The Press Room's best of 2018 Tech addiction, internal mobility and the digital thread

13 December 2018

Among the 2018 Press Room highlights were examinations of the good and bad of technological innovation, internal hiring opportunities, and how to piece together the digital thread. This episode recaps the key themes of those previous episodes.

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TANYA OTT: Every December Oxford Dictionary picks a Word of the Year. In 2016 it was “post truth.” I probably don’t need to explain that one. In 2017 the word was “youthquake.” Yes, that’s a real word. It means a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people. Pretty cool word, if you ask me. This year, the dictionary went with “toxic,” but I’ve got another suggestion: Digital Wellbeing.

Okay, that’s two words … but they’re two pretty important words.

JENNIFER FISHER: I don't know if I'm a recovering technology addict or I'm still an addict. We're all guilty of it.            

TANYA OTT: I’m Tanya Ott and this our Best of 2018 episode, where we’ll dip into some of the year’s most popular topics … starting with screen time.

 I just got a new smart phone and I just discovered it’s got this function where I can see exactly how many minutes a day I’m on my phone.  Yesterday it was just under two hours, which I guess wouldn’t be bad if I hadn’t also spent many hours on my computer. And it wasn’t even a workday. I was shopping for holiday gifts and diddling around on social media.

CONNOR JOYCE: A lot of the design that is now considered addictive design or dark patterns in design, a good portion of it was unintentional. It was under the pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness that these designers came together, and they started to build applications that resulted in addiction.

That’s Connor Joyce. He and Jennifer Fisher are the “people” people at Deloitte. Connor’s a human capital consultant and Jennifer’s the managing director of well-being. And they think a lot about how to use technology, especially in a 24/7 always-connected world.

CONNOR JOYCE: I purposely leave my work phone at home whenever I'm on the weekend, going out, and doing something. But more and more just when I'm out with friends, and whenever I'm doing something that doesn't require technology, I really keep myself away from it. It was a hurdle at first; I just noticed, wow, I can see things around me a little bit better.

JENNIFER FISHER: Yeah, we live in this over-connected world and we want to be over-connected. I think the adoption or integration and maybe perhaps the control that technology has over our lives is one of the fastest things that we've seen in human history in terms of how quickly it's integrated and how quickly we've become dependent on it. And so while there are the obvious great things about the technology that we have in our lives, there were just some unknowns in terms of what the consequences could be. And we're at a point where we're also starting to see some of the negative side effects

TANYA OTT: You used the word addiction and we throw that around a lot, but is there a chemical thing happening with us when we're using technology. Can we really be addicted to the technology in some sort of physical way?

JENNIFER FISHER: You absolutely can, and there's a lot of research and studies that support this. The way that a lot of our technology is designed, the ever-flowing inbox, and the way that our e-mails are designed, the way that a lot of the social media platforms are designed—it's all consuming. Each time you refresh, or each time there's a new ding, or each time there's a new email or buzz or whatever it is, that's a dopamine hit. The same type of dopamine hit that happens when you're actually on illicit drugs. And your brain and your body don't know the difference. It's the same physiological response.

TANYA OTT: Let's play a game of Good Tech/Bad Tech. I'm going to give you a list, we'll go through them one by one, of different kinds of technologies and maybe you can first tackle what's good about them—why they are a good thing for employees and for employers—and then we can talk about the challenges that they present. You game?

CONNOR JOYCE: Excellent.

TANYA OTT: Ok, so first big one: Virtual meetings. I mean, I can have a meeting with someone anywhere by any of the videoconferencing platforms and lots of other ways. Good tech? Bad tech?

CONNOR JOYCE: Good tech. You have multiple employees who, at one point in time, would have had to co-locate. That's travel costs—both costs of the monetary and the time. You have all of the ability to meet from all around the world and to get people who maybe couldn't fit it into their schedule. So, there's the fact that it's the ease of getting into that meeting right away and being able to maybe jump from one meeting that has people all from Europe to another meeting that has people all from Asia, while still sitting in your pajamas at home. So that would definitely be the good tech part.

TANYA OTT: The bad tech?

CONNOR JOYCE: That ease can quickly turn into a day filled with meetings, where a lot's going to be said but nothing's going to be retained because it's just jumping from one meeting to the next.

JENNIFER FISHER: And then there's all of these psychological effects that come in. I'm sure everybody's heard of FOMO—fear of missing out.   And so with that we all end up with these back-to-back-to-back meetings and calls on our calendar without really any time to think or to take a few deep breaths or God forbid get up and go to the restroom or get something to eat without shoveling food down our mouths.

