Breadcrumb ChevronBreadcrumb Chevron
Breadcrumb ChevronBreadcrumb Chevron
Justin Pociask | Digital Workplaces Across Government and Private Sectors
Digital Workplace

Justin Pociask | Digital Workplaces Across Government and Private Sectors

Read Time Icon LightRead Time Icon Dark
13 minutes read time
Publish Date Icon LightPublish Date Icon Dark
Published on Nov 1st, 2023
Author Icon LightAuthor Icon Dark
Written by Justin Pociask

This episode of The Workgrid is a must-listen for digital workplace leaders and application owners across both public and private sectors. We are joined by Justin Pociask, an Enterprise Data Architect at NASA, who brings a wealth of experience to the table. With over 15 years in the government sector mixed with strategy consulting in the private sector, Justin has a unique vantage point that few can match.

Don't miss this opportunity to deepen your understanding of digital workplaces and how to navigate the complexities that come with implementing them in different sectors. This is an enlightening conversation with Justin Pociask, an expert who has navigated both worlds with ease.

Thanks for joining us Justin. Can you introduce yourself to our listeners?

I have a degree in education, and I spent some time studying divinity. A lot of my formal education is around communication and training and working with people – looking at how to motivate people, encourage people, and drive organizational change. So, while we are speaking today and I am providing some insight into experiences of working as part of the government, it’s important to state that our conversation today is not me representing NASA specifically but the experiences I have had in both the public and private sector.

In addition to my diverse background of where I’ve been and where I am today, my experience has shown me that there is a lot of overlap among the public and private sectors, and a lot of synergy to the digital workplace for all companies.

That’s a key aspect, isn’t it? Being able to have an empathetic view and to be able to sell the vision of the digital workplace.

One of the things I’ve found to be consistent year after year, and even as a consultant with a couple different software companies, is that you must be able to almost deconstruct the business challenges and opportunities and be able to translate that to IT needs. Not only is that true in the digital workplace, but I think it’s true with a lot of software. You often have this big gap where the CIOs office or IT office will build solutions nobody is asking for and so there is a big miss on the adoption of that. Or you have the business asking for something that does not fit into the IT architecture so there really is a strong need to have an architect, somebody who understands both worlds, who is able to establish relationships on both sides of the fence to really drive meaningful change both organizationally and architecturally within IT systems.

You’ve helped to stand up successful digital workplaces on the consulting side and within the government. What are some of the similarities you’ve seen in terms of culture, fit, technology, etc.?

In terms of similarities, we are all the same people. Culturally or workstyle-wise we all have the same challenges. A lot of the challenges which digital workplace or collaboration tools are trying to solve are often more cultural and people related than they are technology related. Some of the common challenges you have around people, trust, collaboration, work process management, information finding, knowledge sharing, knowledge management, those are often culture and process challenges that a digital workplace or other collaboration tools are trying to solve with different methods.

We are trying to address and bring people together, improve collaboration, and the way we share knowledge, and the efficiencies of how work gets done. I think what is often overlooked or forgotten about, especially with a lot of leadership, is the culture side. How are we building oneness within the culture? So, although between private and public there is a lot of overlap, there is some variance on how you execute those things. But in reality, we are all trying to achieve the same goals in that regard.

How have digital workplaces transformed the way government agencies have worked and collaborated on a day-to-day basis over the last 15 years?

When we first started, we were just coming out of web 1.0 right? Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter were just becoming a part of our everyday society and in the government, we were coming out of a place where every organization had servers in a closet that they bought themselves. Enterprise IT wasn’t really a thing when we first started down this path. When we first deployed our digital workplace, a good portion of my job was not only being a community manager and driving digital adoption, but it was also managing the servers.

We had on-prem servers where we had to manage the servers, the security plans, the architecture of the networks, and the certs on our server. In the government there were a lot of complexities back then that a lot of people today don’t have to face with cloud computing. Not only were you trying to get data off people's servers, but you were also trying to convince them to put it in a centralized location. So, when you start throwing social on top of that you blow people’s minds.

