Category Archives: OD

What is digital thinking?

In my last blog post I explored what digital capability meant in five overlapping dimensions – IT Skills, Work Practices, Tools, Leadership and Vision. If you read that post, and you’re wondering where I got to with the measurement of digital capability, my approach is focusing on IT skills as a, comparatively, easy piece to define and measure. This survey is almost ready to roll and will inform some of the more technical development of digital capability.

But it leaves a pretty nebulous piece of work to define some of those other aspects of organisational digital capability. Namely, digital ‘behaviours’ / ‘leadership’ / ‘thinking’. I’m using those terms interchangeably at the moment – for all intents and purposes they’re the same. I’m conscious that some people get put off by the word ‘leadership’, thinking it’s some sort of hierarchical thing. I’m of the opinion that anyone can be a leader. And we need more leaders. So, use what words you will, but I’ll just call it ‘digital thinking’ for now.

Speaking of words, I’ve put together a bit of a definition of what digital thinking means. And I’ll get to that. First, I want to give some context to why digital thinking is different to traditional ways of thinking and set the scene for how I’m defining it. And, because I’m lazy (ergo always looking to do the least work with the biggest impact), here’s something I prepared earlier – an excerpt from my talk on The Analytics of Purpose talk from the SUNZ Conference, Feb 2016.

Context for digital thinking

The proliferation of ‘digital’ is not just a change in technology. But a change in how we work and learn. For the last 100 years our work practices have been modelled off an industrial approach. Whereby, hierarchy, control and fragmentation are the defining characteristics of our workplaces.

New ways of working are emerging. Things like flexible work and people clouds. Where organisations can’t employ all the people they need, but bring together the skills needed when they’re needed, from different locations and different time zones. Where people come together to work on a common task and then disperse again. A report, from the Management Innovation Exchange, a digital hub for re-inventing management, summarises this:

Your colleagues aren’t necessarily the people who sit next to you at work, but rather the people who are working on the same problems with the same passion that you have. The organizations and leaders who figure out the most clever and compelling ways to connect those people and organizations will be the real winners.

This is a world where people connect over a common purpose. What Seth Godin calls Tribes – the people, not organisations that will shape and change our world. Where connections, communication and collaboration are creating shifts in power and control.

In the consumer landscape, this is customers telling stories about the products they buy. And purchasing decisions being made on ‘what my friend tells me’, or the recommendations of the people i follow on Instagram. Rather than the marketing spin, corporate curated message.

In the education world, this is students finding out information themselves. They’ll google it or watch a YouTube video. The teacher is no longer the expert and the holder of knowledge. They are now a mentor, a facilitator and a coach – looking after the holistic wellbeing of their students.

In the workplace, this is people telling the connections of their connections what it’s really like to work for you. But, it’s more than what they’re saying. It’s what they’re sharing. It’s using technology to create their own learning networks. Transferring information, and decision making, at speed, across and outside the organisation.

And then there’s what’s been labelled generation ‘Why’. The people we’re now leading and managing have different expectations to the generations that have come before them. They’ve got the basic necessities of life and they know what’s going on in the world. Technology gives them more freedom and free time. They’re searching for greater purpose and greater meaning in their lives. And seeing as we spend most of our time at work, they want to connect their own purpose with the organisation’s purpose.

Yeah, this is challenging. And it would be easy to blame technology, or the upstart, demanding, young people.

But the truth of it is that our world is now changing so quickly that we need the creativity and innovation that comes from people embracing who they are, their purpose. And we need the agility that technology both forces upon us and enables us to adapt.

Gary Hamel, one of the foremost business thought leaders of our time, argues that our current business models are not sufficient to survive and thrive. They’re just not adaptable enough. What we need are organisations that let the strengths of individuals shine, where employees have decision making power, and where businesses can flex more readily to the needs of consumers.

So, in this context, what is digital thinking?

There are key themes that keep coming up in the books, research and case studies around digitally capable organisations. So many, over so many years that I’ve been working in this space, that I can’t reference them all. Instead I’ve just written down all the ones that keep popping up. It’s a compilation of ‘all the things’, if you will.

