It’s a Digital World. How to Keep the Human Touch Alive

Thanks to modern technology, and our digital world, we may have more time to focus on relationships.

These days, pretty much everywhere you turn, there’s talk of digitalization–in how we travel, the products we buy, and how we pay for those products. The trend is sweeping the world, many industries at a time. And with it, come a lot of fears.

Fears of security threats. Fears of machines replacing humans in the workforce. Fears of a loss of jobs. Some people are cynical, wondering if machines in this new digital world will be reliable as workforce partners to get the job done.

I spoke with Otto Schell, founder of The Diplomatic Council Otto Schell Institute for Digital Transformation, and he feels strongly, “We must remain open to digitalization as it is rapidly enveloping us. Humans need not fear exclusion by Artificial Intelligence (AI), but understand we need to harness it and engage proactively by setting and maintaining the economic and social governance for our co-existence.”

A Diversity colleague of mine, Annika von Redwitz, and I are very interested in understanding what digitalization will do to the way the workforce builds relationships and interacts with each other–particularly in a diverse, globalized, and multicultural world. We spoke about whether or not digitization will make human connectivity obsolete.

For her, the answer is no. Human connectivity may be even more critical.

Below are the highlights of our conversation.

Melissa: “Annika, what is digitalization exactly?”

Annika: “Today, many businesses are looking at transforming their organizations to stay competitive in a fast-changing market. They may be moving from a product-oriented to a service-oriented business model, or adding new online services to their existing products.”

Melissa: “So, it sounds like digitalization is a significant evolution from humans using technology as a tool to, now, programming machines to run the business autonomously. Is that what makes the concept unique today in your mind?”

Annika: “In the nineties, the concept of re-engineering came up and described how companies re-invented their business processes with the help of the Information Technology available at that time. A lot of manual work was automated, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems became the standard.

Today, we call this “digital transformation”–for example, the Internet of Things, connecting machines with each other, or Artificial Intelligence doing things humans would have otherwise done. But it is a more radical shift than in the last century.”

 

Melissa: “Annika, if our job is to help leaders and teams work with people more efficiently and effectively, will that even be needed in the future?”

Annika: “It won’t become obsolete. In fact, digitalization will offer new ways for human beings to interact with each other.

Ideally, thanks to modern technology, employees will have more time to focus on strategic and complex tasks. And, remember, robots are programmed by humans, so it is essential that diverse teams (of humans) work well together to develop those algorithms.”

Melissa: “So, it sounds like we may be needed more than ever! If humans don’t need to focus on machines and simple tasks they need to do using technology, all they’ll need to focus on is human interaction.”

Annika: That’s right.

Melissa: “If an organization is looking at digital transformation what are the first steps?”

Annika: “It depends on the size and age of the company. According to the book, Radical Business Model Transformation, traditional companies need to analyze their status quo and enable established products and services to co-exist with new offerings.”

By the end of our discussion, we had agreed, leaders need to establish “a corporate culture based on mutual trust, support, and curiosity. They need to be able to explain the vision and purpose of digitalization and keep positively communicating those goals.

In other words, never underestimate the power of good ol’ fashioned communication.

 

A version of this post was first published on Inc. 

Photo: 123RF.com

Taking Tech Companies Global

If you’re a tech company expanding outside of the US, you’re going to need more than a slick logo and a ping-pong table to make an impact. From not anticipating cultural differences to failing to research the market before expanding, hyper-growth organizations can’t always predict the challenges presented by taking the business multinational. If your company is considering global expansion, considering the tips below will go a long way to making your growth across borders both pleasant and profitable.

Don’t Rely Solely on Virtual Communication

It’s no secret that good social and cross-cultural communication skills are vital to successful virtual relationships. Unfortunately, many tech companies (and start-ups especially) are comprised of engineers, developers and other employees used to working autonomously and independently, often working out of their homes or remote offices.

Email is the default method of communication. And sometimes various chat functions are used.  But studies in managing virtual teams show that face-to-face communication is 10 times more effective than phone, and phone is 10 times more effective than email. This means that you must encourage phone, video conference and even face-to-face conversations when at all possible. Making it clear to your employees that you expect them to know each other as people, not just as email thumbnails, fosters a personal connection between your global workforce. Personal relationships don’t just make project work more effective – it also increases employee retention rates and promotes a global mindset for staff.

Product Development: One Size Does Not Fit All

Expanding your products or services globally is a lot trickier than many international tech companies anticipate. Standards and viewpoints we accept in the US may not be viewed so positively abroad. For instance, Facebook has run into privacy issues in other countries, from the amount of user data they collect to claims that the ‘Like’ button violates certain German laws.

China is a notoriously difficult country for US firms to expand into. LinkedIn is poised to become one of the few US tech companies allowed in this restrictive market, in part because it offers a service not well established in China: Business networking.

The solution: Care and attention to the local culture, customs and laws. Take the time to create relationships with local economic development agencies, chambers of commerce and other local tech companies. Talk through your business proposition with leaders to discover what cultural challenges you may run into, then create a global game plan. Having a trusted business leader on the ground during your global expansion will prevent easily-preventable conflicts through innovative solutions only available from a leader with intimate knowledge of the country into which you are expanding.

Internal Culture is As Important as External

Consider the business culture of the new market you’re entering and make sure your internal communications reflect it. In the US, business mixes personal and professional. Tech startups especially build their teams around passionate people who love what they do, love the company they work for and are happy to rally around and even celebrate a set of common values. Many Asian companies also embrace a close company culture and in some cases look at a firm as an extension of family.

In some European countries, however, you’ll be hard-pressed to drum up this type of workplace enthusiasm. Employees see it as a job, they’re happy to come work, happy to have success, but the concept of colleagues as family is foreign.

Management style and decision-making methods need to be considered as well. Tech companies place an emphasis on consensus building and crowdsourcing ideas from among their disparate experts. Managers must find the right balance between leading the team toward a goal while still allowing the experts to feel their contribution matters.

Work-Life Balance is a Myth (But we can try!)

Let’s admit it – there are workaholics in the tech industry. It’s the norm to work long days and sometimes all night to get things done. When you’re based in the US, with only US times zones to deal with, it’s not as much of an issue. But if you expand into Europe, where work-life balance is taken very seriously, all-nighters are anything but typical and a different approach is necessary.

An even more delicate balance exists in India, where a heavy US business presence means Indian employees often work crazy hours to keep up with the demand of US-based customers. Does this make work-life balance difficult? Yes – while workers complain about working long hours and being stressed because of it, the hours also make workers in India feel needed and valued. There is an international trend towards making work-life balance attainable, and that’s important for business leaders to consider when planning global expansion. Make sure you are prepared to manage expectations across your culturally diverse workforce as part of your global business plans. It’ll improve relationships and increase employee engagement.

Now that you know the trends I see with expanding tech companies, I’m curious to know what unique challenges you’ve faced with global expansion. Drop me a line at melissa.lamson@lamsonconsulting.com and let me know. With your permission, your story might be one of the ones featured in a future blog post.