The concept of putting information and pictures and being human online was very new. We spent a lot of time just talking about Facebook with leaders and department heads to explain the value of communicating in a public environment. We had to address a lot of fears, not only from the IT security standpoint and data sensitivity, but just having conversations with folks around asynchronous communication, which was not a concept that we had been introduced to back then. We had to convince people it was okay to put your ideas out there, it was okay to answer questions, teach them how to be civil online, we had to really just encourage people to think differently. Email was the number one way of communicating outside the physical conference room. There were no video calls back then. If you weren’t in the room, you were not informed. So, trying to take a leap from that all the way to social intranet was probably just as hard as it is for us now trying to get to people on Mars. It was a massive leap culturally and technologically speaking.

It was a long process getting people to see the need, the value, and the benefits. So, when you talk about solutions and integrations that wasn’t even on the table. We were simply trying to navigate how to get people comfortable with getting their thoughts out there online. There were a lot of fears. Not only were people afraid of sharing information that wasn’t supposed to be shared, but you had to work with IT security and networking folks, crossing a lot of technical boundaries to push the envelope on things nobody had done before.

We were busy at the beginning trying to convince the infrastructure side, but also convincing people on the business side of the value. We started small. We started with things that were not necessarily impactful to the business but got people comfortable with using these technologies. We had our classifieds and our ERGs, those areas that really provided people the muscle memory of these capabilities which led to “Oh if I can do this, then I can do that in my workplace.” Initially, we rolled out an “if we build it, they will come mentality” and quickly realized that was a failed deployment methodology.

It usually is.

We didn’t know otherwise back then. But getting people to retrain their brains to operate outside that file folder structure took a long time – it's hard to reorient that muscle memory and answer thoughts of “how do I share information differently?” and “how do I communicate my ideas in a written fashion?” Other than white papers and PowerPoint presentations, having dialogue around ideas in chat forms was a bridge we had to get over.

It sounds like you also took a softer approach, giving folks an easy way to contribute and be social. What we see now are kind of classic plays – the classifieds, the share your dog photos, etc.

Where did the “work” part of the program strategy come in? How did you bring work into the collaboration portal?

As people became more comfortable with the technology and the capabilities, and even getting it in front of them, as with technology sometimes access is even a challenge, we began to focus on small pilots and small solutions. We would pick a team, organization, or department, and would focus on solutioning or solving a pain point. Whether it be a communication or process pain point, we would focus on that team and pilot it and help folks with training. Sometimes it was literal training as in click here, click there, do this, do that. As we did that, we began to realize we could provide a lot of value and ROI when contracts or teams got cut or RIFs would happen. People would quite literally drive or walk documents from room to room to get signatures or onboard a person. Someone’s job was to walk around and get papers signed to take action. As budgets got cut or those organizations went away, we identified the digital workplace as a solution to automate those processes and do the exact same thing faster and more efficiently.

It was a slow process of being a man on the street and doing sales and marketing and training over the course of many years to really drive the success that we now see and take for granted every day.

How do you feel that the general market of tools and social media has helped to lift the perception and ease of use for technology?

With cloud computing and FEDRAMP now being more readily available by the big players, the technology is more available, whether it be the Microsoft route or Google route. It’s now part of everyday life within organizations. Social interaction is a way of life and part of everything we do so people are expecting it in their workplace too. COVID was a big thrust, like many organizations, to drive people over some of those hurdles of adopting technology and becoming more comfortable with changing a lot of the work processes. Technology is less of an issue, but the culture and organizational challenges are still persistent in terms of how work is getting done, whether it’s a private or public business. Technology is often cheap in the equation, but the hard work still comes when looking at how to drive synergy, adoption, and using tools effectively and well across the enterprise.

I think that’s one of the key takeaways as well in terms of where you work and operate. You’ll be working on your campus where buildings are miles apart from one another and they need those tools and solutions.

Where do you see it now post-pandemic, with people working in a variety of different situations? Are folks more open to collaborate virtually with COVID as a catalyst?

