The future of work and the lessons of duct tape Highlights from 2019

11 December 2019

Host Tanya Ott takes us back to two of our most popular topics of 2019:  the meaning of work and digital technology.


Anh Phillips: In an age where there’s so much change and uncertainty and disruption, there’s more of a need for leadership now than there ever was before.

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Jerry Kane: Talking about digital is not enough. Thinking about digital is not enough. Action is what’s necessary …

John Hagel: Before we start talking about who’s going to do work and how it’s done and all the rest… What is work? What should it be?

Today on the Press Room, we take a listen back to some of our most popular conversations of 2019.

I’m Tanya Ott … and before we get going with this “Best of” episode I want to encourage you to subscribe to the podcast, if you haven’t already. That way, you’ll know right away when we’ve got a new episode and you won’t have to go hunting for it. You can just set it and forget it.

Okay—for this last episode of the year, I thought we’d listen back to some of the conversations we’ve had this year about two really big topics, the meaning of work and digital technology. I started one of the conversations with a story …

Years ago, when my daughters were young, they went through a phase—it was probably during middle school—when we were running to the store all the time buying more duct tape. But not your father’s duct tape. I’m talking tie dye, rainbow metallic, cheetah print … you name it. They’d cut and fold it like origami, one layer after another, crafting bracelets and wallets and even small purses that they could give to friends and, of course, keep some for themselves.

I’m pretty sure the company that invented duct tape during World War II could have never imagined a bunch of 13-year-olds turning it into fashion.

But, as we all know today, duct tape has lots of uses.

Jerry Kane: It was a waterproof tape ...

Anh Phillips: … and it was originally green, and because it was waterproof they called it duck tape. And then over the years after the war it began to be used in construction and used to tie together air ducts, and hence it changed to gray and we started calling it duct tape.

Jerry Kane: If you're anything like me, you can use it for just about any repair purpose in the house. There is actually a Wikipedia page on duct tape that looks at all sorts of different and unusual uses for duct tape. They used it to fix helicopters in the Vietnam War. There's actually some medical research on duct tape as a wart remedy, which was news to me.

Anh Phillips: Hi, I'm Anh Phillips and I lead our research on digital transformation in Deloitte's Center for Integrated Research.

Jerry Kane: And I'm Jerry Kane. I am a professor of information systems at Boston College and the director of the Shea Center for Entrepreneurship. I'm also the guest editor for Digital Business at MIT Sloan Management Review.

Tanya Ott: For several years now, Jerry and Anh have conducted an annual survey of business leaders around the world to find out how “digital” is going in their shops. They’ve now got more than 20,000 survey responses and 100 interviews—so a lot of data—and it all feeds a new book they’ve written called The Technology Fallacy: How people are the real key to digital transformation.

I sat down with them to talk about it, starting with duct tape.

Jerry Kane: The whole point was when you come in and you think there's only one possible application of technology, it's like saying there's one right use of duct tape. It just doesn't make any sense.

Anh Phillips: And part of it is discovering along the way how to actually use that technology. Sometimes you might buy a technology and you may have a sense for how you might use it strategically, but it's in the experimentation, it's in the use of that technology, that you begin to discover new ways of using it.

Tanya Ott: Let's move this from tape—which is very analog. Let's move it to the digital. One of the tools that a lot of us use in lots of different ways, both personally and in our business lives, is Twitter. It's been used [in] a lot of different ways by a lot of different companies, and that speaks to what you're talking about, Anh. Can you give us an overview of what Twitter was perhaps originally intended for, but how companies then started figuring out some really good use cases for them?

Jerry Kane: I really call Twitter the digital duct tape because it's this data stream from customers that companies are figuring out all sorts of different ways to use. Traditionally, we think of it as an opportunity for a company to get their brand message out. One of the case studies we used in the book was KLM Airlines. They used Twitter as a solution to deal with a crisis in the midst of the 2011 Icelandic volcano eruption. Basically, all their flights were down. They had no way to communicate effectively to masses of customers. They began to turn to Twitter as a way to begin to get this huge network back on track. Once they started using it in that purpose, they realized there was a great customer service tool. They use it for Lost and Found. So, if you've gone through the gate at security and you left your iPad back on the plane, you could tweet KLM and they would have a gate agent bring it back out to you because then they could go back through security.

And then there are all sorts of other examples from companies. T-Mobile basically monitored Twitter to see what people hated about their biggest competitors. And that's what led to their un-carrier strategies. What people disliked was their contracts, and so T-Mobile said, “We can be the un-carrier. We're not going to do contracts.” The health care provider Kaiser Permanente used it to track what people disliked about organizations, and it turned out that parking was a huge issue, and they could actually use the geotags to figure out what facilities people were most upset with and where they could step in. So, it creates this data stream of real-time information that companies can figure out different ways to leverage for competitive advantage. It's very different than just, “Hey, let's tweet our brand message out over and over and over.”