What you should notice is that digital capability and digital thinking are more than ‘digital’. ‘Digital’ has implications for every aspect of how we do things. It’s a fundamental paradigm shift from more traditional ways of working and learning. The technology features, but it’s only one part of this.

These are fundamental principles that surround the use of digital technology in how we work, and learn, together, internally and externally.

Private and closed to open and transparent. Information is available anywhere, anytime, by anyone. The expectation of employees is that there is a certain level of visibility, and honesty, surrounding products and practices. Alongside this, we expect to participate with information rather than merely consume it. This opens up opportunities to build on each other’s work. But it also means we need to be comfortable with sharing work, ideas and resources, internally and externally. Potentially unfinished work too. And be open to accepting feedback and additions from others. The mantra is progress over perfection.

Hierarchies and silos to matrices and networks. People can connect with each other internally and externally, at speed. Information and decision making is dispersed, power shifts from the hierarchy to the network. In this environment, people connect over a common purpose. This has implications for how we structure organisations. It’s less about titles and departments, but more about converging over tasks or projects. Correspondingly we will see more use of contractors and fixed terms rather than permanent roles.

‘One size fits all’ to adaptable and personalised. There is less ‘delivering and directing’ and more coaching and mentoring. People are empowered to achieve results in their own way. This is also about technology stream-lining generic people processes and opening up room for personalising experiences.

A product orientated approach to an internal customer centric approach. Customer centricity has long been the domain of work principles such a lean, but it features even more prominently in digitally capable organisations. I’m talking about internal ‘customers’; understanding who they are, what they need to build value for your end customer (the one who pays your bills,) and collaborating with those internal customers to deliver results.

Status quo to innovation and agility. Change is not a one-off, but the ‘way we do things around here’. With that in mind, continuous improvement should be embedded into our work practices. Key competencies include flexibility of approach, and being brave enough to challenge. But this is also an environment that encourages individual’s strengths and diversity of thought.

Planning to experimentation. We fail fast; we get up and try again. Failure is a learning opportunity and viewed as a positive.

Process and rules to relationships and connections. Knowing who your colleagues are, I mean really who they are as human beings, is critical to achieving results. We value each other’s strengths and know how to tap into these. We’re not afraid to give, or receive, feedback and delivering that feedback strengthens relationships.

Controlling to empowering. We give people the decision making scope to take action. We collaborate and co-create with our people through parallel layers of interaction.

Money to higher meaning (purpose). We can articulate, and can help people connect to, the organisation’s purpose – deepening engagement. We do this by helping them uncover their own purpose and, in turn, build self-awareness.

Analogue to technology. Using technology to work smarter not harder. Connecting with each other through different communication, collaboration and co-creation channels. As well as blending work and life, and effectively managing the two.

Knowledge to networked intelligence. The ability to develop systems that support connection and information. As well as leveraging networks to find and use information. It’s not about what you know anymore, but who you know and what they will share with you.

Understanding you. How you fit in with all this, the unique strengths that you bring to the table. Who you are as a leader, whatever that might mean to you.

I think this is at least a start on defining what digital thinking is. The next trick is developing it. These are not incremental shifts but potentially transformational moves that are quite likely to make people uncomfortable.

I’d really like your thoughts. Is there anything you think should be included in this definition of digital thinking?

What is digital capability?

It’s now week five of my working for Auckland Museum and I’ve spent much of that time talking to people around the Museum and researching digital capability in the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) sector. My first big task is to assess digital capability via a quantitative (that’s a survey) and qualitative (that’s talking to more people) methodology. So that we know what specific areas we need to target to increase said capability.

But the first place to start with this is to articulate what digital capability actually is. It’s by no means straight forward. Chicken and egg is a fitting description. ‘Digital’ means different things to different people. Some will say that it’s digital apps, tools, technology. Others will say it’s a different way of interacting with audiences.

So how do you measure something that people define differently?

I’ve started with some models for the effective implementation of people initiatives and learning and have used them to focus my initial, informal, discussions. These conversations have given me a bit more context to the museum and all the overlapping and moving parts that have an impact on digital capability, I’m then overlaying these insights with the research into digital capability (including some very useful resources from the Education sector) to frame my research/survey questions. I’m hoping this will give me a better picture of what digital capability actually is, how we measure it and the road map to enhance it.

