Learning from the Front Line (3/3)

Photo by Justin Lim / Unsplash

Why you should look to and reward your front line employees when adopting new technology - Part 3

Parts 1 and 2 of this series looked at how organizational introspection and skill-building training programs can facilitate positive outcomes for both organizations and their frontline workers in the wake of new technology implementations. Step 3 of any digital transformation initiative is process improvement: Taking concrete steps to get the most out of new tools once deployed. Organizations in industrial settings often retain engineers on staff who are focused solely on process improvement. Yet even these organizations struggle to wring potential productivity out of their tools, encountering an array of hurdles such as worker resistance, and interoperability challenges. Misguided management policies governing technology use worsen this predicament, particularly when they highlight the dual potential of technology to "informate" a work process while simultaneously tightening managerial control over workers.

Thinking Prompt:
What was the last process improvement your organization made?
Who led the process improvement? Was anyone left out?
What could uninvolved coworkers have contributed to the process improvement had they been included? What problems could have been avoided?

We believe a central reason for delays or failures to achieve desired technology outcomes results from organizations' tendency to ignore or even discourage frontline worker ideas for improvement. Some methods have been developed that take this idea as the logical foundation: Continuous improvement, for example, holds that managers should develop processes for absorbing worker ideas and adjusting their tools and workflows accordingly. Toyota manufacturing is perhaps the most well-known and best-implemented version of continuous improvement, yet other organizations have struggled to learn from its success.

While beneficial to the organization (at least above doing nothing to solicit worker ideas), continuous improvement and related approaches do little for the worker and their careers. In other words, these approaches are purely extractive, and savvy workers will catch on to the limited incentives for offering up ideas. This results in diminishing returns on continuous improvement as employee buy-in gradually declines. It is therefore essential to directly and repeatedly reward workers for their contributions to process improvement and digital transformation gains; our team at Organizational Mycology has expertise in how to do so efficiently and effectively.

Rewards for contributing ideas and improvements can take many forms, and monetary rewards are often not necessary. A certain subset of workers simply needs the voice and influence to co-construct their own working environment, enabling them to tap into their intrinsic motivations rather than extrinsic motivations such as money or accolades. The ability to determine the contours of their own jobs, focus on the tasks that are most interesting and most valuable to their career goals, and develop situated metrics for their performance makes their on-the-job experience more enriching and fulfilling.

Other frontline workers derive motivation from validation of their value to the company and regular recognition of their knowledge and experience. It's easy for organizations to fall into a "gamification" trap when developing ways to motivate these employees: Badges, rankings, and prizes can feel childish and appear to be stand-ins for higher pay or other rewards. Organizations should instead look for ways to enable these workers to meaningfully contribute to process improvements and offer visible, social capital-building recognition.

One of the key ways to recognize and reward both types of frontline workers is to give them the opportunity to contribute their domain expertise in cross-functional teams. Frontline workers should have the opportunity to work with engineers, vendors, and other parties to bring their ideas or their peers' ideas to fruition. Such processes offer inroads for workers with all different types of skills. Those with interpersonal skills can gain valuable experience working with HR teams; those with technical skills can accrue knowledge about formal job requirements in technical professions; or those with mechanical capabilities can enter into informal or formal apprenticeships inside and outside of the organization.

Offering these pathways will become increasingly important as automation capabilities improve and a wider swath of "low-skill" job tasks are done by technology. The situation is so pressing because workers in such jobs have few opportunities for on-the-job learning given that their tasks are continuously simplified (e.g., to enable future automation). And, in the case of low-wage workers, resource constraints limit opportunities for formal education and training.

In summary of the "Learning from the Frontline" series, Step 1 of any technology or process change should be introspection, where your organization re-learns where its most valuable knowledge is housed. Step 2 involves building capacity around training and develop the skills and agency of your workers. Step 3 requires developing process improvements in ways that are led by the perspectives and unique understanding of your frontline workers, not solely by management and process engineers.

Organizational Mycology can help you build a specific plan of work and engagement for any or all of these steps. We use a unique set of facilitation tools and practices delivered online, in-person, or in a hybrid format. These tactics help organizations get the most out of the ideas and perspectives of their diverse employee groups. The resulting managerial and cultural changes provide lasting capabilities and practices which help you to navigate changing economic and technological landscapes with agility and, most importantly, compassion.

Here at Organizational Mycology, we're working to bring facilitation, and consulting engagements that can help you and your organization navigate these complexities by finding ways to bring forward differing perspectives so that you can co-create a robust and resilient organization.

To get a sample of how we work, and how we think, come along to one of our Oblique Thinking Hours run the second Tuesday/Wednesday (depending on time zone) of every month.

Dan Sholler

Dan Sholler