Anh Phillips: And Tanya, the point is that social media was not created with these intentions in mind. Nobody created these tools and said, “This is how we're going to use it. We're going to use it for customer service. We're going to use it to really get a sense for what customers want and their preferences.” That was not the original intention of the technology. So, it's the idea that the technology gets released and people start to use it; they start to use in interesting ways, and then the technology continues to evolve as people begin to find different ways to use it.

Tanya Ott: Technology can also create the opportunity to work differently within your own company, and you write about one company that used technology to basically create a database of experts within their own company. Before I have you tell me about that technology and the hidden value in it for the company, explain why it is [that] a company felt that it needed to do this in the first place. Didn't they already know who their content experts were within their company?

Jerry Kane: There's a very famous saying from, I believe, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard: “If only HP knew what HP knew, we'd be three times more productive.” And so there is this concept that many organizations don't know what knowledge they have in their own four walls. They don't know what knowledge resides in the employees’ heads. And sometimes the employees don't even know that the knowledge they possess is actually valuable. When these digital platforms are able to surface this knowledge and make it more accessible to others in the organization, it can really have a significant performance impact.

Tanya Ott: How were they able to surface this? How did the tool work?

Jerry Kane: There are a couple of different examples I think in the book. One is research from my colleague Paul Leonardi at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He studied Discover Financial Services, and they had a social media platform where the employees would share information online. He did a before-and-after study and basically, by being able to look at this stream of information that people were sharing, they increased their ability to know who knew what in the organization by something like 70 percent. What was really interesting about that is that when they were asked what they learned, they said, “Oh we didn't learn anything, it didn't make a difference,” even though he had the data to say otherwise.

We have another active research project with a large professional services firm—a very similar sort of process where we're mining the electronic data that people are normally contributing and making that expertise available to others. And what we found was that not only did consultants increase their billable revenue by about 5 percent across the organization once they adopted this tool, it [also] disproportionately affected people who had previously been locked out of the organization or a bit marginalized. Namely, junior employees, in terms of rank and tenure, and women. They all performed disproportionately better as a result of adopting this tool.

Last but not least, the example we use in this book is a large chemical company did this, and on one project team they made their people stop using email and start using this collaboration platform. They found it increased the productivity of their team by about 25 percent because it reduced the effects of turnover. When somebody left, if they only communicated via email, all that knowledge was lost. When they communicated on a digital platform and somebody else came to take over, they could get up to speed much more quickly. So, it's that collaborative side of technology that [have enabled] really, new types of collaboration.

Tanya Ott: Interesting. Each year you both conduct a survey of company leaders where you report how they think their company is doing digitally. And then you sort of rate the companies by their level of digital maturity. Walk us through that continuum from the early-stage companies to the digitally mature companies, in terms of how they're finding and leveraging these sort of hidden advantages in the technologies that they deploy.

Anh Phillips: It's interesting that you asked that because we notice that early-stage companies use digital tools differently. They typically start off by using it to improve customer engagement and interaction. And then by the time you get to digitally maturing organizations, they're actually using it for much more than that. They're using it not only to engage with their customers but to improve efficiency and also to innovate and to transform and create new business models. And that's ultimately where the value lies. It’s in thinking how you can do business differently.

Jerry Kane: And another important follow-up point on this [is], and this is really the core thesis of the book, it's not just how they use technology that's different. Their leadership styles are different. The talent-retention models are different. Their organizational structure and culture are very different. Digital maturity from an organizational perspective is not just how you use technology. It's how you reorient your entire organization to be able to compete more effectively in a digital world. And those reorientations may or may not actually have much to do with technology. Yes, digitally mature companies use technology differently, but they do a whole lot of other things differently as well.

If you’ve listened to this podcast before you’ve probably heard me say some version of, “This is the podcast about the issues and ideas that are important to your business today.”

One of the biggest issues we’re talking about these days is what work is going to look like 10, 15, or 50 years from now. How will technologies like artificial intelligence and automation change the way we work? What kinds of jobs won’t exist anymore? My guests today say, before you worry about who’s going to be doing the work and how it’s going to be done, you need to stop …

… and ask a more fundamental question.

John Hagel: What is work?

Tanya Ott: That’s John Hagel.

John Hagel: I'm the founder and co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge. The Center for the Edge is a research center that is focused on identifying emerging business opportunities that should be on the CEO's agenda, but are not. And we do the research to persuade them to put it on the agenda.

Tanya Ott: My other guest is Maggie Wooll.

Maggie Wooll: I lead research on the Future of Work and learning and human potential for the Center for the Edge.

