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Synopsis: Marshall McLuhan famously coined the term “the medium is the message”. This piercing observation has helped us to understand human society past and present, and provides a critical lens for assessing the digital workplace. Unfortunately, the messages of many digital workplaces, intended or not, are that employee time and experience aren’t valuable.

Understanding the power of our communications mediums, starting in the 1960s

I recently told my father, who is a lifelong lover of ideas and debate, about this article’s topic. He said “Oh, Ephraim, I read Marshall McLuhan’s book back when it first came out, long before most people read it and before the idea became popular.”  

My dad was finishing up his undergrad degree at UC Berkeley when The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects came out (that’s not my typo in the title; either there was a printing error or McLuhan purposely used the word “massage” instead of “message”). One can just imagine the intense resonance McLuhan’s analysis must have had in 1967 in the area around San Francisco, at a time of tumult and frothing revolutionary ideas and in the geographical epicenter of cultural change.  

Yet McLuhan would have a field day analyzing today’s rapidly evolving media landscape. Over the past two decades new technologies, different delivery methods and changing expectations have brought tectonic shifts to the relationship between people and information.  

So what is this “medium is the message” stuff about, how do we see today’s mediums through this lens, and how does it colour the average digital workplace?

Core concepts of “the medium is the message”

I find the concepts behind “the medium is the message” fascinating and hard to wrap my mind around completely, but they more or less look like this:  

  • Communications mediums shape our daily interactions themselves, creating our lives and our relationships to information.
  • The power dynamics and physical circumstances created by our mediums have more impact on us than the content delivered through those mediums.
  • The mediums of the day shape our society more than we realize; the content is really a distraction and we need to stay focused on understanding and shaping the mediums themselves.
  • Content can even be seen as a medium, embedded in another medium like Russian dolls. We can say that a book is a medium, but then we can call the words or pictures mediums as well. If the words provide a narrative, then story becomes the medium. If they provide an explanation, then description becomes the medium. And so on.

McLuhan was a media and culture analyst, concerned with the fundamental factors shaping human society. He studied human communications throughout history and was deeply interested in understanding how we create our reality together.  

McLuhan’s background makes “the medium is the message” a wonderful tool for studying both society in general and more specifically the design of the digital workplace.

Examples of what traditional mediums tell us

Let’s start by analyzing an example or two. Imagine television news of yore, when just a few stations broadcast into almost every home.

TV news came into our homes. There was little choice about it; we had three channels and regular programming. Everyone saw the same news stories and tended to trust them. We didn’t respond to the news; we observed it. The TV provided moving pictures, spoken words presented directly and narrated over video images.  

The messages of this early TV news medium could be interpreted like this:  

  • You should bring the news into your home.
  • Your family should watch the news together.
  • You and your neighbours should all know about the same news.
  • Perhaps you should eat food while you consume the news.
  • You shouldn’t respond to the news, give it feedback or make requests of it.
  • You should trust the news and what comes out of your television.
  • A few people have all of the accurate information that you need.
  • You should align your daily schedule to the news schedule, if you want to watch the news.

The messages of early TV news portray a somewhat obedient and uniform society. In many ways this rings true for our images of the 1950s in the US and in many other places.  

The big question for us today: what are our modern mediums telling us and doing to shape our society?

Today’s mediums are personal and persistent

First off we have to look at the medium of the smartphone. These devices tell us:  

  • Information is very personal to you.
  • You control your information and can consume it when and where you want.
  • Information is always with you and ready for you.
  • It’s important that you can find information at all times.
  • You should always be connected to information and what’s happening.
  • Everything happening everywhere could be relevant to you, wherever you are.
  • What’s happening elsewhere may be more important than what’s happening right where you are.

Smartphones tell us that we’re in charge of our own consumption, and yet that we also cannot break free from it. No wonder screen addiction is so prevalent; that’s exactly what the medium is telling us to do!

The smartphone is a broad medium, containing many mediums within it and constantly delivering new ones. So, for example, what do Instagram stories tell us?  

  • It is important to broadcast your life.
  • You should try to broadcast your life to lots of people.
  • Conversation is secondary to telling and seeing stories.
  • You have the option to control who sees your life.
  • You should tell stories about what’s happening right now.
  • You’ll miss out if you don’t watch right now or soon.
  • You must persistently share your story and be “always on”.
  • You can shape, edit, colour and annotate your stories, rather than tell them raw.
  • You must earn an audience with exciting content.
  • You have no guarantee of an audience.
  • The audience always has the power to stop seeing a publisher’s information.

This feature from Instagram tells us about the urgency of always showing off our lives, keeping up with each other’s stories and hustling to grow our audiences.  

