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(This post summarises an introductory talk I gave at our recent Digital Workplace Futures event in London – see here for a summary of the discussion that followed)

Where have we come from?

The beginnings of the digital workplace can be traced back to adoption of intranets as internal publishing platforms in the mid-1990s. Originally, the ‘internal internet’ looked broadly similar to the external internet, but the internet soon began to change at orders of magnitude faster than the intranet. By the early 2000’s, intranets looked similar to the first examples a decade earlier, but the public web was almost unrecognisable. Even at this stage, it was clear that having internal, centralised IT functions as monopoly providers of organisational technology would inevitably hold firms back from innovating and embracing new technology, and remarkably, today, we continue to tolerate this unnecessary barrier to progress. 

Later, we saw the growth of social intranets, which added comments, likes and basic social sharing functions to the publishing model. Subsequently, some of the functions of the intranet were taken over by the Enterprise Social Network (ESN) and other so-called Enterprise 2.0 (E2.0) tools, which added peer-to-peer discussion and collaboration to the previous model of publishing with comments. We had high hopes for E2.0 and how it could improve the structure and practice of modern organisations, but at the time we under-estimated the role of management and centralised IT provision in holding back change, and perhaps over-estimated the ability of organisations to change work practices to take advantage of what E2.0 technology made possible. 

Instead of tackling the hard work of re-wiring the organisation to create a true digital workplace, most organisations left the tools in the hands of Comms and IT functions and simply asked them to demonstrate increases in adoption and engagement whilst most work continued to take place elsewhere. 

Where are we now?

How much has really changed in the last decade? The evolution of the main ESN platforms (Jive, IBM Connections, etc) has been glacially slow, and they remain places where we talk about work, rather than where work happens, thanks to a lack of integration with other work tools and processes. Most organisations remain wedded to the stone age tools of Powerpoint and email. The biggest change, and the one that has shaken up the digital workplace most of all, is the emergence and rapid rise of Slack. 

Slack is the personal work aggregator / activity stream that we first imagined in the mid 2000’s as tools like Socialcast, Tibbr and Yammer first emerged. But back then, integration with other tools and information sources was harder to achieve, and perhaps the general level of adoption was not enough to make it work. Slack has shown that a single, simple, personal tool can become the centre of the digital workplace for many different types of worker. It has also shown that the digital workplace needs a strong real-time strong-ties mode of interaction in addition to the semi-synchronous weak-ties mode of the ESN. But perhaps its greatest contribution has been to inspire Microsoft to copy it wholesale, with Microsoft Teams, and thereby dramatically improve the usefulness and cohesion of its Office 365 digital workplace toolset. 

Microsoft’s main social technology product, Sharepoint, was a very poor product from the very beginning, and its customer was the lazy CIO / IT department, not the user. IT departments loved it because it was centralised, controllable and came with their existing enterprise Microsoft licenses. But users, on the whole, hated it as it was an awful product to use. This conspiracy of mediocrity held back the enterprise social software field by a decade or more. 

Now, to be fair to Microsoft, the platform has evolved and is more or less usable for intranet, publishing and even ESN use cases, plus it has a strong enough after-market of add-ons and related products to paper over the remaining cracks. But thanks to Microsoft Teams, and a lesser extent Yammer, it can be used to create ‘sites’ without needing to be the centre of social interaction in a Microsoft-centric digital workplace. As a result, the Office 365 toolset is both a viable starting point for a digital workplace and also IT-friendly and achievable for most organisations. Its separation into different apps that (allegedly) share common data and authentication means that each app can evolve to meet user needs, which is a step forward from the idea of Sharepoint as a single. monolithic platform that does everything (badly). 

But the digital workplace is still not where most work happens. Why? 

  • Too much office work continues to be manual and process-based, relying on form-filling, email and meetings. The scope for automation and orchestration is still largely untapped. 
  • Leaders and managers perpetuate this top-down process control model because it is what they are used to, and they do not set a good example by using modern tools and platforms to improve how work is done, so those below them follow their lead. 
  • There remains a culture of Learned helplessness in the workplace. At home we use multiple apps and tools without a second thought, but the culture of the workplace treats people as morons who need training even to use a different email client. Perhaps it is time to set the bar higher for the minimum digital skills acceptable in a modern organisation? 

Where are we headed?

The kind of innovation and organisational transformation that firms hope to achieve is only possible if they can first optimise and orchestrate their internal capabilities, and I believe a key part of this will be creating a ‘real’ digital workplace that is genuinely the place where work happens, not just where we talk about work. 

I should caveat any prediction about the future by admitting that I have been more bullish and optimistic at every stage than turned out to be the case, though broadly correct about the changes that have eventually happened. But, briefly, I think we should expect the following: 

  • Most ambitious organisations will gradually develop their own underlying work platforms that embody core IP, processes and algorithms. 
  • To create these platforms, we will see manual process-oriented work shift to a service-oriented configuration with teams taking responsibility for running and improving these services, both automated and human-run, not just repeating a pre-defined process. These services should be as standardised and modular as possible to allow others to combine and build on them. 
  • Instead of an org chart showing the cascading hierarchy of managers and their teams, we will start to use service maps and catalogues to illustrate the many organisational services and ‘apps’ that help people fulfil their work. 
  • To support the digital workplace, IT functions will focus on managing the connected data platform, the API bus, standards and connectors in the underlying service platform, but they will not continue to control all the tech, apps and systems that sit on top of the platform, as long as they comply with agreed standards around security, resilience, inter-operability, etc. 
  • The digital workplace will have a rich enterprise app store of tools for users to choose from, and which suit different types and styles of working. 
  • We will develop better help and signposting tools for users, such as chat bots, to help people navigate the complexity of the digital workplace. 

How do we get there from here?

There are many things we can do in the here and now to accelerate out progress towards a real digital workplace, and they all help improve our current ways of working at the same time. Here is a selection of activities we are involved in with our clients today, which we think are important steps towards the development of a true digital workplace: 

Strategy:

  • Convene a digital leadership group to co-ordinate digital strategy among all groups who have a stake in digital; encourage them to work together as a group using digital tools; publish the strategy and roadmap, and the story of where they think the organisation is headed. 
  • Recruit a network of voluntary digital guides who want to see more rapid change; give them the tools and mandate to spread new ways of working, consult them regularly and promote them as exemplars of the change we want to see. 
  • Consult every team about how they define their service offering and begin looking for potential to automate, orchestrate and modularise these services; create a basic online service catalogue that advertises these services within the organisation. 

Skills: 

  • Set the bar higher for basic digital skills and fluency; test for this in hiring; encourage employees to take responsibility for their own personal development and make clear that those who do will be rewarded with better opportunities; make available a greater variety of self-directed learning services to help people accelerate their development. 
  • Initiate leadership development programmes for digital skills and new ways of working along similar lines; communicate clearly that anybody who feels they are too important to get involved in digital development will be left behind; visibly over-invest in emerging digital leaders and fast track them into organisational leadership. 

Technology: 

  • Use your digital workplace to organise a conversation with the whole organisation on what needs to change and how. 
  • Create a digital learning community that is connected to your main digital workplace hub; encourage peer-to-peer sharing of use cases, tips, tool advice, examples of good practice, etc.; encourage the digital guides to curate and develop these learning resources. 
  • Develop skills for a digital concierge bot that sits in each Team or Slack channel and can answer questions about tools or where to find information. 
  • Create and share a map of the key digital services and capabilities that will form the basis for the organisation’s future platform, and begin to design and develop the architecture that connects them.