CONNOR JOYCE:  There's that ambiguity that's attached to the unknown. Every time you pick up your phone it's a slot machine. You could turn on the screen and it could be an email telling you that you've been awarded a promotion or that there was a big success on a project; but on the same token it could also be that there's a round of layoffs that are coming or that there was a significant issue on one of the projects. But then, the reality of it is, it's more likely just another mundane email that's not going to have a significant impact on that day, let alone your life. But it's that random aspect behind any notification or any meeting, and it's the ease that technology creates for an individual to just say, OK, I should attend. I should look at that. I should check my phone, so I can settle that uncertainty and then just ride either the highs and lows or just the mundane nature of whatever it is.

TANYA OTT: So, the next kind of technology I need to define before we go to the good tech/bad tech part of it and that is bottomless design. First of all, what does that mean?

CONNOR JOYCE: The bottomless design you'll see frequently in mobile applications, and you're even beginning to see it more on websites and a lot of different platforms. It's going to be whenever you're scrolling, and instead of hitting a page you keep scrolling and you keep scrolling, and maybe if you're not on Wi-Fi you might get a little buffering for a second, but you can just keep going and there's no stopping point that's built in that says ... wait a second do you want to continue looking at this. That's what a page would do instead, where maybe you look at your first 100 results and you say, OK, I've searched enough. I should choose one of these hundred or maybe I've seen enough photos of my friends, and I think I'm good for the session. Instead it's going to just keep going and going until you consciously have to choose to be done.

TANYA OTT: So good tech—why?

CONNOR JOYCE: That one's going to be the efficiency of not having to click pages. I know that there have been times in my life where I could only see 10 results and I was trying to choose between 100 or 200 results and it would be easy to try to get them on one page or to just quickly scroll up and down on a page.

TANYA OTT: Bad tech is that you may just sit there for a very, very long time and it's not efficient use of your time?

CONNOR JOYCE: Exactly. It's just that there's no stopping point there. And there's no point to check your behavior and continue to rationalize why you should be using it. You get so much information that you begin to think, OK, I was asked to answer this one question. Well, if you have a thousand resources that you could check to try to answer this one question, especially if it's not a binary yes or no question, how do you know once you answered that question to its fullest? When is that report solid enough and has enough evidence behind it?


CONNOR JOYCE: One other good tech/bad tech that I find fascinating is instant messaging. A lot of companies are beginning to pick up instant messaging services and talk about the efficiency there. So many emails that really don't have to be sent, one sentence emails, quick request, or something along those lines, something that can easily be answered with somebody messaging someone—quick question: what is X? And just say yes or no answer. Instant messaging is very good tech for being able to simplify communication, both in lieu of email and in lieu of walking over to a desk.

But that's also the bad tech part of it. You could be sitting across from someone, and instead of looking over from your computer and asking a question, you could quickly ask them over the instant messaging service. And then you have this need to always be available. I know most services. As soon as you haven't used your computer or your mobile device after 5 or 10 minutes, it's going to put you away and maybe that's because you know we're on this call right now and I'm actually away from my computer. So, if somebody were really trying to put a strong authoritative eye on me and say what is Connor doing during the day, why was Connor away for 25–30 minutes from his computer? And so, the instant messaging service—there's a lot of efficiency that's created, but it can also generate a lot of anxiety when employees feel the need to always be on.

TANYA OTT: What are some of the steps that employers are taking to mitigate the negative effects that we've talked about when it comes to technology use?

CONNOR JOYCE: The one that always sticks with me is that Daimler has enacted a policy that allows their employees to be able to set an away message when they go on vacation, and most companies allow that, but what was special about this away message is that employees are allowed to delete every email that they receive. So, if I were to email an employee of this company who is on vacation, I'm going to receive that standard "Hello, I'm on vacation" message, but it's going to say "and this message will be deleted. Please reach back out to me at this date."


CONNOR JOYCE: Yep. And so that's a pretty drastic stance. It's one that as soon as you hear, I believe that most employees say how that would be pretty nice. But then most employers are going to think how can we do that. That's such a culture shift. It's probably not possible. And so, there's another recommendation that we've found and it's one that is much less aggressive, and that's just to enact a policy where an employee who goes on four days of vacation or more automatically gets an additional day tacked onto their vacation. But for that additional day, it's almost a transition back to workday. We'll call it an email-only day. And so, they're still not supposed to attend any meetings or to really engage with any other employees. Their task for that intermediate day is to just reply to all those emails or complete any tasks that are going to burden them upon their official return.

