refueling a jet on the tarmac
PHOTO: Pandu Agus Wismoyo

It’s Academy Awards season, and film buffs are excited to find out which movie wins Best Picture. But people are making movies every day that will never be recognized by the Academy: front-line employees.

The sights, sounds and stories of movies draw us into new worlds, captivating our imaginations. With smartphones in their hands, front-line employees act as the documentarians, artists, cinematographers and photojournalists who capture the photos and videos of the employee and customer experience outside of headquarters. 

And by understanding front-line workers in this way, the entire population transforms from being seen as a task-oriented, commodity labor pool into an army of cultural ethnographers. Front-line photos and videos as captured by employees are changing our definition of “knowledge” and “knowledge workers” in the enterprise, elevating the status and power of employees in the field.

Innovation from the Field

It’s no secret that many of the best ideas come from teams working in the field. In 1991, as reported in the book "Collaborate or Perish," hourly employees at aluminum company Alcoa found a way to reduce furnace downtime by 50 percent, saving the company $10 million and preserving hundreds of jobs. Xerox’s Eureka knowledge-sharing program from the 1990s was born to support thousands of copy technicians capture and share their copier-fixing solutions at scale. Technicians documented their tricks of the trade, including a unique case where a recording of a cricket-sounding copier noise was captured to help others diagnose similar problems, and saved more than $6,000,000 per year in internal call center deflections alone. 

Even with examples like this, however, many organizations today still optimize their internal communication and collaboration channels for the suited, well-coifed employees at headquarters. While these traditional knowledge workers are firmly seated behind computers, writing down what they know in documents, portals and email, everybody else — the mechanics, the nurses, the field crews and the retail staff — are sharing valuable conversations, ideas and customer insights with each other without a computer in sight.

Smartphones at Scale – The Power of the Front Line

Smartphones are the vehicle of choice for most communication today. Seventy-seven percent of American adults own a smartphone, which  they check an average of 46 times per day (and nearly two thirds of workers are checking their personal smartphones while on the clock). 

Given that front-line workers represent a majority of the American workforce, including the nearly 59 percent who are paid on an hourly basis, companies must realize that smartphones are inextricable from their employees’ work lives. Innovative companies will embrace smartphone prevalence on the shop floor not as a distraction, but rather as critical data-collection and storytelling capability in the hands of thousands of staff.

Visual Knowledge is Powerful

People prefer visual media to written text — we all know that. Visual content, on average, performs 4.4 times better than text-based content alone on social media. Our brains process videos 60,000 times faster than text, and according to John Medina at Brain Rules, we remember just 10 percent of the information we hear, but 65 percent of information relayed in pictures. 

These statistics make the concept of visual knowledge in the enterprise quite compelling. There’s also a less data-driven way to think about photos and videos in a work context. Images from the field capture subtleties about people and their relationship to products and each other that the written word can’t: the way someone’s eyes explores a product longingly, the physical proximity between various friends shopping together, the intensity of eye contact between two people conversing about a work problem. The visually perceptible nuances of human behavior that can be easily captured in images open up a new way of understanding knowledge at work.

The Documentary Method, based on Karl Mannheim’s Sociology of Knowledge, gives credibility to this approach. It applies interpretive practices from art history to photographic images, giving viewers the chance to intuit the context and likely dialogue occurring in the photo. For example, in this research paper by Ralf Bohnsack examining, among other things, advertising from the high-end retail brand Burberry, Bohnsack points out that an incredible amount of information can be inferred based on photographic elements such as eye contact, physical positions based on gender, age and status, and the connectedness of people appearing together in a scene. 

The same documentary method can easily be applied to photographs of customers, products and interactions in the enterprise. When employers ask their front-line employees to take on the role of photographer, documentary producer and storyteller, the resulting images can bring heaps of valuable knowledge that can’t be otherwise documented into the corporate brain.

Lights, Camera, Action!

If images are to become a valuable new form of knowledge generated by front-line employees, companies must provide real-time photo-sharing tools and guidance around the right types of photos to snap and share. Cat pictures, while fun, don’t capture knowledge. But photos of customers reacting to a new product line? Snap that and hit ‘send.’ 

Technology vendors are jumping at the chance to build social platforms as a means to give front-line workers this capability. Facebook’s enterprise-grade Workplace platform creates secure employee communities that connect remote workers on phones alongside their office-bound peers, including capabilities such as live video broadcasts. Just last year, Workplace customer Starbucks added a specialty drink to its menu overnight when headquarters-based product teams reacted to real-time feedback about customer behavior from managers in the stores.  

Microsoft’s Yammer product offers similar photo-sharing collaboration capabilities. A business recently used Yammer to share photos from the CES 2018 trade show to bring customer reactions about their new innovations to headquarters within minutes of capturing them. 

As these examples show, front-line workers can contribute to a company’s body of knowledge by capturing and sharing what they see on a daily basis through photos and videos. These images and the context within them are an oft-missing component of innovation and growth, but they represent the everyday lives of a company’s employees and customers. By evolving how we see front-line workers — and giving them credit for the visual knowledge they capture and the documentaries they create — companies can move faster and better understand the unwritten experiences of their customers and their teams.