Do Senior Leaders Really Stand in the Way of Digital Disruption?

5 minute read
James Robertson avatar

You know how the story goes: a wave of digital disruption is hitting our organizations, with the potential to change how we work. We know what changes are required, but oblivious senior leaders stand in the way of our success. 

But is this really true? 

Two recent projects made me reevaluate my assumptions, and you may need to as well.

Running an intranet or internal communications team is a tough job. There’s a flood of day-to-day tasks, more than can ever be done. As a result, the team focuses on tactical activities and pushes strategic considerations to the back burner.

Previous efforts to generate interest from middle management and senior leaders about intranet or digital workplace strategy haven’t gone well. Too often it wasn't even possible to present the case, let alone get the active participation (and budget!) required for success.

These struggles are taking place in the context of impending digital disruption. There are already big changes in how organizations interact with customers, and workplace changes aren’t too far behind. 

We hear phrases such as “blow up the hierarchy and replace it with a wirearchy,” but wonder how to overcome resistance from senior leaders.

But do senior leaders still pose the barrier we think? If my recent experiences are anything to go by, perhaps not.

Surprising Conversations

The starting point for any digital workplace and digital transformation strategy is to have the right conversations with the right people.

We're currently working with a mid-sized government agency to improve their intranet. The intranet team is tired and unhappy, so we had low expectations of our planned conversations with senior leaders.

When talking with the head of "Workforce," we discussed the importance of the digital workplace. His answer was a resounding “Yes!” Not only was he interested, but he’d heard about the concept before. Employee experience? Tick! Collaboration? A strategic priority.

The leaders of strategy, change and IT were similarly on board with a more strategic approach that took a bigger scope than just the corporate intranet.

We’ve also been talking with a major financial services firm. There we found encouraging support from senior leaders, with a focus on innovation even coming from the head of Risk.

Of course, there’s a big difference between supporting an idea and actually doing something. And granted, senior leaders are probably pretty hazy on the practical details, such as what "collaboration" really means in practice.

We're Not Starting the Digital Transformation Talk 

Digital transformation is a topic of conversation throughout many organizations, and the messages aren’t just coming from us.

Advisory firms such as Forrester and Gartner have reported on the digital workplace for a while, and many vendors (including Microsoft) are actively pitching digital workplace solutions. 

Learning Opportunities

This is having a profound effect on the focus and activities of many IT departments.

The human resources and internal communications communities are also adopting the idea of the "employee experience" within the context of the digital workplace. While many of these discussions are in abstract terms, they’re still laying the groundwork for much-needed digital transformation.

The ground may be more fertile than we assumed to discuss the digital workplace at senior levels.

Putting Conversations Into Action

Senior leaders will never directly carry out digital transformation and the digital workplace, and it’s unrealistic to expect them to formulate a concrete plan.

The strategy, planning and execution must fall on teams lower in the structure, such as the digital workplace, intranet, comms or IT teams.

But senior leader engagement, backing and funding is still vital for digital workplace initiatives.

This five-step approach works well in our experience:

  1. Connect with senior leaders to discuss where the organization is heading, and where a digital workplace fits in. Understand their priorities and drivers.
  2. If the senior leaders are interested in a digital workplace, ask how they would like you to engage with them. This might be a presentation at the next leadership team briefing, or a smaller conversation with a few leaders.
  3. When you speak to the senior leaders, build their knowledge of the digital workplace in a constructive way. Focus on helping them make informed decisions.
  4. Share a concrete strategy and plan with leaders when they ask for it. Go beyond digital transformation slogans to give them something concrete they can say "yes" to.
  5. Deliver solid early successes, with the aim of building trust and credibility with senior leaders. Then take things from there.

Assumptions Kill Potential Opportunities

Digital transformation and the emergence of modern digital workplaces is a hard journey for any organization. Change is painful and it's rare when you'll find 100 percent of the organization engaged and on board with necessary initiatives.

Despite this, we must avoid assumptions about the worldview of others, particularly senior leaders. Instead of ignorance and resistance, you may find interest and support.

Have the right conversations with senior leaders, and have a plan ready to execute if you find yourself pleasantly surprised by what you hear.

Editor's Note: James will be discussing collaboration strategies and the role intranets play in the digital workplace at our upcoming Digital Workplace Experience conference taking place June 19-21 in Chicago.

About the author

James Robertson

James Robertson is the originator of the global movement towards digital employee experience (DEX). Twenty years in this space, he’s one of the leading thinkers on intranets and digital workplaces. He’s the author of the books “Essential Intranets: Inspiring Sites that Deliver Business Value” and “Designing Intranets: Creating Sites that Work.”