TANYA OTT: My full conversation with Conner Joyce and Jennifer Fisher is on our website, We talk about more tools that are useful in the workplace and how to do a digital detox in your personal life.            

TANYA OTT: Okay—we’re going to switch gears here. I’ve got a scenario that might sound familiar. A job’s come open at work and you know you’d be perfect for it. But you also know the company’s doing a full search and will be recruiting externally. How do you make yourself stand out?

Or—let’s flip that script and say you’re the hiring manager at a large corporation and you want the best person for a job that’s just opened.  But what if you don’t know—and can’t even easily find out—that the best person might be in another department somewhere in your company?

Turns out, technology—as well as policy—can actually get in the way.  Earlier this year, I talked to a couple people who think and write about it. Denise Moulton spent the bulk of her career working in human resources. She leads the H.R. practice at Bersin, part of Deloitte Consulting LLP. At the time of our conversation, Robin Erickson led Bersin’s talent acquisition research practice. She has since left the firm.

I asked Robin why it’s so hard for some companies to promote from inside. 

ROBIN ERICKSON: Oftentimes employees don't know how to find internal roles. Many organizations don't post job openings internally before they post them externally. A lot of organizations have a culture that supports job hoarding, position hoarding. And so, people don't want to ask to move someone from one department to another because then that person's lead might not make their numbers. They don't want their best talent to go.

Other organizations we've heard of actually don't allow recruiters to reach out internally. Even if they find the candidate on a social networking site at their organization, some organizations won't allow recruiters to reach out to those candidates proactively.

TANYA OTT: Are you saying that they won't allow recruiters to reach out to an internal candidate, but they would allow recruiters to reach out to an external candidate?

ROBIN ERICKSON: Correct. You literally have employees saying it was easier for me to quit and move to a different part of the company than it was for me to transfer internally.

TANYA OTT: That's so wild.

ROBIN ERICKSON: Amen. So the part of what we're dealing with here is that there are real systems and talent acquisition that don't work for internal candidates and all the recruiters do is process—so, if I leave and Denise takes my job, they're only processing the fact that Denise is moving from her role to my role. And most employees aren't going to wait till their boss leaves or kicks the bucket, right? So that is the issue and that is why the fact that you need to get talent acquisition involved is the new news.

DENISE MOULTON: It comes back to the culture, because the challenge—and this comes from a lot of experiences that I've had on the job—the challenge is, there's this general, unfortunate perception that talent acquisition isn't going to be strategic enough to get that pipeline of external talent in play quickly enough to fill that gap. So, when that talent moves on to another team, especially, it's going to be a top talent or a rising star, that team that lost that talent is feeling it's going to take so much time to find something from the external marketplace. We won't be able to meet our goals and our objectives. So, it becomes this kind of tug of war between the team that needs somebody and the team that isn't ready to give someone away. And the talent is stuck in the middle, and that's actually a hurdle as well. They don't want to get involved in the internal politics of two teams battling, so they oftentimes will just opt out of consideration, which is really unfortunate and also leads to incredible disengagement of that particular individual.

TANYA OTT: Okay… this is where I brought another person into the conversation. His name’s Bill Cleary and he helps companies think through the strategy, processes, structures, and—importantly—the technology that can help them transform talent acquisition.

TANYA OTT: As you are looking at not just the strategy but also how do you address the barriers to doing talent acquisition or internal mobility, what are the technologies that you're looking at? What are some of the fixes that address these issues that were raised?

BILL CLEARY: We're seeing the role of technology changing drastically. We're asking people to update internal resumes. We're asking folks if they understand or indicate their career preferences? What are their next steps of interest? Just like Amazon recommends to you your next shirt—how can we recommend to you a job based on the skills and experiences that you’ve obtained in an organization. Within the same organization.

TANYA OTT: How does that play out from a technology standpoint?

BILL CLEARY: There are a variety of different ways to do this, and some of this capability exists in some of the core HR systems that are prevalent in many organizations, and some of them are interesting and innovative niche solutions that are being bolted on to some of the standard core HR technologies.

We're finding more and more machine learning [and] natural language processing capability coming into this discussion and being able to more naturally do more of this assessment.

TANYA OTT: Taking out the crystal ball—what are you seeing people experiment with on the edge that's really intriguing and maybe holds some promise.

