5 Questions with Paul Leonardi

Paul Leonardi
March 4, 2021

Paul Leonardi is the Duca Family Professor of Technology Management at the University of California Santa Barbara and holds appointments in the Technology Management Program and the Department of Communication. Leonardi specializes in research and teaching about how companies can use new technologies and social networks to create innovative products. Leonardi is the author of Materiality and Organizing: Social Interaction in a Technological World and Technology Choices: Why Occupations Differ in Their Embrace of New Technology. In 2013, Leonardi received NCA’s Diamond Anniversary book award for Car Crashes without Cars: Lessons about Simulation Technology and Organizational Change from Automotive Design. Leonardi has also received numerous division awards from NCA’s Organizational Communication Division, as well as major awards from the International Communication Association, the National Science Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, among others. In addition to conducting research and teaching, Leonardi also consults for both for-profit and non-profit organizations about digital transformation.   

1. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many workplaces have shifted to telework. What insight do you have on how employees can use technology in the workplace to effectively share knowledge and maintain productivity? 

There are so many things they can do! Unfortunately, I don’t have the space or time to go through them all, so let me focus on just one. Most workplaces seem to be doing a pretty good job of connecting employees who work interdependently with one another. Those kinds of relationships are obvious because they represent the people that an employee depends on to get their work done. Tools that we’re all familiar with – such as email, text messages, or Zoom – do a good job of connecting us with the people we know we need to communicate with. What people (especially organizational leaders) often overlook, though, is that we indirectly communicate with so many other people with whom we are not interdependent when we’re in the office. Think about the meetings you attend where you learn information about what’s happening in another part of the organization, or the conversations you overhear around your workstation. All of those interactions to which you’re a third party are rich in information and data that help you do your work. These are the kinds of interactions that people lose out on in the shift to remote work. I’ve written extensively about how to recapture this kind of communication. The bottom line is that you need to create opportunities for people to be exposed to the work of others on whom they are not dependent in order for workplaces to run smoothly. Digital collaboration tools provide one avenue for this kind of communication, and they can really help improve the quality of work for people across the organization.

2. What is enterprise social media and how have companies used it? 

Enterprise social media (ESM) looks quite a bit different today from how it did when I first started studying it around 2010. Back then, companies were buying platforms that looked like Facebook that employees could use inside the corporate firewall. The idea was to have a “social platform” through which employees could connect and form communities. Although companies do still use these kinds of stand-alone ESMs, what is more common today are “social” features that are built into other kinds of productivity tools. Slack and Microsoft Teams are two obvious examples. Both were initially built for project communication on a specified team. But they have increasingly included features that mimic the stand-alone tools that allow people outside that main team and from across the organization to connect with one another. In my estimation, most companies don’t get a lot of value of out the social features of their tools. That’s because they have pitched them to employees as platforms on which they can connect with their peers about non-work related activities or social events. The companies who get the most use out of social tools (including ESM or social features built into other productivity tools) don’t consider them as “non-work” tools. Instead, they encourage employees to shift nearly all their routine communications for regular project-based work onto the tools. That simple switch from communicating via semi-private communication channels, such as email through which communicators choose their intended audience, to communicating on a platform that anyone across the company can access even if they weren’t the intended audience, can have dramatic effects on people’s ability to learn and innovate. In the basic public speaking course, we teach that we construct speeches for a target audience, but often more people are exposed to our speech than we intended. We call those others the empirical audience. Organizations make the best use of their ESM when they allow regular work communication to reach an empirical audience. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, such a switch represents a significant shift in how learning gets done in organizations. I’ve also discussed how the volume of communication that we’re exposed to can cause problems. These are key areas where we need more scholarly work to help us figure out how workplaces can take advantage of the open communication environments enabled by ESM given the fact that everyone has major limits on how much time they have and how much attention they can allocate. 

3. In your consulting and research, you’ve examined how companies can use technology and social networks to innovate. What are the most common mistakes companies make when trying to be innovative? 

The biggest mistake that companies make is to assume that innovation is something that comes from a person, rather than the result of the interaction between people. As Communication scholars, we may think this insight seems so obvious. But I can’t tell you how many companies I’ve worked with decide that the best way to build an innovative product or figure out a new service offering is to create a team and wall them away from the rest of the organization. This kind of thinking became popular in the 1980s, when stories about Lockheed’s skunk-works operations and Apple’s pirate flag rebellion led to a false conclusion that the best way to innovate is to take your team, pull them off of regular work, and let them do what they need to do in secret so that the rest of the company doesn’t drag them down. But the best empirical evidence shows that is exactly the opposite of what you need to do. Innovation happens when you connect people with others. There is no way one team of people or one person is going to have all the knowledge needed to create something new, complex, and useful. You have to help your teams and your employees build bridges to parts of the organization that have the knowledge needed to get the job done. 

4. What is one example of a case study where a company has effectively implemented technology and achieved innovative results? 

One of the clearest examples I’ve seen came from work I did with a big financial services company. The company had a very large marketing division that was split into about 12 departments. At that scale, the organization was a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. The company implemented a new ESM to try to better connect employees across these various departments in the marketing division – not so they would necessarily interact with one another more directly, but so they could learn from one another vicariously, in just the way I discussed above. The results were quite powerful. I saw them innovate in three different ways. The first way was perhaps the most basic: people in one department found answers from other departments that helped them solve long-standing problems and work more efficiently. Although this is not the most exciting kind of innovation, it was important for the company because it saved millions of dollars. The second way was that the people in one department learned about new ideas in use in another department and copied them, but for a different purpose. The third way was what students of communication networks call recombinant innovation. People from one department had developed one insight and they were able to combine it with an idea or insight from another department to develop an innovative product or service that neither department could have done on its own. How did these three kinds of innovation happen? They were made possible because the ESM helped employees learn what people in other departments were doing – and why they were doing those things. The employees then were able to connect with others to get more details and to integrate that work into their own. 

5.    What advice do you have for Communication scholars who are interested in consulting or other work outside of academia? 

I have three pieces of advice that I’ve culled from my experience consulting over the last 15 years. First, you need to get in front of people who have decision-making power in organizations. You can do this by teaching executives, speaking at corporate conferences, or writing articles in practitioner-oriented magazines. Unless you make an explicit effort to showcase your work in non-academic settings, it is unlikely that you’ll get the attention of companies you might want to work for or consult with. Second, you have to be able to translate your scholarly prose into regular-people-speak. This is hard. I still struggle with it a lot. We are trained to think in the language of theory and to write in ways that bolster our theoretical arguments. We are rewarded for living in this world of theory by our journals and our promotion and tenure committees. We shouldn’t stop doing that – it’s the language that connects us with our academic communities. But if we want to also connect with professional communities (the “operators” of the world as they like to call themselves) we have to translate the theory-speak into the language of business, government, or whoever our intended audience is. That usually means talking and writing more concisely, linking actions to outcomes, and being able to say what sorts of positive changes you are likely to see if you engage in certain behaviors. Third, you must figure out what the problem is that they’re trying to solve. This may sound trite, but companies either want cookies or need antibiotics. They’re willing to be talked into buying some cookies if they look good enough, but if you can figure out what’s infecting them and you have the right antibiotics to cure the infection, they’ll do almost anything they can to work with you.