I think that data is pretty clear on this – most people are split 50/50 whether they want to come back to an office or stay home. I think the same is true for NASA. It is a challenge trying to navigate what is ideal for the organization in terms of achieving its strategic goals and objectives. How do we create, maintain, or modify a meaningful culture that supports the work that is getting done as well as support the wishes of employees? How do you provide that work/life balance?

We like any organization are struggling with that. It’s hard to come up with a solution that’s going to make everyone happy. I will say practically, like other organizations, we’re finding it challenging when you have a conference room full of people in the office and a bunch of people online. How do you create meaningful collaboration and equitable experiences so that people online feel like they are able to contribute, and the quality of the conversation is effective for all people? You run into simple challenges like audio – if someone’s not sitting close enough to the table, now it’s hard to hear them online. These types of challenges bring forward the digital workplace. It’s okay to have these types of meetings, but it shines a light on the fact that there is also a place for asynchronous communication that can achieve knowledge management in ways that in person can never.

One of the things you see often is a room full of people having a meeting, coming up with good ideas, but what happens next? Often those ideas don’t get captured, or the dialogue doesn’t get captured, and people leave for their next meeting and stuff falls through the cracks. Then you rehash the conversation over and over again. Or you don’t have the right people in the room, so you don’t get the right perspective. Or the early career person who might have good ideas but aren’t part of the conversation because they’re in a different building. You miss out on the effectiveness of leveraging an entire culture, team, and community of people. Some of the best ideas could come from someone who’s outside a team with a different perspective. So, a digital workplace, if done well and built into the new way of working, can really be effective in solving some of those challenges as far as idea sharing, innovation, lessons learned, mentoring.

One unique thing about the governments is we have an aging workforce. We have a lot of people nearing retirement, so the question is “how do we retain that knowledge?” A lot of these folks are subject matter experts (SMEs) who may be one of the few people in the world who are experts on a subject. How do we capture that knowledge and transfer it to the next generation? There really is a unique place for the digital workplace or collaboration tools to capture that knowledge. One of the concepts I talk about often is focus less on knowledge management – because that often refers to programs, and tasks, and budgets, and processes – and focus on how we modify our work practices so that we can enable knowledge capture to happen. If I am working effectively in modes where knowledge gets stored in transferable, digital ways, that are searchable and findable, I’m going to increase my opportunities and chances to share that knowledge with another generation.

That’s the ability to share tacit knowledge, structured knowledge, etc. can oftentimes be missed. I don’t think anyone has the best practice as to what that looks like now with a hybrid work model as you see articles and headlines of companies forcing people back to the office. What does that look like? Particularly if you do have a workforce that’s aging out, or a bunch of new hires who need to build their social network so that they can build relationships within their organizations. I don’t think it’s been figured out as of yet. It’s going to be interesting to see over the next few years or so if new technologies emerge to help assist that.

I want to just stress one more time, the importance of focusing on culture, especially in a lot of government organizations. A lot of our work practices are driven or founded from a law, or policies and procedures that are really outdated. We have to complete a particular memo process to share information from one organization to another which requires signatures and all the rest. That makes a unique and complex environment when you’re talking about social collaboration. It’s not just sharing information. If I am building a piece of a rocket, I can’t just chat requirement changes in a thread. There are legitimate processes and teams of people to do configuration and document change management to communicate changes and ideas from one group to another. So, there are some unique complexities there but at the end of the day culture is still a big hurdle to overcome in terms of how comfortable we are to share and go outside the way we’ve always worked to really consider new ways and methods of engaging with one another outside a project team.

I think that’s a bit that folks who haven’t worked with or within government agencies before might not get - the regulation and compliance standards you have to operate in on a daily basis.

Can you speak a little bit more about vendor selection within the requirements of the government?