BILL CLEARY: There's a number of niche vendors out there that [are] combining some of the different analytics out there. What is your background? How many days did you take off? How many books have you read online? How many flights did you take? How many hotel rooms you stay in? How many conferences did you attend? How many audio books have you listened to? And they aggregate all these different data points that are out there. And there's so many others. And we're calling some of the things “different signal sets of success.” We're using a feedback loop to help us create that view of what is success, but we're using all the different data points that are available to us. And we're finding that there's so much more data today than there was a few years ago. If you look at The Future of Work studies, we talk about data quadrupling over time and what are people doing with that data. So, it goes back to the big data discussion of old, but I think it's also looking at what are some of those signals that indicate performance and how are we measuring those signals to create a new outcome. And how are we leveraging that information to make hiring decisions today. If we know someone was successful, what are some of the signals that they sent us that we can conglomerate into a story that makes us understand that they were successful. And what are some of the other opportunities that we see to apply that same model to candidates internal or external as we begin to evaluate them for a position.

TANYA OTT: That was Bill Cleary—leader of Talent Acquisition consulting practice at Deloitte.

So far, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of technology… but I want to end on a more optimistic note. It was one of the coolest shows we made this year. We followed the “digital thread” and it all started at an airport.  

TANYA OTT: Break this down for us: What do you mean by digital thread? What is that?

MARK COTTELEER: Our definition of digital thread is that seamless strand of data and computing power that stretches across the, in this case, product life cycle, and we break that into four major components: scan, design, and analyze; build and monitor; test and validate; and then deploy and manage. That metaphor of the thread is intended to represent that idea of stitching together of a whole bunch of constituent technologies that help the organization, in this case ONE Aviation, get the job done. In this case, that job is to produce a better, higher-performing, more efficient aircraft for their customers.

TANYA OTT: So, it's not just a technology or a whole bunch of technologies working in silos. This is a true ecosystem.

MARK COTTELEER: Yeah. It is about bringing together an ecosystem of technologies from perhaps a variety of different partners. And the idea is to pick and choose those ecosystem partners, those collaborative partners, those technology partners that are going to serve the purpose for your application. In this particular case we're building aircraft parts; we're designing aircraft parts so that we can get that airplane to fly as efficiently and as cost effectively as we possibly can. There might be other applications where we need to pick different partners. But you're essentially looking for that core platform and then what technologies you need to hang off that in order to make things work for your purpose.  

TANYA OTT: Paul, this isn't just about airplanes. There are plenty of other industries that are either using the digital thread and leveraging its power or are considering it. I've spent some time talking with folks in the power industry who are running digital twins of wind and electrical plants, and they say it's a really powerful tool because they get to run a lot of simulations—all these what-if scenarios that help them predict the future and how they could respond to things like equipment failures or unusual weather. More broadly, how does digital thread save companies time and money?

PAUL MICHELMAN: That's a great question, Tanya. And I don't think we really understand yet the full scope of what digital thread can do for an organization, whether it's in a specific manufacturing context or an industrial context or outside of it. And that's one of the things that's so exciting about this. When Mark first approached us with an idea to produce this documentary around the digital thread, my first reaction was, well, we don't really cover specific technologies at MIT Sloan Management Review. We're a general management publication. But as Mark introduced me to the technology and I spent some time digging into it, I saw where there were potential implications that were much more profound for the organization than just reinventing the life cycle of a part or even re-conceiving of the manufacturing value chain. Not to diminish the importance of those things—they're actually profoundly important in and of themselves. But digital thread has the promise, and at this point it's still just the promise, to force organizations to rethink the way they do lots of things. And we've seen some precedents with other technologies that have preceded it.

TANYA OTT: Such as?

PAUL MICHELMAN: There are two that come to mind. One is the lean movement. So students of manufacturing and management know that what has become this huge movement in how to introduce new products and even to bring a more agile approach to running organizations began in a very specific manufacturing context, where they were looking to solve a problem on the line and create new efficiencies on the production line. Over time some very smart people recognized that taking what looked to be very complex processes and taking them one at a time and simplifying them could be applied to any range of other contexts. And that became, over decades mind you, a management phenomenon.

A more recent example, and one that's related to digital thread, is 3D printing. 3D printing began as a way to quickly manufacture replacement parts. But as organizations saw what 3D printing could do, it's forcing organizations to completely reimagine manufacturing.

TANYA OTT: So, we've been talking about this idea of a digital thread for a long time. Why has it taken so long? Why is now the right time for organizations to really be leveraging it?

MARK COTTELEER: Tanya, that's a great question.

What we see in the digital thread—and we can go back to this idea of the definition, which is this single seamless strand of data and computing power particularly in a manufacturing context—when we look at the amount of data that we can collect and the opportunity that that creates for us to analyze and make better choices perhaps in real time, you need the ability to quickly process and store and retrieve data and turn that into intelligence and into reaction perhaps very quickly and perhaps to distribute that across extended geographic distances.