There are two main models that are informing my thinking around digital capability. The first is probably the most pressing in my consciousness. It’s something I’ve used for years, heavily influenced by doing my Masters thesis with Peter Boxall (Professor of HRM at Auckland University), and seeing the implications of these three elements play out in the workplace time and time again. The model is the Ability, Motivation, Opportunity framework.

  • Ability is the skills and capabilities people need to complete tasks. In a digital sense, this is the knowing how to use the technology.
  • Motivation is the ‘what’s in it for me’. It doesn’t need to be transactional though. Simply, the reason we get out of bed in the morning is intrinsically connected to what you’re asking people to do, or change.
  • Opportunity refers to resources and scope to use technology. For example, the technology works like it’s supposed to, we’re allowed to use it (i.e. Twitter isn’t blocked), and we’ve got adequate information about what you can and can’t do – giving us the freedom to make adult decisions.


All three of these factors are a tripod. If one is missing then the others are going to fall down. You can’t tell people what to do (funny that!). You can train them until the cows come home, but if their hearts (their motivation) are not in it then they’re not going to do anything differently. Likewise, if you teach people how to use Twitter but there is no clear message about what the organisation voice is vs. the individual’s voice then people are going to be uncertain about using that tool – limiting their opportunity to participate.

If you’ve read my book you may have picked up on my belief that these three factors are even more fundamental when looking at the uptake of technology and adapting to increasing change. It’s complex, uncertain and, because it’s harder to see, measure, and ‘control’ outcomes, you’re much more reliant on individual motivation.

The second model I’m layering in here is the 70:20:10 framework made popular by Charles Jennings. This is the philosophy that 70% of learning should come through on the job experience, 20% through learning through others and 10% through structured courses and programmes. There has been some debate about the relevance of this model in recent years. But, I believe that’s because those 70% and 20% elements sit outside the realm of traditional instructional design and more in the sphere of organisational learning capability, workplace design and work systems. Practices that are impacted by other areas of the organisation including, from my observations over the years, ICT, Operations, and Marketing (not exclusively though). These are areas where the connection to learning and development strategy development and execution are not traditionally that strong.


There is a risk with the development of digital capability that the focus sits on that workshop space. ‘Let’s train people how to use digital tools and that will fix the challenges that we have’. We risk unbalancing the tripod and causing more frustration as people have the skills to use technology but not the capacity to do so. That development of skills  should be part of digital capability development but only one piece in a bigger jigsaw puzzle.

The rest doesn’t just happen on its own though, and the development of this ‘culture’ requires a mix of different interventions with different areas of the organisation. Yes, some of them workshop based but with the specific intentions, and embedded design, to impact past the workshop environment. These initiatives include:

  • The evolution of work practices that enable the flexibility to be innovative, creative and responsive to changing environmental demands. Think Design Thinking, Agile, and Lean. Re-thinking the way we run meetings and manage projects.
  • Tools and systems that support communication across the organisation. How does the Intranet, document storage and sharing system, and chat platforms intersect and support each other to achieve an overall goal of collaboration and information management, within and across teams.
  • Leadership development that supports the transition from privacy to transparency, planning to experimentation, controlling to empowering and hierarchies to networks. As well as the necessarily mindfulness/wellness techniques needed to survive and thrive in a fast changing and hyper-connected world. This has flow on implications for who we hire and how we hire them.
  • A digital vision that clearly articulates the expectations placed on people to be digital. Translating the overall organisation strategy into ‘what does this mean for the way we work together and learn?’ Clearing up confusion about what ‘digital thinking’ means and setting the expectation for the culture ‘the way we do around here’. Delving deeper also means helping people make the connection between ‘me’, ‘my team’ and ‘the organisation’.

Digital cap

In my thinking, and discussions, about digital, and indeed digital thinking, I keep revisiting the distinction between modernisation and transformation I borrow from my friend Heather, a teacher in a progressive school in East Auckland. Without sounding like a stuck record, modernisation is doing the same way we’ve always done things but with whiz bang features. Tranformation is looking at fundamentally changing the way we do things. Let me give you some examples:

  • In the school sector, this means teachers moving from the holders of knowledge standing at the front of the classroom, imparting information to kids sitting in rows taking down notes, to being facilitators, coaches and mentors as kids search out information themselves, using technology, and discuss it with their peers.
  • In retail, this means moving from the marketing message being the selling point for goods and services, to consumers telling their own stories about their purchases and people making decisions based on recommendations of people they know, or are connected to (this is why Instagram is diabolical for my credit card!).


