, rapid experimentation, hyper-learning and allowance to make learning mistakes within financial parameters. The goal is the highest levels of human cognitive and emotional performance. That requires the right mindsets, behaviors and processes. How people talk to each other, how people listen, how people emotionally connect, how people manage their thinking and emotions, and how people collaborate are all examples of the granular nature of daily behavioral focus that will be required in the coming age of smart technology and the digital revolution.

How to Do It

How does one transform one’s environment to enable the highest levels of human performance? We believe the answer is to create a Hyper-Learning Community.  An organization becomes a Hyper-Learning Community (“Community”) by going through a two-step process. First, it goes through a Community building process of group meaning-making to deconstruct and set aside individual mental models, mindsets and current ways of working that inhibit the highest levels of cognitive and emotional engagement. And then, it works to co-create new shared values, beliefs, behaviors and mental models through which people agree to dedicate their highest and best selves toward a common good, goal or shared purpose.

A Community, unlike an organization, is based on the acknowledgment of human imperfection and differences, and the need for continual individual and collective learning, experimentation and development. A Community is characterized by trust, candor, authenticity, transparency, compassion and integrity. A Community is a psychologically safe place that enables courage — the courage to experiment, the courage to speak up, the courage to disagree with more senior people, the courage to take ownership of one’s performance and the courage to embrace mistakes as learning opportunities.

Perfection and Mistakes

A Community acknowledges — and anticipates — that people and groups fall short of perfection. It does this by committing in advance to transparency with regard to performance strengths, weaknesses and behavioral transgressions.

Whereas many organizations seek to punish individuals for mistakes, Communities act with a balance of compassion and discipline toward those who fall short of their commitments. Communities help us outgrow our imperfections rather than reprimand us for them. Communities do not seek perfection, but they do seek personal commitment to improve and an openness to learn from one’s mistakes.

Acting as an idea meritocracy, a Community seeks the practice of excellence rather than perfection from group members, regardless of rank, role or responsibility. All members are equally responsible to each other, irrespective of rank, for their adherence to the common good, and to take responsibility for their behaviors and actions. As long as a person stays loyal to the Community’s goals and values and so long as a person stays committed to a journey of learning and self-improvement, mistakes will be looked upon as learning opportunities for all.

By acting with and through a spirit of honesty, transparency, candor, self-improvement and compassion — the will to nurture another’s growth — a Community becomes a meritocracy, whether addressing business decisions or behavioral transgressions. In doing so, it pursues its shared intent with tolerance, acceptance and a firm determination to perform at the highest levels humanly possible. A Community is a humanistic place to work. A place where, in general, one’s best-self outside of work is no different than one’s best-self at work — the only difference is the context.

Creating a Community

Creating a Community is hard. It takes time, patience and the complete buy-in of senior leadership, who have to role model the desired behaviors and mindsets. It takes admitting when you don’t get it right. And  sustaining a Community is a daily job of every member. It is an ongoing process that requires rigor, daily practices and holding each other accountable.

There are multiple reasons to create a Community, with the most common being: the need for implementing large strategic or operational shifts due to disruption, the need for organizational agility or large-scale innovation, the need to promote rapid workforce hyper-learning and enhanced employee engagement, and the need to accelerate and sustain organizational growth (among others). Communities are psychologically safe environments for large-scale, organization-wide disruptive change.

The biggest human obstacles to change are ego and fear. Communities are designed to mitigate ego, fear and internal corporate gamesmanship that values fiefdoms and internal competition over Community cohesiveness and collaboration. Optimizing human performance will become a key strategic differentiator over the next decades. Creating a Hyper-Learning Community is a big step in that direction.

Ed Hess is professor of business administration; Batten executive-in-residence; and Batten Faculty Fellow at Darden Business School, and Kazimierz Gozdz is a principal of The Helix Group LLC.

About the Faculty

Edward D. Hess

Hess is a top authority on organizational and human high performance. His studies focus on growth, innovation and learning cultures, systems and processes, and servant leadership.

Hess has authored 12 books, including The Physics of Business Growth: Mindsets, System and Processes, co-authored by Darden Professor Jeanne Liedtka, Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Entrepreneurial... Learn More

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