What we're seeing here is the ability to bring those things together, both the physical technologies—that's the 3D printing or the robots or the drones—and the digital technologies—that's the artificial intelligence or the analytics or the data storage or simply the raw computing—to create a system that allows you to sense and respond very quickly and to bring together that entire network of users within the plant or across the distributed supply network to make a better product and then deliver that to your customers.

TANYA OTT: So, from an organizational perspective, what's the biggest challenge to uptake?

PAUL MICHELMAN: The challenge begins with the fundamental issue that organizations were not built to exploit this type of technology. And one of the things that's so exciting about the digital thread is that it's kind of a case study for how new technologies will demand organizations to adapt sometimes to radically new approaches to management in order to fully exploit them. And that really is what gets us, from our perspective at MIT Sloan Management Review, so excited about this. We simply don't know where the technology will take us as an organization. We simply know that we have to be willing to experiment and adapt and adopt new procedures in order to take advantage of it. And what we're really hoping is that this video series will attract nontechnology executives who will look at this through that lens.

TANYA OTT: Paul, when you say organizations were not built to think this way or to process this way or to work this way, what do you mean?

PAUL MICHELMAN: There are organizations, and we actually feature those organizations in the video, who have very nimbly adapted their processes for digital thread. But what I mean in that broader statement is that organizations are optimized for the present, rarely for the future. We find ourselves in an environment with the kind of fast crashing wave of digital technologies where organizations are needing to adapt in order to take advantage of new technologies much more quickly than they've ever had to in the past. And they don't always have the muscles to do that—which is why this is such an important example. Without fundamentally rethinking the way parts of organizations collaborate and the way humans and technologies collaborate, we wouldn't be able to take advantage of the digital thread. Nor would we be able to take advantage of many other new digital technologies.

TANYA OTT: So, what's the first step in that cultural change, in the way of thinking about how organizations work?

MARK COTTELEER: I'll take a crack at that. When I think about organizational change, I think about four things: awareness, choice, talent, and trust. Awareness is simply the ability to know what is out there, what is the opportunity. And that's one of the things that excites us most about the opportunity to have collaborated with MIT Sloan Management Review on this video series, to simply help people to be aware of where this technology is going and, in the instance of this one use case, to give them an example of what that can look like.

Then you've got choice, which is hard because there are lots of choices you can make. In the video series [ONE Aviation] made a set of choices about how to design, build, test, and deploy a bell crank and what are the technologies that they need for those kinds of components. There are lots of other choices that managers have to make every day. And there are tradeoffs that need to be made and we want to help them think through—what are our values, what's our strategy, and so how do we properly make those choices.

Then we've got to think about talent. Talent is the people that we have to actually execute the choices that we've made. And in some cases, as you've aptly pointed out, we've got technologies that are new. We're bringing them together in new ways. That requires new ways of thinking. Do we have the people and have we equipped them to execute on those choices?

And then you've got trust. We're bringing technology together in new configurations. We need to believe for ourselves sometimes in situations where we've got mission-critical components; we want that bell crank to work when we're landing with real people in the airplane. So, do we have trust in the process that we've built? Do we have trust in the supply chain partners that we are now integrating into this thread? So, we're sharing information, so that we know that that information is protected, so that we know that people are compensated properly. Trust is kind of a multidimensional element as well. But awareness, choice, talent, and trust are all issues that need to be confronted if we are going to move into this next generation of technology deployment.

PAUL MICHELMAN: I would add one more component to the four that Mark listed, all of which I agree with wholeheartedly, and that's acceptance of change. Organizations and the individuals within them have to get to a point where they accept that the world they have known is not the world of the future, and that the world of the future could look very, very different from how it's looked in the past. And that' s on the leaders of the organization to paint a compelling vision of the future for the organization, and to not just do it at a very high level, but to work with people throughout the organization to really drive that home. To help people understand how their world is changing and how their role within the organization is changing and then to challenge them to accept that change is coming. You can either accept change or become victimized by it, and we’re at a critical point for organizations in that respect.

TANYA OTT: Mark Cotteleer runs Deloitte’s Center for Integrated Research. Paul Michelman is editor-in-chief of MIT Sloan Management Review. You can dive deeper into the digital thread in their video series—which, like all of the interviews we highlighted today, is at our website,

That does it for our 2018 Best Of Episode for the Press Room. We’ll be back with you in the new year with more insights and advice on how to make good choices at work and in life.

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I’m Tanya Ott for the Press Room. Thanks for listening and see you again—on whatever screen you use to find us—next year.

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