Isabel De Clercq on harnessing the power of connection

25 August 2021 by DWG
Portrait of Isabel De Clercq
Isabel De Clercq

As part of the writing team behind Nature of Work, I interviewed some fascinating people across the digital workplace industry, finding out their perspectives on some of the key themes of the book. I enjoyed interviewing Isabel De Clercq, the Belgium-based founder of Connect | Share | Lead and author of two books, including Social Technologies in Business, which has been translated into English. 

Isabel De Clercq is passionate about helping employees, organizations and leaders to become more connected and she provides consistently fresh thinking on the role of social technologies, lifelong learning and related areas. One of the elements I particularly like about her perspective is that, while she sees enormous potential for organizations, her observations are nevertheless rooted in the pragmatic reality of how you actually make it happen.

Because there was limited space for what we could include in the book, we’re pleased to be able to expand on the original interview and include some more of her thoughts in this post.

Exploring the power of connection

A central theme in Nature of Work is the value of thinking in a more holistic way, where you consider everything in the context of what is around you, the connections you make and the relationships you have. I think this has synergy with some of Isabel De Clercq’s belief that  thinking in a more joined-up way is fundamentally important for organizations.

“Organizations should know that they make part of an ecosystem. Connection with clients, employees and other stakeholders is critical to survival. I read a comment about how the CEO of Telefonica said there’s no longer a digital and physical life, there’s only one life. What has been flowing through our networks is not data, but stories, feelings, and emotions.

“Organizations and sometimes even departments still tend to think that there are self-sufficient entities. The predominant view is internally focused; this is why we have so many silos. But you also need a more outward-looking and external view.”

This more holistic way of thinking about ‘connection’ also applies to individual employees, where it unlocks potential for learning and engagement. 

“When people can connect with others from other organizations who have the same problems, or when they are passionate about the topic and there is a desire to learn and share knowledge, then it is very powerful. A combination of a shared curiosity around a particular topic and a passion for lifelong learning is how connections are made.”

However, De Clercq observes that there are still many people inside organizations who are neither interested in making these connections nor in pursuing ‘learning’ that might help them develop in their professional career.

Spider web
An image from the book: Spiders’ webs have been found to work as an extension of their cognitive abilities, meaning their webs play a crucial role in how they perceive and understand the world around them.

The role of social technologies

In recent years, social technologies have played an increasing role in driving opportunities for connection for employees, which in turn drives benefits for the individuals involved. The positive outcomes for individual employees range from learning about themselves to reflecting on their own role in relation to those around them and the value they bring. They can also support a more human-centred view of the workplace. De Clercq comments:

“Social tools make it easy to make connections with people from inside and outside your organization. When you bring connections beyond boundaries that generates a positive energy.

“l remember an episode of the Digital Workplace Impact podcast that talked about the importance of people being able to bring their true selves to the office. This is exactly what you can do using social tools. You can show yourself and articulate your knowledge. This leads to a heightened self-consciousness and a greater awareness of yourself. When an individual can speak up, they become more than just that cog in the machine. It’s driving a more humanistic view of work.”

While De Clercq sees enormous opportunities for personal development in using social tools, she believes there is still a long way to go, even after the scaling-up of the digital workplace during the pandemic. 

“During COVID-19 people have adopted new tools, but they’re not using them to their full potential. We’re still replicating old ways of working. We’re not using Microsoft Teams to really write about work in progress or to reflect on our work or to help drive transparency. If more people would use tools like Yammer to share knowledge, then we would have more maturity in the digital workplace. We have made progress in the use of the tools, but not necessarily in the accompanying digital mindset we really need.”

The barriers to using social technologies

De Clercq believes that changing people’s mindset is key to unlocking the full potential of social tools. There can be a feeling that sharing knowledge and asking for input is somehow not legitimate work so gets deprioritized, with people simply not committing the time.

Employees must be open, brave and proactive to overcome some of the associated challenges; they need to challenge their own thinking and that of others, a view which echoes all the way through Nature of Work.  

“Some people find it very difficult to share knowledge through these online channels. They are totally new and unfamiliar. For example, when you share things digitally, you don’t get a response right away like you do in face-to-face situations. People find it very awkward; they think ‘maybe nobody is reading it’. You also have to be proactive. You have an insight and think ‘maybe it is interesting for other people, but nobody is actually asking me to share that’, so they hesitate and then don’t do it.”

Making it happen

So, how can we get over some of these barriers to making connections and start to use social tools to their full potential? De Clercq believes that we need to change organizational culture – an area where senior leaders can make a difference.

“You need a culture where knowledge-sharing and connection are permitted and encouraged. In old hierarchical systems, some managers don’t want their team connecting with people from other departments. It’s like an old power game.

“Change needs to be encouraged by leadership. There has to be a strong belief at the top that connection and knowledge-sharing are positive things, and this needs to be explicitly communicated. Then, of course, you have to train people because this can be a very new skill – and also explicitly recognize people for these behaviours. But it’s not easy to achieve. Individuals need a psychologically safe environment where you can show up as a person that does not know it all; where it is OK to voice half-finished thoughts and where you ask lots of questions. You need that kind of environment to make knowledge-sharing and social tools a success.” 

By pursuing a shift in culture, it doesn’t necessarily mean organizations have to restructure.

“By making these changes, we can evolve from less mechanistic to more organic organizations. But you need to balance structure and chaos; it is possible to keep your traditional organization charts and still be a more networked organization.”

A new story of work

In interviewing Isabel De Clercq, I believe I found a lot of synergy in her views with those in Nature of Work. She advocates taking a more joined-up view of work, sees the importance of applying a new mindset, and emphasizes the power of connection. Collectively, taking a different approach can change things for the better and perhaps, as we emerge out of the pandemic, we have a genuine opportunity to create a new story of work. 

Our thanks to Isabel De Clercq for allowing us to publish longer sections of our original interview.

‘Nature of Work: The new story of work for a living age’ by Paul Miller and Shimrit Janes is available to buy at www.natureofwork.com

Categorised in: Nature of Work

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