My amateur analyses convey partial and rough messages. But we get the picture. Today we face a proliferation of personal and persistent mediums that tell us to be always on and treating our everyday lives like television shows that we must design and broadcast.  

These are the messages we get in our personal daily lives. But what messages do our digital workplaces tell us and how are organizations “speaking” to their employees through their digital mediums?

Many digital workplaces tell employees they have low value

It’s no secret that employee-facing technology lags behind the consumer world. Often stepping into the office means taking a time machine back to the digital world of a decade or more ago.  

But more than just being out-of-date, the design of the digital workplace conveys many messages that we take for granted. The shape and structure of standard mediums in the digital workplace speak volumes to our people. Some of those messages are rather disheartening.  

One-way communications channels tell employees they don’t have a voice: Many intranets and other communications channels still provide only one-way communications. This tells employees they must “eat what’s on their plates” without a fuss and that they won’t be heard.  

Ancient enterprise software interfaces tell employees their time doesn’t matter and the organization is stuck in the past: Large organizations get deeply tied to major enterprise technology systems that are poorly designed and hard to use. You couldn’t pay consumers enough to use some of these tools, yet employees have to face them every day. The message is that employee time is of low value and that work itself is out-of-date.  

Poorly designed systems tell people that data is more important than employee experience: Many enterprise tools are designed by the engineers and database pros that built the backends, rather than user experience designers who study human-computer interaction. The struggle of using these systems tells our people that their time and daily experience is unimportant and that gathering business data is what really matters.  

Multiple, duplicate platforms tell employees the organization is an uncoordinated mess: Many organizations have duplicate intranets and collaboration platforms with different branding and user interfaces, duplicate content and unclear boundaries. This conveys the message that the organization itself is a mess of changing priorities and teams working across purposes.  

Inconsistent interfaces and designs tell our people that the brand is just for marketing purposes: Organizational brands and values are supposed to be powerful guiding lights for everyday behaviour. But a plethora of clashing user experiences conveys the message that the brand isn’t something to be authentically lived out every day. It says that a brand is just a marketing tool and that “hodge podge” is the real employer brand.  

Many of these messages go counter to the common refrain from businesses that “people are our most important asset.” These messages also contradict the “one company” mantra that so many organizations promote.

When the digital workplace tells employees they matter

The above digital workplace patterns and messages sound a bit dystopian. They represent one side of the digital workplace and some of the more backwards trends. Many of these above mediums spring from the complexity of running large organizations in the modern age. On the other hand, some elements of the digital experience put employee voices and experience in the spotlight.  

Interactive channels with comments and feedback tell employees they are part of something: Being able to comment on intranet news is no guarantee that leaders are listening. But two-way mediums convey a fundamental message of inclusion and involvement. They say that we are the business and you will be heard.  

User generated content tells employees that their knowledge and ideas are valuable parts of the business: Many intranets surface and highlight employee-generated content. Collaboration platforms are fundamentally designed for that. These kinds of mediums convey the message that individual employees are important to the organization and that collective insights can shape the business itself.  

Digital communities tell employees that their relationships and whole selves matter to the business: Employee communities come in several flavours. They can focus on learning and innovation among communities of practice as well as strengthening social relationships through communities of interest. In both cases the medium is saying that employee connections to each other and to the organization are important.  

Well designed applications tell employees their time and experience matter: Purpose-built mobile applications that make everyday tasks easier tell employees that their time matters deeply. These mediums tell employees that they’re worth care and investments from the business.

Is your digital workplace speaking intentionally?

All of these examples illustrate that, whether or not we intend it, the mediums of the digital workplace are speaking to employees. They convey messages whether or not we want them to or have planned for them to.  

Digital workplaces are becoming more complex and delivering a rich digital experience of work is hugely challenging. Yet so much of our work today takes place in the digital workplace and employees spend so much of their time engaged with it.  

Businesses can see the digital workplace as simply a collection of tools or a powerful shaper of work and culture.  

Our digital mediums convey messages. Organizations that take their brands and values seriously need to understand those messages and carefully craft their digital workplaces to speak properly to their people.  

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Is your digital workplace sending out the right message? Learn more about our benchmarking evaluations and how they can help you assess the strengths and weaknesses of your digital workplace.

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About the author

Ephraim FreedEphraim Freed is an employee experience strategist and leader who has spent the last decade working on the cutting edge of internal communications and intranets. He has developed digital platforms and communications programs within innovative global organizations including Riot Games and Oxfam America. As a marketing manager and consultant he has helped industry-leading firms such as the Digital Workplace Group and ThoughtFarmer drive change at client organizations. Ephraim combines user experience design and strategic change management to deliver purposeful technology, communications channels and content. In his spare time Ephraim is an empowering father to his two young daughters, goes trail running and barbeques over charcoal every Saturday night.

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