John Hagel: Our belief is that there is an opportunity and a need for a fundamental shift in how we define work for people, and it has to [happen] at a very high level with the notion of moving from work that typically is tightly specified, highly standardized routine tasks to work that is about addressing unseen problems and opportunities to create more value. [Those are] very different conceptions of what work should be, and at the risk of overgeneralizing, we would say most work in most institutions today around the world is in that former category of tightly specified standardized tasks.

Tanya Ott: When I think about work I think I go to work at 8 o'clock in the morning [and] I come home at 5:00 at night. I pretty much know what my day is going to look like. I mean, that's a job, right. That's work. But you're saying, Maggie, that's not exactly maybe what work should be.

Maggie Wooll: Work that is laid out in predefined [tasks], and what we talk about as being routine—that is the stuff that is not being automated just now. It's been being automated for years in various forms, whether that's robotics or computer programs behind the scenes, but things that are pre-defined and very standardized can be done by machines. The last couple of years have really started to put a finer point on it—for humans, what is the work we do? And it's really starting to do the stuff that we want to do, that we're good at doing—understanding other people, thinking creatively, and solving problems. That's the stuff that we used to have to fill in around the gaps when we were spending our days doing really routine tasks. It is definitely a mindset shift, as well as an actual shift of how time is spent and what the expectations are.

Tanya Ott: It's a lot of shifting. You write at the top of your article, "In the age of artificial intelligence, the answer to a more optimistic future may lie in redefining work itself." But embedded in that statement, John, is this idea that even though we've been assured that automation is going to automate some processes and free up workers to focus more on rewarding tasks, there's still this huge concern amongst a lot of people that I talk to about what the future's going to look like. I hear people saying they're worried about losing their jobs to robots. And the question is why wouldn't they be, given that a lot of companies have responded to competitive pressures by rolling out cost-cutting measures that often include eliminating positions and asking people to do more with less.

John Hagel: That's the key challenge, and frankly our belief is fears are justified. If work is tightly specified standardized tasks and if the focus of the institution is on cost-cutting, then yes, all that work is going to get taken away and we're going to lose our jobs. But again, our view is [that] the missed opportunity is, what if we took that capacity that's now been freed up, that should have actually never been done by people to begin with, that's work that machines can do much better than we can, and refocus those people on creating more and more value for the institution. Now we're suddenly turning it into a situation that it benefits the institution. We're shifting the focus from just cost reduction to more and more of value creation. How can we have more and more impact in the marketplace and within the organization to create more value for the marketplace? Now, all of a sudden, it's how can we get even more workers doing that? We don't have enough. There's more and more value to be created. So, our sense is that it is a challenging shift, we don't want to underestimate it at all, but on the other hand it's something that already is happening. In our research we do case studies to support the research, and Maggie can talk to some of the examples that we've come up with in terms of companies and institutions that are already starting to redefine work and the way we're talking about.

Tanya Ott: I'm sure a lot of companies will say, “We're already doing this, we're all about the customer experience. We're all about tapping into the potential of our employees.” We see that kind of language scattered across their advertising and their promotional materials. But what you're saying is you're not even anywhere near there yet—work as a broader picture.

Maggie Wooll: It is interesting because there is a sense from some companies that, hey, this is what we already do. We already give power to the workers. We already work in teams. We're already thinking about that customer. That's true. There has been a shift in that direction in some companies, but if you actually look at where people spend the majority of their time, if you talk to the frontline workers, and if you look at how they're actually being measured and rewarded, you'll see that a lot of it still has to do with task execution that is really done within pretty tight boundaries and with the goal of getting more throughputs and being very predictable. What we're talking about is actually shifting to something that is, as John said, creating value in an unpredictable world when you don't know what the right outcome is going to be, and have that actually be the day-to-day full-time work of people, not something they do on the side or a guideline for them as they go through their everyday tasks, but that they actually are focused on as their full-time work.

John Hagel: And I should say a key assumption behind this perspective is that the world, the markets, the global economy is changing in a fundamental way. We used to be in a much more stable environment where you could tightly specify and standardize tasks, and that was the way to be very efficient. In a world that's more rapidly changing, where on a daily basis we're confronting new situations that have never been anticipated, that kind of work model becomes very inefficient because now workers are scrambling to figure out, “This wasn't in the process manual. How do I deal with this?” Our belief is it's an opportunity because of the way the world is changing. It's not only an opportunity, it's an imperative. If we continue to just hang onto the process manual, we're going to become more and more inefficient.

Tanya Ott: I want to dig into a case study so we could put a real clear picture on this. One of the companies that you look at is California-based Morning Star, which is an agribusiness company that does tomato processing and things like that. They took an interesting approach to empowering their employees. Maggie, what did they do?

