Kristine Dery of MIT: "The same basic rules of engagement apply: How we manage people, how we talk to people, how we build relationships — those things are eternal business truths."

Kristine Dery, research scientist at MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research, has explored the dynamic between technology and the way people work for the past 15 years.

“I’m lucky to be in a place where academics and practitioners play in the same playground, learning from each other,” she said. “We study digital transformation in large organizations that weren't built for digital, from multiple perspectives. I research the workplace and employee piece within that broader strategic context.”

A Fascination With Making Working Life More Enjoyable

Dery previously worked in hospitality for airlines and hotels, where new systems were brought in that created substantial changes in people’s jobs and how they were expected to work. “While we received training on these systems, nothing prepared people to have to work in completely different ways,” she said. “There was very little connection in those days between HR and IT.”

Exploring how to make people’s working lives more enjoyable and effective became a fascination, she said. “During the course of getting an MBA, I said to one of my technology lecturers, ‘You know, no one’s talking about the relationship between people and technology.’ He looked at me blankly and wondered why that could possibly be of interest. He ended up being my Ph.D supervisor, so I guess he became a convert.”

Based in Sydney, Australia, most of Dery’s colleagues are near MIT's Cambridge, Mass. campus. In addition to her own research, she looks after a group of large companies in Australia and Southeast Asia that are engaged with the Center’s research.

Dery will be the keynote speaker at Simpler Media Group’s Digital Workplace Experience, which takes place June 3 to 5 in Chicago. She will deliver the  keynote address on June 5 titled, "The CX-EX Connection."  

We spoke with Dery about the trends driving the use of digital capabilities in the workplace, as well as the biggest challenges facing companies as they prepare their employees for the future of work.

There Is No 'Cookie-Cutter Approach to Employee Experience'

CMSWire: What are some of the trends driving the use of digital capabilities internally to create more effective ways of working?

Dery: One trend is the huge increase in powerful technologies that can help digitize work. But frankly, while people talk about AI and robotics, for example, most companies haven’t even come to grips with using simpler technologies that can more easily tackle low-hanging fruit. Thinking about AI and robotics requires a significant investment in data capabilities that most companies haven’t yet made. Experiments are happening, of course, but relative to the extent of work, they are very small.

Data availability is another huge trend changing the world of work. Organizations need to get data to where it’s needed, in a way that’s usable and easy to understand, by people who need to use it. We need to make our people fit for digital not just so they can use different tools, but so they can understand how the tools can work in new ways.

Finally, we are now seeing digital and data capabilities coming together to enable people to reimagine how they might make better decisions and develop new products. They are working in more agile teams, with a lot of thinking about how work is done and who will do it.

CMSWire: How important is reskilling today's workforce?

Dery: There is no doubt that the change in required skills is quite significant. However, the same basic rules of engagement apply: How we manage people, how we talk to people, how we build relationships — those things are eternal business truths. Where it’s different with digital is the ability to reimagine how work can be done and the possibilities of new products and services for customers. To do that we have to have a new range of tools in our toolkit.

We’re seeing digital banks like DBS Bank in Singapore and BBVA in Spain investing not just in deep skills of certain groups, like data analysts, coders or UX people, but also in the broader capabilities of their entire organization, so those people with the deep skills can have more meaningful conversations and make better decisions. There’s no doubt organizations will need to reskill their workforce in order to retain and attract the kind of talent needed going forward.

CMSWire: What is the biggest challenge you are facing in your research now?

Dery: I look at work environments from two perspectives. One is about adapting the work environment, space and business rules to make it easier to do the sort of work we’re doing. The other is how we build what I call collective work habits, some call it culture. People have a series of habits that are deeply ingrained and very subconscious. Employee experience is made up of both sides.

The challenge is that to bring those two sides together, we have to connect many parts of the organization that have often been very siloed. There are all these different moving parts that have to come together to create a meaningful experience for employees.

Also, work is becoming increasingly digitized. For tasks that are replicable and easy to scale, we’re just applying more technology. That’s the piece that people fear, that makes them think jobs will disappear. The challenge for organizations is to make it easier for people to be successful in solving problems that are not so predictable and require a human touch. In this way we deliver better experiences for both customers and employees.

CMSWire: What are some examples of companies that are preparing their employees for the future in the right way?

Dery: DBS realized early on, back in 2009, that if they were going to succeed they had to transform a company of 22,000 very traditional bankers who had been successful in the old world into a digital bank that invested heavily in different ways of delivering learning and development for their people.

One of the most successful transformations has been with middle management. Young grads coming in at the bottom are already digitally-savvy natives. But above them, people who traditionally managed through command and control were now required to experiment. They had to think differently about how digital technologies could be used to transform delivering customer banking products and services.

DBS dealt with that not with traditional hiring or classroom learning, but things like hackathons to get middle management really hands-on with new technology. Teams of people worked together who would not have in the past. DBS invested a lot in teaching them how to work differently with each other.

CMSWire: Are there any mistakes companies tend to make as they begin the journey towards addressing digital workforce issues?

Dery: If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not making progress. This is not a cookie-cutter approach to employee experience, but developing the employee experience that is right for your organization and people.

A big mistake that was made early on that is more difficult to rectify is the result of a headlong rush into open working spaces. Our data shows no correlation between companies that opened up work spaces, which were supposedly more collaborative environments, and business performance.

There was, however, a significant difference in performance when companies designed workspace (physical and virtual) as part of an integrated approach to building the experience for employees that was best suited to the work they needed to do. These higher performing companies consistently gather data to understand how physical and virtual spaces impact work and then keep iterating and making changes as work requirements change. We found that these companies often lagged in their physical workspace, focusing instead on the technologies, social networking systems and business rules. Those that raced in too early and created a fixed model often found it hard to shift and make it relevant for employees and the work they do.

CMSWire: How do you see the future of digital technology and the workforce?

Dery: Over the past few years a lot of resources have been applied to the customer side and not enough to the employee side. But If you don't invest enough in employee experience, it is difficult and expensive to deliver on the customer experience. This tends to create a “culture of heroics,” where people struggle to find their way around terrible systems.

If the digital world makes big promises to customers but there are spreadsheets and workarounds on the back end, it really impacts employees and makes it increasingly difficult to deliver to customers. So, I think we’re going to start to see companies realizing they need to apply a different lens to this issue.

Another future issue is around talent. People with skills and capabilities to deliver on digital strategy are in short supply. Big companies that are not digitally-born find it increasingly hard to attract the people they need. In our research, we see the more companies invest in the employee experience, the more they also invest in the ability to make talent choices that will be the driving forces going forward.

CMSWire: What keeps you excited and energized about your research?

Dery: My dream is that people don’t dread Mondays and just work until they retire. I don’t want that to be the future for my kids and grandkids. I want a world of work that is exciting and interesting for all people, so they are able to do their very best no matter what they do. I think there is so much to learn and explore about the employees experience of work itself. However, in some ways I’m not sure how much progress we’ve made. People’s work lives seem to have even more complex challenges now. 

CMSWire: Any good business book on your nightstand these days, or that you have read recently, that you would recommend?

My colleagues Peter Weil and Stephanie Werner wrote "What’s Your Digital Business Model?" I’ve found that it is a very helpful way to learn how to integrate employee experience into your digital transformation strategy.

Learn more about the Digital Workplace Experience.