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PHOTO: Ted Van Pelt

When it comes to designing an effective business process, a reasonable assumption is that consistency will lead to productivity. For systems of record, we also look for dependability to ensure the quality of the information held within. However, while we might consult people during the development of technology to support processes or record keeping, should we allow them to make uncontrolled changes to how they work once the software is implemented?

The Benefits of Employee-Driven Design

Employee-driven design has some compelling arguments in its favor, although it might appear counterintuitive when considered against the goals of consistency and dependability. Employee-driven design allows people to change or adapt the tools they use as they see fit.

The first argument is the ever-increasing need to support barely repeatable processes. The very nature of technologies like robotic process automation (RPA), which eliminate repetitive work, means anything non-routine or any exceptions will be pushed to humans to solve. Employee-driven design can also support continuous improvement and innovation that can eventually be captured and codified back into the operating system. These improvements can also benefit systems of record when the original implemented design fails to accommodate real-world issues that impact the quality of information collected.

Another important argument is this: empowering employees and providing autonomy about how work gets done is an essential factor in employee engagement. We also know when people are satisfied and engaged at work, the result is better customer experience.

So if employee-driven design can be a positive driver for productivity and quality, how do we deal with the potential negatives?

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Freedom, Within Boundaries

The gap between unchangeable systems of record and systems of engagement that support emergent user behavior might not be as unbridgeable as you think. Employee-driven design should not mean a free-for-all. The choice of technology is critical, as it should feature adequate guardrails that support mutability without introducing unreasonable risk.

It is vital to pick solutions that understand the importance of information management. Major suites like Office 365 do just that, but even solutions like Slack support custom retention policies for messages and files on their paid plans. Atlassian’s Confluence and Jira are both highly adaptable, but regardless of how they are used, they also store a transparent history of each change and update, enabling organizations to take advantage of lightweight social workflows. 

Rather than treating them as different systems, the right enterprise solutions should layer systems of engagement on top of a system of record.

Email, on the other hand, remains a poor option. While email may be stored as a record, it makes for both an inadequate system of record and system of engagement, since information can only be retrieved by the participants in a particular thread or through a legal discovery process. Unfortunately, some organizations choose only to offer inflexible process tools, forcing people to use email.

Guardrails can also be provided by the way we support employees using these solutions, in the form of knowledge sharing, internal consulting or customer success management, and helping them improve their digital literacy. This approach is also a positive driver for productivity — for example, research published by Microsoft based on a survey of 20,000 people working in medium and large companies across Europe found a link between a strong digital culture and higher productivity.

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Building Adaptability Into Our Digital Workplaces

The final compelling argument for allowing employee-driven design is the realization that every company is now a software company. It is worth considering that Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web) originally imagined the web as something that would be “rewritable.” Our organizations should be rewritable too, supported by a digital operating system that has a tolerance for change and adaptation built-in, where people can experiment and reconfigure how work gets done.