Maggie Wooll: Yes. The Morning Star company is very interesting. It's easy when we think about redefining work to kind of think about certain types of workers who could do this more creative, imaginative work and who could be trusted managing their own work. But the Morning Star company is a low-margin business with a lot of low-wage workers, and it's been around for a few decades. So, they are a little ahead of time. They operate on a principle of self-management. That means no one has unilateral authority over another person. Basically, they let each employee at every level shape their own responsibilities and relationships with their colleagues. What this ends up looking like is that there's kind of an assumption of trustworthiness, competence, and the ability to observe and make judgments and act in the interests, not just of the company, but of one's co-workers. They take this responsibility to the company and to their co-workers very seriously. I'll give you just one example that brings it to life.

One thing they do is that they're a pretty aggressive harvester, which means that a lot of vines come in with the tomatoes. So, tomatoes get unloaded at the plant; they're kind of floated down this flume of water, and that flume was getting really clogged up with vines and required a lot of sorting. There was a factory mechanic who'd been there since high school, and he had an idea that a bar that rested across the flume could snag these vines and eliminate the need to sort. He was a pretty good welder, so he just welded up a prototype and tested it out on just one flume. He watched it and it seemed effective. It didn't damage the tomatoes. It didn't slow down the flume. Then he pulled in an automation mechanic who helped him to design a small motorized system to automatically dump the vines. And when that proved out, then he shared it with a few other co-workers. They implemented it on another couple of flumes and only at this point did they actually raise it to higher visibility and suggest that it get implemented in other places.

This is just one example. The idea [is] that you see something, you observe for a little while, you try something, you pull another colleague to informally try it out again, and keep very responsibly trying to come up with a better solution to it. You never have to make presentations and go seeking approval from management just to try something out. So that was pretty amazing to me.

Tanya Ott: You can only imagine what it must feel like for them. If they try something out, it works, they iterate on it, and then it becomes something really successful in the company. To be able to look at that and say “I made that. That was my idea.”

Maggie Wooll: Yeah. One thing the Morning Star company does—and this was a company that started out with this vision and it started out smaller, so they were able to control it—they hire for people that they think can work in this type of environment. But what they have found is that even in their harvesting teams out in the field—a real farm labor—the teams there take it seriously, as well, and they'll see one harvesting team is more productive than another and so they go out and look and say, “What are they doing that's different?” And it's because everyone feels the latitude to tweak what they're doing, see what the result is, and then keep looking for better answers. People tend to stay there for a long time because it is not only effective for the company, but it's a good way to work for the people as well.

Tanya Ott: What I like about that example is that oftentimes when we're talking about these kinds of redefining the way work is done, it seems to focus on white-collar, knowledge workers. And this is not that. This is something different.

Maggie Wooll: That was one thing we found that was both affirming and really exciting when we went looking for examples: You can find different examples in all types of fields. It's interesting to start thinking about what creativity looks like in different contexts or what imagination looks like in different contexts. When people push back and say this is only for a certain type of person, they're viewing what imagination is or what creativity is in a very narrow way, [as if] we're all going to paint pictures and make songs. It's not that at all. Within context, these things look different.

Sometimes employees are either nervous or afraid of the technology. And let’s be honest—you can understand why. Some are afraid their jobs will go away. Others worry they won’t be able to skill up to meet the demands of the future. But if there’s one thing we’ve heard in all of conversations this year, it’s the inevitability that machines and human will be working side by side and that each [will] have a role in harnessing data-driven insights and creating the desired outcomes.

On today’s show we heard from Anh Phillips, who leads research on digital transformation in Deloitte’s Center for Integrated Research …

Boston College professor Jerry Kane, who’s the guest editor for Digital Business at MIT Sloan Management Review … Ahn and Jerry’s book is The Technology Fallacy: How People Are the Real Key to Digital Transformation.

John Hagel, founder and cochairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, and Maggie Wooll, who leads research on the Future of Work for the center.

The conversations you just heard are but a small sample of the topics we’ve tackled this year. I encourage you to check out our archives at for more.

And speaking of more, we’ll be back in 2020 with even more! For the last several years we’ve dropped a new podcast every other week, but starting next year we’re ramping that up and every week we’ll take a deep dive into an important business issue. Subscribe and you’ll get them delivered automatically to your device for free.

Let us know what topics you’d like us to cover. We’re on Twitter at @deloitteinsight (no S) and I’m on Twitter at @tanyaott1 (spell out). Thanks for listening … enjoy your winter break … and we’ll see you back here after the new year!

This podcast is provided by Deloitte and is intended to provide general information only. This podcast is not intended to constitute advice or services of any kind. For additional information about Deloitte, go to