There are laws that require the government to operate in certain ways, to handle and manage data and IT systems in certain ways. Some of the complexities we have are different than in the private sector. Things I mentioned earlier like on-prem servers and managing security plans now are translating to what it takes to leverage cloud environments. We can’t just use any vendor; they must meet certain security standards and approvals. There are organizations within the government that do those things. That provides some constraint to us and how mobile we can be, where information can live, we must have very strict access controls on our data and there are multiple unique processes in place for how you get access to that data. In some environments, you can’t just create a SharePoint site or any other collaboration site within a system and just start adding data. There may have to be approvals and documentation of processes and how and where that information is going to be protected and signed off on to mitigate risks. Ultimately you have to do a lot of extra mitigation which are hurdles to considering digital workplace technology.

I’m sure that it is a long procurement process to get through - ensuring the solution can both meet your needs but also has the security and access controls in place.

Yes, simply yes. In addition to that there are a lot of contract and contract vehicles. A government can’t just go to a software company and say “I want to buy this.” They have to go through contract vehicles and even if they are FEDRAMP they have to go through approvals. It’s a very complex, long sales cycle to say the least.

What advice would you give to other government digital workplace leaders who are looking to improve collaboration strategies within their environments?

I’d say hire right. It takes the right person to understand your organization and how it operates, the challenges, the politics, the laws, who to contact. But also, how do you translate that to a functional environment of what you want to achieve? If you have a person who is not aware of the environment and the culture, and how a tool might provide solutions for that organization, it’s really going to be a miss. You have to be able to have somebody who can build relationships and build trust and effectively communicate at all levels.

I’ve spent a lot of time with the corner offices and with the brand-new secretary, showing them how they can support communications within the organization. You’ve got to have someone who is comfortable working with all levels of the organization and going above and beyond to effectively drive the success you want to see. It’s important you have a team that listens to your people and spends time understanding what people need and want to do, listening to their pain points, and meeting them where they are at. More so than in the private sector, there is no “one” solution. Having a single solution that is going to solve your entire organization’s needs is going to be a long road.

Working with willing business units, teams, and projects, and helping solution them to create some organic growth is probably the most effective way to see meaningful change happen over the course of time.

Looking ahead AI and Machine Learning are ramping up. What do you foresee in terms of introducing AI and Machine Learning into the government sector as far as the digital workplace?

NASA is an interesting organization because we have one foot in as a research institution and one foot in as a manufacturing environment. On the one hand, we’ve got teams researching how we will use AI and these types of technologies in projects and designs of robotics, or how we will one day live on the moon and use AI to support that type of activity. So, you have that type of work going on to establish standards and guidelines around ethics. Those are activities going on in the project world, working with all the big IT players.

But then you also have the question of how does the more commercially available AI/ML/LLM fit into our everyday work? How is that going to impact our work structure or hiring decisions? Like everyone else, we don't know yet. Any time you introduce new things where we don’t quite understand the ramifications or impacts there is going to be a lot of evaluation. That’s kind of where we are at with that. Many pilots are running to try to learn how AI might help us find information better and provide synthesis or more awareness to what’s going on around us.

I would love to say, “book me a trip to New York” and it would take care of it for me. We are far from that. But taking that idea and applying it to how work gets done every single day, that same interest is there. Unfortunately for the government, we are often behind the curve so to speak from the private sector in leveraging these capabilities, but they are going to be meaningful and impactful to us eventually.

We are entering the lightening round of questions. What was the last best book you read cover to cover?

The last book I read that was kind of fun was “America Before” by Graham Hancock.

If you could give one piece of advice to an organization, government institutions or private, who are looking to improve their existing employee experience what would that be?

I’d say have a strong community manager or enterprise relationship manager, somebody to really translate and be the bridge between the business and IT.

In your opinion, where are the aliens? Are we alone in the universe?

That’s really a hot topic right now in the news, I mean there is some compelling information out there to be evaluated. It’s a hard question. I don’t think there is an answer. Probably enough to talk about for an entire other podcast.

This blog was adapted from The Workgrid, a podcast about the digital workplace, technology, and everything in between. For the complete episode, please visit: Digital Workplaces Across Government and Private Sectors

Loading... please wait

Want to see Workgrid in action?