Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why the Digital Workplace is both relevant and necessary




I have previously written about the need to ask the right questions when trying to find out how information technology can help us work smarter. Technology-centric thinking often make us go astray. Perhaps that is why I couldn't resist answering the following question posted in the Worldwide Intranet Challenge (WIC) group on LinkedIn:
Are Social Collaboration tools going to replace traditional Intranets, or become part of the Intranet?
This question generated an interesting and constructive discussion with folks like Sam Marshall and Martyn Green, and ultimately it highlighted why a term like 'digital workplace' is both relevant and necessary. Below follows my two answers merged into one.

As information workers we need to have access to certain capabilities (a combination of processes, information, resources, and technology) that help us get our jobs done. Traditionally, capabilities such as information access have been provided to us via a web-based Intranet, and before that on paper organized in binders. As work is becoming increasingly digitized and virtual, the number of capabilities we need to have access to increase, as well as our expectations and requirements on how those can be accessed, and what characteristics they have. For example, many of us see a need for capabilities such as team collaboration, document management, virtual meetings, and social networking/collaboration, and we want them to be easy to use, social, attractive, and integrated. We also need to access those in any situation; using the device we have at hand.

In the light of this, I believe the question whether social collaboration tools are going to replace intranets or not is irrelevant – although I can see that it is relevant for someone who is an Intranet manager, or a software vendor.

If we are to focus on how to enable organizations and their employees to achieve their goals, the real questions we should ask are such as the following:
  1. What capabilities do employees need, and why?
  2. How are we to provide those to employees so that they can get their job done in the best way possible, whatever situation they might find themselves in?

Sam Marshall brought the notion of the digital workplace into the discussion:
To me the appeal of talking about digital workplace rather than intranet is to acknowledge that there are significant changes happening, many of which are outside of intranets but which impact employee experience. They all matter and they all benefit from joined up thinking.
I agree 100% with Sam. As I have previously argued, talking about and conceptualizing a ‘digital workplace’ can help us think more holistically, and with less technology-focus, about how to serve the needs of organizations and information workers. In contrast to terms like 'intranet', ‘social collaboration tools’, or 'enterprise social networking platform' that directly make us think about specific technologies and solutions, the digital workplace can help us think more about the places where people work, and what they need from their workplace to get their work done. In a digital world, that place could (and will) be anywhere, so we will have to think more about what situations employees find themselves in.

In this respect the digital workplace also highlights a paradigm shift in how organizations are using IT to support information work. Previously it was primarily administrative personnel that used IT for information worker tasks, and they performed them at their desks at the office during office hours. Now, virtually all employees need to perform some information worker tasks on a daily basis, and they need to be able to perform them wherever and whenever the job needs to get done. There simply is no time for them to go to the office to get the information work done. Perhaps they don't have an office to go to. They need to do it in the situations where they actually work.

Mobile technologies, cloud computing, and social technologies are some of the key technological enablers in this paradigm shift. Another - and even more important - enabler is that we design IT solutions to fit the needs of individuals in different situations, instead of implementing standardized one-size-fits-all (people and situations) enterprise software primarily designed for process efficiency, but with little thought about the productivity of individuals. I believe the digital workplace can help us focus more on how to design IT solutions that fit the needs of individuals in different situations, and finding the right mix of technologies to deliver the required capabilities. To start with, it can help us avoid getting trapped in technology stove-pipes.