Digital Workplace Futures

The beginnings of today’s digital workplace can be traced back to the early intranets of the mid-1990s, which acted as internal publishing platforms, much like the external web of that time.

But intranets did not evolve as quickly as the internet, and were held back by poor corporate IT.

Later, dedicated platforms emerged, and more recently the digital workplace has begun to embrace a wider range of apps and tools.

The next stage looks like being about service automation and the application of AI to supporting routine work.

  • SHIFT 1: Hand-Crafted
  • SHIFT 2: Big Platforms
  • SHIFT 3: Point Solutions
  • NEXT: AI & Automation
  • SHIFT 1: Hand-Crafted

Social internet technologies enabled sharing information and connecting at speed and scale. Soon organisations were exploring the potential benefits of bringing such technologies inside the firewall. However, traditional workplace technologies of the time were based on their analogue predecessors e.g. word processing programmes in place of typewriters. These old tools were designed for command-and-control leadership, centralising power in the hands of a few and dictating the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of work.

Early social business agencies, such as Head*Shift, helped corporations build bespoke tools to facilitate internal discussion that cut across organisational boundaries and hierarchies. These wikis and blogs were pale imitations of commercial tools available, but they offered a glimpse of a smarter, simpler, more social future for organisations. They focused more on getting work done than design and branding and as such were high impact for relatively low-cost.

They served as an important introduction to the power of social software, especially for tech-savvy teams who quickly grasped their power. However, it was clear more advanced features were required for these tools to be embedded in more complex real-world working flows. To become the place that work gets done was beyond their reach. Poor IT infrastructure and slow internal processes kept these social tools confined to the edges of the organisation.

  • SHIFT 2: Big Platforms

As the hype around early Enterprise 2.0 initiatives gave way to measurable business value, the big IT vendors entered the market. We saw the emergence of monolithic, all-singing-all-dancing collaboration platforms from the big names in enterprise technology – IBM, Microsoft, Cisco and SAP. These platforms brought more features, at the cost of a more rigid user interface design. They added the promise of silo-busting peer-to-peer discussion and collaboration to existing publishing channels, and thus the social intranet was born. Email and file-share features remained prominent, so there was little need re-architect ways of working. With hindsight, the big platforms owed most of their initial success to existing technology contracts and the introduction of enterprise-grade security.

Today, these platforms remain the hub in an organisation-wide digital workplace landscape. They connect employees from across the company, but have struggled to impact day-to-day work as much as social business evangelists promised. The core reason for this is the conflict of interest between various product lines inside large IT vendors. A collaboration platform often cannibalises features, employee attention and budget from more lucrative products, from the same vendor.

As recently as 2018, CMSWire found only 12.9% of organisations surveyed rated their collaboration platform as “working well”. Ultimately, they lack the intimacy needed for effective team-based collaboration, are hard to search and do not take full advantage of the real-time tools available for working at speed. The result is a fragmented landscape that often confuses users. These big social platforms have been left to Comms, IT or HR to own as an engagement platform, whilst work continues in pre-existing tools.

  • SHIFT 3: Point Solutions

As the big platforms stagnated, a new breed of tool emerged, led by the rapid rise of start-up darling Slack – and those that followed such as Microsoft Teams, Stride and Workplace by Facebook. Organisations began to map the speed, scale and level of intimacy in their collaboration tools and identified the missing piece – real-time, team-based interactions and simple integrations with other tools and data sources. This killer combination has produced the best opportunity for enabling teams to design better ways of working, leveraging collaboration in-the-flow, rather than as an optional extra.

Larger companies (2,000+ employees) are deploying an average of 163 apps internally, an increase of 68% over the last 4 years. We are now seeing stable, long-lasting core systems, that integrate with best-of-breed team point solutions and emerging individual productivity tools that can be selected by teams and individuals from internal app-stores. Employees still struggle with the complexity of the landscape and it is essential that future shifts move to address this as quickly as possible.

  • NEXT: AI & Automation?

The focus for all new technology must be utility – how does it make the digital workplace a better place to get work done? How does it help to humanise the enterprise? The digital workplace has over the years suffered many bells & whistles without substance.

The current trend for robotic process automation will find itself a home in the digital workplace as organisations realise the potential of combining data inputs and communities as a way to create value. This will also embed robots as part of a hybrid team creating interesting challenges for leaders.

Technology emergence continues apace, and therefore we will see continued focus on integrating smarter technologies to increase utility. Organisations are already experimenting with automation & artificial intelligence integrations, as well was bots and voice interfaces. If we have learned anything during our years working with social technology, it is that the people-centric possibilities get interesting when the technology gets boring. We cannot wait for this next chapter to begin!

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