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I have enjoyed meeting many intranet and ESN professionals recently at conferences and company workshops. Having worked hard to establish these platforms in their organisations, they now face the challenge of transitioning from running a unified system that was created to support mostly communication use cases to growing a more diverse platform + apps configuration as these systems become the base for a wider digital workplace hub. Overall, the direction of travel seems clear: these platforms are evolving from places where people talk about work to places where digital work actually happens.

Intranet and ESN adoption continues to be a slow process for many organisations, according to some of the case studies I have seen recently, and I think a major reason for this is lack of day-to-day work relevance. Communicating and sharing outside the flow of work is still useful, but often an afterthought or something done in-between work tasks. If we can make the intranet or ESN more of a hub for the digital workplace, then we can expect a lot more engagement, adoption and utility as a result.

Over the past decade, we have seen the emergence of all-in-one social business and collaboration solutions, but now the field of enterprise collaboration tools is becoming much more diverse, with tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams set to achieve more rapid adoption in comparison. Rather than look for one system to rule them all, firms are now starting to understand that employees need a range of tools that meet different sharing and collaboration needs. This creates an opportunity for the intranet or ESN to position itself as a foundation for the digital workplace hub, and to join together or aggregate activity across these various tools.

There is a common misconception, especially in large organisations, that the workforce needs to be told exactly which tool to use for every purpose, and they cannot cope with too much choice. And yet, if you go round the room and ask people to describe how they achieve their personal goals (shopping, booking holidays, researching topics, etc) in the world of consumer tools, you find that they are quite comfortable with multiple overlapping tools, often with no integration between them, if this is what works best for them. The keys to adoption, as ever, are motivation and utility. If people want something enough, and if it creates value for them, they will learn how to do it, just as a desire to keep in touch with family has led to so many older people becoming confident users of Facebook and Skype. We should not underestimate people.

Also, people are different. Should there be one way to write documentation for a project, or one way to collaborate on a plan? Those who think in these terms will probably reach for the lowest common denominator tool that everybody can use, even if it is not good enough for most users, and that is what keeps companies stuck in the world of Sharepoint sites and email. Perhaps some users can only cope with traditional document sharing, but others might prefer to use a wiki, or something like Trello or even GitHub to get what they need done. Some people work best living in a perma-chat system like Slack, but for others this is too interruptive of their flow and they would rather work more privately. Vive La Différence!

Different digital workplace tools also work at different levels of scale. An intranet or ESN is good for creating a connection and a shared context for the whole organisation, and then drilling down into a department or area of the business where it makes sense to share more detailed information; but this context is usually not specific enough for people to work together at that level. The two other levels of scale that need their own categories of digital workplace spaces and tools are the team level and the individual. At the level of the team, we need much better collaboration and shared context tools, such as a Slack or Microsoft Teams-type tool to bring people and their work together at an intimate level of scale. We probably also need tools like Trello and Asana for project planning and management. But at this level, different teams and different types of user will need quite specific tooling depending on role, preferences and collaboration style. At the level of the individual, there should be even more variety.

But what about security and license costs?

Of course, it should be noted, only tools that have been approved in terms of security, data privacy, etc. will be made available within the organisation in the first place, so this should not increase risk. In fact, it reduces risk, because the inability of formal centrally-provided tools to meet user needs is the biggest driver of so-called shadow IT. In most organisations we have worked with recently, the reason people use cloud tools like Slack or even WhatsApp is because the company has failed to provide a credible alternative. In terms of costs, most modern tools are moving away from enterprise licenses and towards per user licensing, so the total cost of multiple smaller tools deployments is usually not higher than a single large deployment.

But what about integration? How can we live with such variety? How will users cope?

There are probably two key levels where integration really matters. At the top of the organisation, we ideally should have a common enterprise search system that enables people to find what they need across multiple sources of data and information. And at the level of the individual, a personal activity stream tool like Slack or Microsoft Teams should allow them to integrate their own tools and their own information flows in a way that suits them. Of course, basic services like single sign on across tools is also very useful, as are other basic utilities like a common remote meeting / video calling system. But beyond these elements, we should avoid the temptation to create or buy a single integrated monolith – that route leads to so many compromises on quality and functional variety that it is unlikely to create a useful digital workplace.

In order to better understand employee needs, design thinking, service design and employee journey mapping are useful and relatively simple techniques that can be used to identify better ways in which the digital workplace can support people in achieving what they need. Putting support behind an initiative to identify and eliminate broken or stupid processes that get in their way is also a great way to identify how the digital workplace can make things better, as Hootsuite did with their Czar of Bad Systems.

But as anyone who conducts user experience research will know, it is almost impossible to predict the many weird and wonderful ways in which people use their tools. Some of these ways will be the equivalent of typing web addresses into the search box to find a site, for sure, but many will be creative and useful ways of working that others could perhaps learn from. Rather than ask central functions to decide which tools people should use for which purposes, it makes more sense to provide those tools and platforms we think people could benefit from, and that cater for core functionality everybody will likely need, but to allow employees a choice between overlapping tool sets and encourage them to find their own way, learning from each other’s experience.

Many large organisations still have substantial help-desk operations for even the most basic tools, but at home, if the same users cannot work out how to use simple tools they are happy to ‘google’ the problem and no longer have an expectation that they can call a support centre. As companies like GiffGaff demonstrated in the consumer space, this community-driven approach to mutual support is both cheaper and better than help-desks for many purposes.

A better solution in most cases is a digital workplace community that provides learning material, an app-store-like guide to available tools and easy access to a community of users who can ask questions, seek help, share the way they use the tools and learn from each other. This is a far more useful way to improve digital skills across the whole organisation that just formal training programmes plus a help-desk for solving problems.

The intranet or ESN is a perfect place to develop this community, and to provide access to the tools available to employees in the digital workplace, from basic tools that everyone can use to more advanced tools for power users. Just as gamers use online communities to share their preferred ‘load outs’ of equipment for different game challenges or levels, employees can do something similar to learn from each other and become more confident in using a variety of tools within the digital workplace.

The time when employees could legitimately plead ignorance about how to work within a digital workplace and ask to be spoon-fed information will soon come to an end and digital literacy will be expected. But for this to happen we need to give them both the freedom to experiment and learn and also the encouragement to do so, rather than continue to see company platforms as top-down paternalistic systems that tell you what to do in every circumstance.

See here for info about our work helping to create Digital Workplace Hubs and learning communities.