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Why employee behavior is the key to digital transformation

By Todd Krieger

  • Successful tech projects encourage behavior consistent with an organization’s cultural values
  • An excessive focus on technology can cause executives to frame problems too narrowly
  • Business anthropologists look at worker habits to predict whether a tech project will succeed

This is the first article in a series on how employee culture shapes digital transformation.

Over the last 20 years, the waters off the coast of Lombok, Indonesia have emerged as a prized tuna fishery. But with demand for tuna increasing and scant fisheries data available, it’s unclear whether they’re fished in a sustainable way.

In 2015, mFish, a public‑private partnership run out of the U.S. State Department, decided to find out. It distributed 15 smartphones to Lombok fishermen, equipped with special apps that tracked boat location, weather, and plankton conditions, among other things.

At the end of a four‑week pilot, though, the project didn’t have much to show. The phones proved hard for the locals to use and the built‑in apps didn’t provide enough value to motivate them to learn.

The same dynamic has doomed countless enterprise IT projects, says Charley Scull of Practica Group, a business anthropology firm. Anthropology is the study of human cultures; Practica studies consumer and employee cultures in order to help companies advance strategic goals such as product and service innovation, brand positioning, and better customer experiences.



“Designing technological solutions for problems is not the challenge,” Scull says. “The challenge is designing technological solutions that align with people’s cultural values, fit into their lived worlds, and in some way enhance the things they’re doing.” Projects that try to change behavior, he adds, have a relatively poor track record.

Practica starts by trying to understand the goals, motives and incentives of the different stakeholders involved in the business case at hand. For example, interviews with the Lombok fishermen revealed that they tended to value community ties over commercial gain. Not surprisingly, they said they’d get more value from apps that allowed them to communicate better with other boats.

ServiceNow recently started working with Practica on a research project that studies how automated processes impact employee cultures. The goal of the research is to shed light on important human factors that CIOs need to consider when rolling out digital transformation programs.

The question couldn’t be more timely. A recent McKinsey study found that roughly half of all work activities are automatable using currently available technology. McKinsey predicts that by 2030, automation will impact every worker in every profession.

Today, companies in every industry are implementing process automation and AI tools in the workplace. The insights of business anthropology can help maximize the ROI from these digital transformation initiatives.

One key insight is that most business challenges can’t be solved simply by throwing technology at them. An excessive focus on tech can make leaders define the problem too narrowly. “By trying to understand the system and how technology fits into it, we can start to get at the answers,” says John Wendel, another Practica partner.



Anthropologists at work

When Scull and Wendel evaluate a workplace, their first step is to look at all the tasks and jobs that workers perform. They first seek to understand what workers prioritize, how they work, and what they value. As a next step, they study the impact of particular technologies on how work gets done.

One thing they look for is whether automation has changed how often workers interact with colleagues. They also try to understand whether social interactions that disappear because of automation resurface elsewhere, perhaps in the lunchroom or outside work. These human factors can significantly impact the results of enterprise IT implementations.

Central to Practica’s approach is observing workers, always with the goal of uncovering the meaning behind patterns of behavior. Among the questions they try to answer: What are the objects and processes with which people interact? What work activities are codified as formal processes as opposed to informal workflows?

This is very different from the typical user research that tech companies undertake when they roll out new applications. “People always say they’ve done user research,” says Wendel. “What that usually means is they tested people who were going to use this app.” This method often fails because it doesn’t account for the broader social and professional contexts in which people use technology.

“If the folks who need to use the app don’t feel like it’s aligned with what they need to do then it will die on the vine,” he adds.

Todd Krieger is a journalist and digital content producer. His work on technology and culture have previously appeared in The New York Times, WIRED and the MIT Technology Review.

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