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Atomic Conversations: Alan Berkson on the evolving role of IT leaders

A conversation with Alan Berkson on the evolving role of IT leaders in modern workplaces.

How can IT leaders apply customer experience principles to hone their digital employee experience?

How can organizations craft an employee-focused culture?  

What do Norman Doors have to do with employee experience?

What can IT leaders learn from parenting?  

We found answers to all this and more from Alan Berkson, our second guest for the Atomic Conversations podcast.

With over three decades of experience in IT development and service management, Alan is a pioneer in the Managed Service Provider space. Naturally, he was the perfect choice as our first guest to help us understand employee experience from an IT lens.  

Here’s the link to the podcast, if you’d prefer to listen to the entire episode instead. For the readers, find the key insights from our conversation with Alan, edited for clarity and comprehension, below.

On the crux of digital transformation

Digital transformation is not just about technology – it's a classic three-legged stool of people, processes, and tools. While we've been talking about digital transformation for a very long time, I think the focus on what it means for organizations is evolving.  

Before the cloud, it was data centers. We had to keep them up and running and make sure they were updated.  

So originally digital transformation was about - How do we improve our tools? How do we make sure that we keep the lights on?

Then we switched to the cloud, and a lot of organizations thought, “Well, that's our digital transformation, we’re done. We don't have to keep the lights on and we don't have to worry about upgrades.”

But that freed us to move to the next level - How can we focus on the experience? And how do we break down silos between organizations? How do we add agility to our organization?  

A lot of organizations saw this during the pandemic. They had to scramble to change their business models, they had to become agile. And those organizations went further along in their digital transformation.

Setting yourself up to take advantage of opportunities, to be able to weather storms in your business – that's really the essence of digital transformation.

On employee experience playing catch-up

I was in the customer experience space for a while. The past few decades for businesses have been about delivering a great experience to customers.  

It wasn’t just about making sure they have a call center to answer calls. It was about delivering value, being proactive, helping them with insights, making sure they were available on multiple channels, and keeping an eye on whether the customer was happy.

We went from just a regular CSAT or customer satisfaction score to NPS or net promoter score, which was a step above that.  

I even used to do a seminar called, ‘What Year Are You Working In?’ It was about how the consumer technology we have is so much more advanced than what we had in the past.  

We used to say something was professional grade and that was a compliment. Now we say something is consumer grade and that's the compliment because that's where the innovation is happening in terms of experience.

We have been constantly experimenting and innovating new ways to measure and improve customer experience. And, today, IT leaders are looking at how they can apply some of those principles to employee experience.  

If you want to find a new piece of information, do you tap the person on the shoulder next to you and ask them, or do you send somebody an email? Do you look up a fact or do you hop on the intranet? Do you have some sort of communication channel like Teams or Slack?  

How do I make improvements so that the technology I use for employees matches the technology I use for customers?

Now, going back to that whole idea of digital transformation, if I don't have to keep worrying about keeping the lights on, most of the software and technology that's running my business is in a cloud somewhere.

So now I have the freedom to think about what it means for my employees to be able to do their work on a daily basis. When they walk in, can they communicate with the people they need? Do they have the information they need at their fingertips? Can they work within the main application, or do they need to have 12 screens open to perform their job? Can I connect them all? Can I break down silos?

There were lots of recent layoffs in tech, but there'll always be competition for talent. And part of how you get good talent is you pay them well. But another big, important factor is providing them with great work experience.

On Norman Doors and total experience

Gartner calls the intersection of customer experience and employee experience, total experience or multi-experience. And there's hard evidence that happy employees make happy customers.  

I did an interview a while back with Daniel McClure, the head of IT for Warby Parker.  

And he introduced me to the concept of Norman doors. A Norman door is a door that is obvious in how it works. Say you walk up to a building and there's a handle on the door, but you're supposed to push it. Now, that's not intuitive. If there's a handle, aren't you supposed to pull it?  

The way Daniel applies this to IT was by asking - What are the Norman doors in my organization? What are the things that are not intuitive? Because that's going to slow us down.

And that is a huge focus for employee experience. For example, if a point-of-sale machine doesn't work, that directly affects the customer experience. If it takes the employee too long to process an order, that directly affects the customer experience. For the people who are processing the orders, everything has to be smooth and connected and transparent. It's about removing those Norman doors.  

If you’re sitting at work and find yourself asking, how do I get set up on my 401k? How do I get access to the intranet? How do I apply for time off? If you're sitting at work and asking those questions, those are Norman doors.  

