In Search of a New Organizing Principle for Work Technology

Every now and then, something happens that changes the way we think about everything. Like, oh, I don’t, what’s a good example — how about a global pandemic? 

Major events like COVID-19 cause us to take things apart, examine the pieces, and put them back together again in a different way. But the way things get put back together depends on the organizing principle that emerges after the event. 

An organizing principle is a central idea that drives decisions in a market after a major event. In a field like Work Tech, the value of software solutions and services is often judged based on their relationship to the organizing principle. For example, the invention of the World Wide Web in 1990 (the event) eventually led to “Software-as-a-Service” (the organizing principle). In a very short amount of time, Work Tech solutions came to be judged as either contemporary or antiquated based on how much they adhered to the organizing principle of SaaS. This led to a massive amount of change in Work Tech as startups rushed to bring new SaaS solutions to the market while established companies worked feverishly to upgrade their technology. 

For our purposes, the most important aspect of an organizing principle is how it drives buyer behavior. When SaaS technology really started to take off near the turn of the century, business buyers began to critically evaluate all of their software and replace everything with SaaS solutions. In Work Tech, we forgot to ask if the new SaaS solutions were actually any good. And so we ended up with a whole bunch of software that was “in the cloud” but built on shitty policies and processes like annual performance reviews. Didn’t matter. SAP paid $3.4 billion for SuccessFactors just to buy some real estate in the cloud. 

In my opinion, there hasn’t really been a major organizing principle in the field of Work Tech since SaaS — an event that caused business buyers to evaluate all the technology they owned and make big changes. There have certainly been some major events (like the global financial crisis) and some big ideas (like “Employee Engagement”) — but no event big enough and no organizing principle strong enough that it changed everything.

Then coronavirus came to town.

COVID-19 has already changed the world of work. It’s impossible to know all the ways that Work Tech will evolve due to coronavirus, but it’s important to know that a new organizing principle will certainly take root and that will lead to massive turnover in Work Tech solutions. 

And here’s another important thing to know — the new organizing principle will just be an idea that people coalesce around. And the idea will definitely emerge from industry discourse and people will definitely start to organize around it. The trick is to be part of the conversation so that you can help shape the idea. Otherwise, the idea is going to shape you.

Right now we are in the everyone-is-just-figuring-things-out phase of innovation. The organizing principle has not yet emerged. That’s why I’m counseling clients to avoid tying their marketing messages and campaigns to temporary topics like the pandemic or working at home. Work Tech vendors surely need to acknowledge the crisis and offer their help, but to succeed in the new world of work that will rapidly develop, companies must focus on more durable messages that are true to the heart of their companies and rooted in enduring value.

And they have to be out front, leading with these messages.

If I were a betting man (which I am) I would say that the new organizing principle for Work Tech will not be about working remotely. I believe it’s much more likely to be about the broader concept of “Employee Experience.” Employee Experience was already starting to take shape as a big idea, but not an organizing principle. I think all that just changed. The test of an organizing principle is whether buyers will evaluate every piece of technology they have based on how well it supports the principle. And I do believe that people are going to critically evaluate all of their Work Tech and ask the simple question, “Does this system create a good Employee Experience or a bad one?” And if it creates a bad one, they’re going to throw it out.

Does this mean that everyone should relabel their solutions as Employee Experience? Absolutely not. But it does mean that you should ask yourself how your value will be judged against this core idea. And asking that question may cause Work Tech vendors to think carefully about how they market, sell, develop, and support their software. 

By the way, this evolution happened a while ago for consumer brands. Customer Experience (CX) changed the way companies looked at everything (and, consequently, the software they purchased).

My business partner Steve Smith brought up another interesting idea that could develop into an organizing principle. We’ve talked a lot over the past couple of years about the serious problem of technology debt with some of the older, larger Work Tech companies. But there is also this notion of “work process debt” which Steve is talking a lot about these days. Many companies out there suffer from too many processes that are out of step with the way work really gets done. This might be a valuable moment to eliminate unnecessary work processes and emerge stronger and more focused on the work.

The most important piece of advice that I can offer Work Tech companies during this moment of great uncertainty is to keep the conversation going with your employees, your customers, your prospects, and the industry. We must lead companies through this crisis while also preparing them for what the future holds. There are no think tanks or government departments set up to provide guidance to our industry. There is only us. And the market will be what we make it. 

So while the world is paying more attention to how work gets done than at any other point in modern history, let’s use our position in the market to create more awareness for the concepts that we knew were right even before the global pandemic hit, and will be even more important after all this is over. Workers need to have a good experience during every interaction with their company, whether that interaction is with other people, business policies and processes, or technology. 

Now let’s get out there and tell our stories.

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This entry was originally published on LinkedIn on March 23, 2020.