I’m new to museology so I don’t feel comfortable commenting on this in respect to how the museum interacts with its audience. I do see the opportunities for internal practice though. Are we using digital technology to do the same thing we’ve always done but with new gadgets? Or do we want to create greater agility, innovation, creativity, openness, transparency? If the answer to this is yes, then there are implications for our leaders, systems, work practices and communication of vision (the stuff I mentioned above). Future Museum is pointing us in this direction, and I believe that our internal culture should be a mirror of what we project externally.

So, what does this mean for the capability assessment that I’m developing? Well I seem to have pullled together the ICT capability element of it quite easily (I found some great questions online). But I still need to explore this ‘digital thinking culture’ (for want of better words) that make up digital capability. I’m still working on something that captures that crucial synergy between training and application.

And I’m now faced with the challenge of simultaneously birthing the egg and growing the chicken at the same time as I start to plan how we’re going to define, lead and develop digital capability in an environment where we don’t have a clear idea what it is. It sounds like some word of weird sociological and biological experiment and it is. But that seems to be the thing with digital anyway, it’s all new ground. We’re all just trying to work out what we’re doing. And that’s a mind-set in itself isn’t it?

This thinking is by no means complete but, hopefully, by sharing, I can further develop the finesse of my delivery. I’d love to know what you think about this.

HR professionals will not be the ones that change the world of work

“HR professionals will not be the ones that change the world of work”.

Usually when I talk to HR people about the vision I have for better working lives they look at me like I’m a little cray cray.

But every now and then I hear that statement above. And, I refuse to believe it. 

After attending TedX Auckland on the weekend, my little head is packed full of inspiration. I’m inspired that there is a better way. A better way of business, of living. These conversations are becoming more frequent, more profound and more powerful.

We are living in a world that is changing way faster than most HR people can keep a handle on. The way people digest information is shifting, therefore the way HR communicates and connects needs to transform. 

HR people, as soon as you think you’ve got your profession nailed, you don’t. Generally speaking, apparently in NZ we’re even more notorious for this. Digital is connecting us to the rest of the world, but we’re still behaving as if we’ve got this whole innovation thing covered with our no.8 wire mentality. It’s hardly the case when our maintained isolation is making as naive and uncompetitive. Time to start tapping into those digital connections so that we, in NZ, can really re-wire, re-form and transform.

To achieve this change, we need collective flow. But, within our NZ HR profession we’re definitely not collective. In conversing with recruiters and learning and development people about the NZLEAD unconference I’m hearing, “oh but that’s just for HR, I’m not HR”. I’m sorry, but when did creating a working environment where people are engaged in their work, happy, willing and able to perform, invested in what the business is trying to achieve, get put into an exclusive HR, Recruitment, L&D or OD bucket? 

You might also notice that I get really excited about progress within the HR professional space, a new institute and a forward thinking conference. But that doesn’t mean that the disconnect between the old institution and emerging groups does not sadden or frustrate me. We have more and more practitioners who are thinking, talking and doing HR practice in ways that are leagues ahead of the traditional. I struggle now to entertain the content and conversations from the old factions and probably vice versa. 

But as Riley Elliot said at Tedx, if you can capture attention and change understanding, then perceptions change. Riley was talking about sharks, but what the hey, the same philosophy can be applied to talking with people in business, and with others in the HR profession. One conversation at a time we can change the perception of HR.

“HR doesn’t add value to the business”, “HR people won’t realise this”, “they won’t be the instigators of change”. Call it naive or whatever. I believe different. 

I’m left with two thoughts from two inspirational speakers at Tedx. 

Firstly, Vaughan Rowsell from Vend. What’s the one impossible thing you’ve always wanted to do? Now do it. 

Secondly, Mike Allsop from Air New Zealand. If it all seems overwhelming, start with small parts. 

My small part is keeping conversations going, exploring the options, connecting people, slowly changing perception. Impossible is only impossible if you don’t try.