That means that your organization hasn't made it easy for you to do your job and to get what you need as part of what you do daily.

And if you're struggling with avoidable issues like that at work, you're not focused on the customer, you're not focused on the outcomes, you're focused on trying to just get access to the tools that you need to do your job.

If an employee goes to a senior employee to ask a question about doing something basic, your digital employee experience is broken. Simply because the information was not available in some way, it wasn't searchable within the intranet or database or knowledge base, or there was a broken part of their experience that got them stuck.  

We do that on the customer experience side – we talk about the next best action. If you're a support agent and you're talking to a customer, your CRM software or your help desk software will suggest, based on this scenario, here's what you should do.

We don't really have that on the employee experience side.

And that's part of, I think, the opportunity for organizations. You have data about how people are operating, you have the AI to build the learning models, and you have technology in general to win the scale problem.  

When we have a brand-new problem that's never happened, that's where human creativity, critical thinking, and insights come into play. We will see more of that applied to the employee experience space.  

On good software being invisible

There’s a joke that the highest utilization of CRM software is on Friday afternoons. Now, why is that? It's because the salespeople aren't entering data into the CRM as part of their jobs. They're entering it at the end of the week to make their managers happy. And that's not good software.  

When you say good software, the element that comes up is I shouldn't be using the tool. I should be doing my job with the tool. And that's an important distinction.

Good software lets me live in the software and helps me do my job. Then it provides that data and insights to my management team, without me doing extra work. If I have to do extra work to tell my manager what I'm doing, then to me, the software is not really doing its job.  

Good software should be invisible. I should be doing my job and it should be helping me do it. It should be proactive.  

The future of work is not about humans getting replaced by a bot. The future of work is humans plus bots. If you're not adapting that software and that mentality to your organization, the organizations that do it better will be the ones that succeed.

On the pandemic’s impact on IT

COVID was one of the biggest drivers of digital transformation in history.

When we sent everybody home, every IT leader started pulling out their hair, saying, “Now what do I do? I've got to re-architect my environment.”

Hybrid was not a common model during the beginning of the pandemic. In most organizations, even remote working wasn’t the norm – it was generally reserved for special cases when the organization needed to hire a great candidate who wasn’t able to come to their physical office, or when they were from a place that was geographically valuable for the company.  

And then the pandemic forced teams to go fully remote or hybrid overnight.  

That meant that they had to think differently about their IT environment. Earlier it used to mean the walls of their office building – that's where the IT environment was, including the cloud.  

But now they had to think about several new factors. Does every employee have good connectivity in their house? What's their data security like? How do I make sure that I can still maintain my control from a cybersecurity point of view, and from a performance point of view, for all my employees?  

It became a question of finding a way to give up control, but also gain more control.

On parenting and IT leadership

There’s an analogy I like to use. When you start out as a parent, you tell your kids what to do. If you don’t tell them what to do and you don’t help them out, they give us struggle. But, as they grow older, you become less of a dictator of what happens and more of an advisor.  

And I think that's the transformation that's happening for IT leaders right now.  

It's going from IT leaders being the ones who dictate everything that happens from a technology point of view to, while they’re still dictating some of it from an organizational point of view, there are leaders in the different business units who can and will make decisions about technology adoption – whether it's a CRM, a point-of-sale system, HR, accounting, payroll – they all have the option to go get some software with their credit card and implement it.  

But that implementation creates a challenge for the organization.  

So, the challenge as an IT leader is how do I put myself in a position where I'm an advisor to the other leaders and make sure that they're making good decisions that align with the rest of the organization, while handling application sprawl and security issues, and ensuring that the employees are up to speed on the technology.  

It's about being a guide and an advisor, but also setting parameters and boundaries.

For example, you have to say when we implement a new system, it needs to be able to connect this way and meet these API requirements. That's setting guidelines for how other people make decisions, but also getting yourself in the room.  

One of the challenges I hear business unit leaders talk about is how IT slows them down, “IT wants me to go through all these tests and requirements, and I won't get the system implemented for six months.”

It's up to IT to educate other teams about why they're putting some restrictions in place, but also work harder to be agile.  

If HR is looking to put in a new system, it's not just a matter of, you can't do it yourself, give us your specifications and we'll do it for you. That game doesn't work anymore.

It's now about how we can work with you.

IT's job is to protect the data, make it secure, and make sure that the performance is there. And they also need to make sure that what the other team is bringing in is not going to negatively impact the employee experience not just in isolation but also with the rest of the existing systems.

