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A digital workplace definition

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Sam Marshall
New Contributor

Microsoft Services have started marketing using the term digital workplace. It's an area I've been working on for the last 12 years at ClearBox Consulting. As the term grows in popularity, there is always a risk that it gets diluted. So here's an outline of how I apporoch it so that a balance is maintianed between technology, people and process aspects.

 

‘Digital workplace’ is the concept that there is a virtual equivalent to the physical workplace, and that this needs to be planned and managed coherently because it is fundamental to people’s productivity, engagement and working health.

 

This is not a precise definition; just as the notion of ‘workplace’ itself has ill-defined boundaries, so the shape of a digital workplace will vary between organisations. However, at its heart it is about:

 

  • Putting people first – the impact on employees is what makes the digital workplace important.
  • A technology layer – advances in technology are driving changes in the digital workplace, and this is what makes it a current issue.
  • Management and design – proactively developing a digital workplace means addressing it as a whole and co-ordinating between technology, process and people aspects.

Digital workplace

The digital workplace provides an organisation with five services or capabilities (see the outer ring of the figure above):

  1. Communication and employee engagement
  2. Collaboration
  3. Finding and sharing of information and knowledge
  4. Business applications (process specific tools and employee self-service)
  5. Agile working – the ability to be productive any time and place

To work well, these need the be supported by five management activities (the inner pie of the figure above):

  1. Strategic planning
  2. Governance and operational management
  3. Proactive support for adoption
  4. High quality user experience
  5. Robust, secure and flexible technology

This is deliberately a non-prescriptive model. It doesn’t say you have to have a social intranet, Yammer, tablet applications or any other specific technologies. What is used to deliver each service will vary over time and by organisational need.

There are other good definitions available too, including those from Jane McConnellChris Tubb and Oscar Berg. Gartner has a definition that also usefully emphasises a consumer-driven viewpoint:

 

“The digital workplace is an ongoing, deliberate approach to delivering a more consumer-like computing environment that is better able to facilitate innovative and flexible working practices.” ~ Matthew W. Cain, Gartner

Comparing the digital workplace with the consumer experience is illuminating right now because the gap is so large. This helps to bring home what is currently missing from the work environment. Hopefully this gap will close and won’t be an enduring characteristic.

 

Digital workplace technology

The visible parts of the digital workplace are technologies and ways of working that allow people to connect, collaborate, communicate and co-operate without necessarily being together face to face.

A 2012 paper1 by Deloitte put it well:

 

“The digital workplace encompasses all the technologies people use to get work done in today’s workplace… It ranges from your HR applications and core business applications to e-mail, instant messaging and enterprise social media tools and virtual meeting tools.” ~ Deloitte

Email, intranets and web conferencing are typical components, but what makes the digital workplace more than a collective noun for these parts is the emphasis on thinking about how they come together from an employee’s point of view.

 

There are some elements that fit the broad definition above but which tend not to be discussed often. For example, PCs and traditional business systems like SAP, PeopleSoft, databases and CRM are all part of the non-physical workplace. They perhaps get overlooked because they are an accepted part of the fabric of most businesses, however, they are part of what should be considered within a digital workplace strategy, at least from an alignment point of view.

 

What the digital workplace is not

It’s not a fancy re-naming of intranets. Your digital workplace may not have an intranet at all. Although intranets commonly feature, we need to get away from the idea of collaboration, communication etc. all happening in one platform.

 

It’s not about social networks, social or mobile intranets. All of these are current trends that can form some elements of a digital workplace, but if developed in isolation from the rest of an employee’s working world, particularly legacy systems on which people still rely, then the point has been missed.

 

It’s not about social business or social enterprise. Social Enterprise and its variants such as is a The Responsive Organization are a prescriptive vision for how companies should be run. A highly social digital workplace would be part of this, but there’s nothing intrinsic to the digital workplace concept that dictates this (or guarantees that it will happen).

 

Why it matters

An effective digital workplace decouples work from a physical location for much of the time. This freeing up of work has several important implications not just about where people work, but how teams are formed and how people come together to solve ad-hoc problems. Potentially, it can also close the arbitrary gap between white and blue collar workers by giving both equal digital access. Microsoft’s Western Europe VP put it well:

 

“Businesses that will be successful in the future will be those who break down the barriers between people, workplaces and technologies and empower their employees to be productive and creative wherever they are… IT is a catalyst for new ways of working, but competitive advantage increasingly comes from letting employees use technology in the way they want to. This requires a business culture that puts people first.” ~ Klaus Holse, Microsoft, HR Magazine 29 Feb 2012

--

Sam Marshall is the director of ClearBox Consulting in the UK

3 Replies

Great point about consumer analogies. Those comparisons allow people to understand the vision quickly and easily. However, the practical reality is that consumer products don't face the governance hurdles that enterprise systems do. This gives them great flexibility to innovate and iterate, but also means the gap is firmly entrenched.

Thanks for reading my post and responding Benjamin. I agree it's harder in the Enterprise, but I'd push back and say we shouldnt use governance as an excuse to give a poorer user experience. I see it as more about quality than speed of innovation.

 

A well thought-through UI can be an enduring thing - iOS has only really had one major shift in its 10 years. In the enterprise we need to prioritise UX more at the purchasing stage. SAP-HR got away with a terrible design because people kept buying it, not due to governance constraints.

 

The speed of O365 innovation is plentry fast enough - too fast for some. There's a case for MS releasing fewer features and putting that effort into refining that they've got instead.

Highlighted

I don't have an issue with enterprise IT governance being stronger than personal. Customers put their trust in your organisation, and the enterprise has quite rightly taken that responsiblity seriously. There is potentially more at stake if there is an issue, so it makes sense that the standards are higher.

 

That is by no means an excuse for poor UX, but it does allow consumer products flexibility to introduce new features without the need to satisfy those governance constraints. Simply change the T&Cs and all the issues with EU Safe Harbor go away, for example.

 

 

The risk of focusing on incremental improvement is that the enterprise-consumer gap only gets wider, without the shiny new things available in consumer-land. Chatbots, for example!

 

Consumer-land is fragmented. We want the digital workplace to be seamless. We also want the digital workplace to have all those consumer features. Something has to give.

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