Jon Ingham: HR has a key role to play in developing digital and relationship capabilities, behaviours and organisational norms!

One of the key ideas of our blog activities is to discuss the different views and perspectives on how to succeed with the digital transformation of the organization. For this we are very excited to publish an interview with Jon Ingham (Twitter / LinkedIn) today – regarding the future style of working in a digitized organization. Jon has been entitled to be “the next [Dave] Ulrich” by John Sumser from HR Examiner. Furthermore he has just finished a new book “The Social Organization” – that sounded to us very interesting to talk about.

Jon Ingham, Strategic HR Consultant

Jon Ingham, Strategic HR Consultant

Jon – you are a strategic HR consultant, one of UK’s Most Influential HR thinker and a long-term follower of our conference. How do you evaluate the transition of the enterprise towards a digitalized organization?

It’s happening. Most of my clients seem to be undertaking digital projects and the HR teams I usually work with are most often involved in these projects. They are also often implementing digital approaches themselves. This might involve moves towards a rented vs owned workforce, introducing new apps for people management, or sponsoring new, more digital ways of working (eg getting everyone using tablets vs paper). I accept there’s often been less progress in HR than in other areas of businesses, but this is often due to less investment in HR technologies than there has been in customer, supply chain and other areas. But digital is about the way people work together so HR needs to be involved in, if not taking a lead role in digital change projects.

You have a new book out that is called “The Social Organization”. What is it all about?

I’m tempted to build on one of Andrew McAfee’s phrases and say it’s not not not about social technologies! I have spoken previously at The Enterprise 2.0 Summit (the forerunner of Enterprise Digital) about the need to place social technologies in the context of the social environment an organisation wants to create. The book builds on these ideas.

Social organisations focus on developing the the value of connections, relationships and conversations between their people (ie social capital) as the basis for these firms’ effectiveness and competitiveness. They build these social outcomes through integrated approaches which include social technologies and analytics. The important point is that the focus is on the social outcomes not the activities, and in terms of the activities, on the broader practices not just on the use of technology. Social and digital technologies are powerful enablers but they do enable, they don’t drive.

Social collaboration is still at the heart of most digital changes so all digital change champions, and others, need to understand how they can use all of the various enablers as part of a digital change project.

What is the importance of social capital for companies in these days – especially in regards to the technological trends of digitalization and automation?

Social capital is critical. Most organisations succeed or fail depending upon the quality of groups rather than the quality of individuals. So social capital is more important than human capital (the value of people working in an organisation), and both of these are more important than other sources of competitiveness. (I explain this in my book.) This has always been the case, but service-, knowledge- and team-work, as well as the changing expectations of global workforces have made social capital even more important today.

Digital business has some interesting consequences for both human and social capital too. It is true that its main impact may be to reduce their importance. Robots, AI, platform based gig working – all of these developments reduce the role of the traditionally employed workforce. Most of the new style contributors will work in a more individualised, transactional way (eg Reid Hoffman’s tours of duty). This reduces the amount of long-term human and especially social capital they provide. However, the core, retained workforce will be acting in a different way as well. The key skills needed in these people is relationship working, as this is about the only thing that isn’t going to be taken over by robots and AI (though I wouldn’t say ‘never’). Though we still talk about knowledge workers, a better name for the people making up the new core workforce is relationship workers. This means that, at least in the core of the new digital workforce, social capital will be more important then ever before.

What are the levers to improve the social capabilities of workforce talent that you recommend in your book?

Creating and developing a social organisation requires an integrated set of actions to develop appropriate organisation architectures and workplaces, innovated HR and management processes which focus on groups rather than individuals, organisation development interventions and yes, social technologies and analytics too.

People often talk about the future of work involving a shift from hierarchical functions to networks. In my view, it is often much more likely that social organisations will increasingly add, or meld, communities and networks to existing hierarchical functions and horizontal project teams.

In terms of HR processes, we need to move on from managing, measuring, developing and rewarding the performance of individuals to doing these things for the performance of groups. Making that work tends to be a lot more difficult than simply managing individuals and HR and business leaders need to rapidly develop their understanding about the way that teams and other forms of group work, and how individuals can be engaged and developed to work effectively with other team and group members.

What is the part of the digital workplace and the social technologies in this game – or is there any?

Digital and social technologies are some of the main enablers for developing digital and social organisations. However they need to be seen as enablers, not the main drivers for these changes.

I therefore suggest that social technologies are selected to support the organisational logic of the business. A company based mainly on projects will need to use different social technologies to one based mainly on networks eg they may choose Slack or Microsoft Teams vs Yammer or Jive (at least as their main system).

It is also important that the introduction and support of social technologies are not treated as a generic IT implementation. These systems are designed to influence people’s behaviour, and to engage their discretionary efforts to help other people and the groups people are working within. This means that they are best perceived as organisation development interventions and need to be supported by other OD activities. Their introduction need a collaborative effort from all areas of a business, obviously including IT, but just as importantly, also HR and OD.

What are your recommendations for HR professionals in the companies that are struggling with digital transformation efforts in their companies?

The main need is to follow my advice above. In particular, to remember that digital business is about people not technology, and to ensure the business has clear people and organisational outcomes. Approaches such as design thinking, including the use of personas, can help create a better understanding of the people working in an organisation, their engagement drivers, capabilities and potential, which can help focus digital technologies on helping people raise their own productivity. Social analytics, eg social network analysis can also help shape and develop the activities which are used.

HR also has a key role to play in developing digital and relationship capabilities, behaviours and organisational norms. A major part of this concerns creating an environment in which people are able to have high quality conversations with each other.

A particularly important role is community management and this also fits neatly with the skills and expertise of HR. In many ways, community management is the new HR. Traditional HR was about managing individuals, the new HR is about managing communities and the broader organisation as a whole.

When and where is your book available?

The Social Organization is already available on my publisher’s site at www.koganpage.com/SocialOrganization and also on amazon.co.uk. It will be then be available on other Amazon sites and bookstores by the end of June.

Thank you – Jon – for this interesting interview.




  1. Jon Ingham says:

    Thanks for the interview Bjoern. Despite my focus on HR, I’m sure everyone focused on developing social and digital technologies and ways of working will find The Social Organization a really useful read.