Exploring the Link Between Digital Transformation and the Experience of Work
Once there was an English word whose meaning had to do with fingers and toes. Over time, that word evolved to mean something quite different; abstracted away from the human body, “digital” was transformed into a way of talking about data in the form of numerical “digits.” Rivaling fingers and toes for ubiquity, this new kind of “digital” has been transforming industrial futures and the human experiences that live within them.
Digital transformation refers to the ways that digital technologies enable the metamorphosis of an enterprise. Digital transformation introduces new ways of interacting with customers, organizing operational processes, and imagining business models. Beyond the blurring of traditionally discrete business functions, digital transformation means that technologies like AI, machine learning, and robotics will also forge new patterns and practices of work.
In the enterprise context, underpinning all of these changes are the experiences, needs, and behaviors of those who support the day-to-day operations of a business. What will these changes mean for workers? How does digital transformation intersect with the sociality of work and employee engagement? What new forms of social organization will emerge, and how will they impact the future of business?
Harold Innis and the Bias of Communication
Harold Adams Innis was a Canadian economic historian who looked to history to make sense of how the rise and fall of powerful empires was related to innovations in communication technologies. Empires they are not, but in today’s context, corporate enterprises (and the social organization of the workforces that support them) are a dominant social, political, and economic form. What questions emerge when we apply Innis’s theories of technological change to how we imagine the future of the enterprise in a world of digital transformation?
The Bias of Communication was Innis’s analysis of the rise and fall of human civilizations based on the dominant forms of technology that characterized them. It is critical to note that Innis was not a technological determinist; he did not simply argue that technology impacts and transforms human culture and society. Instead, he was interested in the dialectical relationship between technology, human culture, and society; the ways that human sociality influenced the development of particular technologies; and how these technologies went on to shape and organize society and human sociality.
In particular, Innis was interested in the abilities of empires (Egyptian, Babylonian, etc.) to extend themselves through time and over vast geographical spaces. He also examined how these abilities were supported by specific technologies and administrative practices. He argued that in each era, the institutional power structures of society were distinguished by a dominant form of technology that mediated information into systems of knowledge.
Beginning with oral culture and through to the days of early writing, print technologies, and electronic media, Innis traced the intersections between communication technologies and the social institutions they supported. For Innis, the Bias of Communication referred to how technologies embedded different ways of structuring power; every medium had a specific bias toward either durability through time or mobility through space.
Time-biased technologies, such as stone or clay, are difficult to transport, but their durability ensures the extension of power through time. Time-biased technologies support hierarchical power structures, including religious theocracies and monastic dynasties. These types of social organizations tend to emphasize community and tradition.
Space-biased technologies, such as paper, radio, and television, are light and mobile, but they are not particularly durable. Space-biased technologies support the territorial expansion of power structures across geographical space. Innis argued that space-biased media lead to flatter forms of social organization, but also involve a loss of sense of community and place.
He believed that any social organization is stable when there is balance between space- and time-biased media. However, when a society favors one bias over another, disruption occurs, because people at the margins begin to challenge the consolidation of power at the center. Through numerous historical examples, Innis showed that empires are most vulnerable when they are at their most powerful.
So What: Applying Space and Time Biases to the Human Experience of Digital Transformation
Today, it’s the enterprise – not the empire – that’s being disrupted by technological innovation, and it’s here that the bias of communication takes on new relevance. Digital transformation is like Innis’s space bias on steroids: Administration is expanded over vast distances, and the organization becomes a liquid form that seeps through multiple channels, connecting and intersecting entities across vast geographical space and blurring the boundaries between traditionally distinct parts of a business.
The Bias of Communication suggests that inherent to transformation of this scale is an imbalance that can disrupt the sociality of an enterprise. In this sense, Innis’s thinking raises interesting considerations for the ways that digital transformation intersects with the employee experience. How might a strategic focus on employee experience design create a balance to stabilize, and even power up, your digital transformation?
/ If, as Innis argued, communication technologies can take down an empire, how are you future proofing the organizational culture that underpins your digital transformation?
/ Your digital transformation strategy may be customer-centric, but how does it align with the needs and behaviors of your workforce – which is the heart and soul of your organization?
/ If digital transformation brings about social change, how has your HR team been empowered to help shape and guide your organization’s transition?
/ What sorts of “unofficial” processes, channels, practices, or communities are emerging on the margins of your business, and how might they signal a lack of empowerment or engagement in your workforce?
/ How does your organization define employee engagement, and how does this definition resonate with the lived experience of those working through digital transformation?
/ What would it mean for your organization to leverage time-biased tools, like storytelling, organizational creation myths, brand heritage, and institutional memories, as a means for engaging your employees?