It’s about giving guidance, but not being a blockage.  

Instead of putting up your hand and saying, stop, you can't do that, you say, let me sit next to you. Let me be part of the process as you're talking to your potential vendors. And let me be part of the process, doing the testing and seeing how it works with your operations. And then let me be part of how you implement it and onboard new people. It's a partnership.

On employee-focused culture

For decades, there's been a sense of having a customer-focused culture. We're all about the customer – whether you're sweeping the floor in the office, whether you're running wires, whether you're an IT or salesperson with customer service, you're all in service of the customer.  

And there's now a sense of making sure that we're all working towards a cohesive employee experience.

One of the things I hate the most about bad organizational culture is when you ask someone for help and they say, “No, that's not my job.”  

If somebody asks you if you can help them with something, you can say no, but also say something like “Here, you should talk to so and so.”  

It's a mindset shift.  

I'm not isolated and only responsible for whatever is on my desk. I am also responsible for, and should be concerned with and care about, the additional requests that come to me, the services I deliver to other employees, and how the impact is on the bottom line. That's an employee-focused mindset.  

There are a lot of employees that don't even think they impact customer experience. And in the same way, there are a lot of employees who don't realize how their job affects other employees in the business.

That's an educational process. That’s a cultural process.

From a cultural point of view, collaboration is a term that's thrown around a lot.  

Every organization says they want to be collaborative.  

But what does that mean?  

Well, we implemented an intranet. We implemented Slack. So, we're collaborative.

No, those are just tools.  

How many employees have collaboration as part of their OKRs? How can we measure collaboration?

When you’re at work, someone comes to you for help, you think you have something to add that's going to help them be more successful at what they’re working on, and you say yes. That's a cultural aspect.  

The challenge though is that the time you spend helping another person doesn't get allocated anywhere as part of what you're responsible for. You do it because you think it's important, but it may be at odds with what your organization wants to get out of you, because you should have been doing something else that day.

I think organizations need to look at how they measure and reward collaboration.  

Because to really have a great digital employee experience, it's not just about getting the right tools. You have to make sure that people are collaborating and growing together, whether it's cross groups, cross teams, or cross silos.  

On being a successful remote employee

The hardest part about being a remote employee is you're out of the loop. And it's not just because you're physically not there, but from a business process, something is always happening.

I used to troll people's calendars to see what meetings they had.

I would then ask them, “Hey, I see you're doing this meeting. Can I be in?”

In nine years, no one ever said no.

If you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind.

And the challenge for remote is making sure that you keep everyone in the loop. If you're in the same room, conversations are constantly flowing. If you walk in in the morning, you can overhear what's going on. From a communications point of view, isolation is hard.

I loved having an intranet at work. That was my goldmine. That's how I was able to keep track of what was going on in the organization and understand what was happening in other areas of the business.  

The other challenge of remote work was what I called ‘Working out loud’.

It's the flip side – people don't know what I'm working on, and I need to find ways to make sure that they did. Not that I want to brag about or broadcast everything, but I work out loud so that the people who need to know what I'm doing, would know.  

There’s a lot of focus on how to be a remote worker. What we haven't focused on enough is how to be a remote manager.

When you’re in a little box on Zoom, it's not the same as being in the same room. A lot of leaders have charisma and that's how they got to be leaders. And if they're in a room, they're looking around, they're reading the room. Do I have their attention? Are they getting what I'm talking about? Are there any questions? They’re able to feel the vibe.  

But how do you do that in a little box on Zoom or Teams? That’s an important problem waiting to be solved.

It’s about getting employees to work out loud and changing how managers measure success. Am I paying you for attendance or am I paying you for outcomes?  

With a remote employee, it has always been about paying people for outcomes.  

We used to assume that if they were sitting in their seats, they were working. But now we've separated those two pieces of showing up to work and the outcomes that you're creating.

If you can do all your work in eight hours of a 40-hour week and it's worth what I'm paying you, that's all that matters. But if you're sitting there for 40 hours at your desk in my office and you're not working or achieving the outcomes that you need to, is that better just because you're in the office?  


Atomic Conversations is hosted by Sairam Krishnan and brought to you by Atomicwork, where we're building the smart employee experience platform for the modern enterprise.

Every fortnight, we interview a top HR, IT and Business leader about the new world of work that we're now a part of, and try to find how to build digital employee experiences (DEX) of the future.

Do you want someone to be featured on our next episode? Let us know.

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