The digital workplace 2014: Plight and promise of today's employees

While technology has thoroughly infused the workplace, its strategic adoption and meaningful application by the typical worker is actually just beginning. Here's how the digital workplace will look this year.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

While it's typically the latest cutting-edge technologies like 3D printers and wearable tech that gets the most attention and buzz these days, it's actually the newer IT workhorses of the enterprise that get the job done. Video conferencing, unified communications, and smart mobile devices, while not nearly as exciting as the newest advances, have steadily revamped our workplaces recently and given us much better tools to stay connected with our co-workers and customers. Even enterprise social media is finally seeing widespread adoption and meaningful usage in many workplaces.

It's no secret, however, that consumer tech advances far faster than our workplaces. The typical worker today often has more sophisticated technology at home than they do at their desk. With tech-savvy millennials becoming the vast majority of workers by 2020, our employees often just bring the latest apps, devices, and even datasets from home to get the job done, leading to the consumerization dilemma of the last several years.

But as I pointed out last week, the mandate of the CIO is to empower the entire organization -- in a highly dynamic and changing technology landscape -- with usable strategic data assets that readily drive performance, productivity, and ultimately, better business returns, all in a sustainable manner. In this context, given the high impact it usually has, this frequently comes down to improving the customer-facing aspect of the business.

Achieving high impact typically means 1) a steady and innovative flow of new product and services, 2) more engaged and longer-term relationships with customers to better meet their needs, 3) a growing ability to co-create with them while keeping them away from competitors and 4) the breaking down of much of the wall between the business and the marketplace in order to achieve #1, #2 and #3.

The Digitally Engaged, Real-Time, Knowledge-Centric Workforce of 2014: Social, Mobile, Collaborative, Analytic

Certainly a large swath of the enterprise technology industry is currently focusing on customer-facing capabilities as the big opportunity in front of most businesses. This includes -- but is certainly not limited to -- interesting new products or upgrades/additions to existing product suites that enable demand generation, marketing automation, customer relationship management, customer care, and open product development, usually over the Internet.

All of these alter the flow, pace, and responsibilities of today's typical worker, who can easily find themselves regularly having to use 20-30 applications a week to get their jobs done, including time tracking, HR administration, project management, productivity apps, and then the apps to actually do their jobs. Add in mobile devices and all sorts of new systems of engagement that further drain and divide attention, and instead of a seemingly infinite set of opportunities, all this new technology sometimes seems to lead us to work lifestyles of fragmented and rushed usage, instead of carefully considered rethinking and enablement of our work.

To add a final layer of frustration, many organizations are increasingly looking at large-scale transformation to modernize and make possible key new structural changes for today's post-industrial business environment. These transformations are often referred to as digital business, social business, or some other top level rubric, which are containers for a lot of technology, culture, and process change that is all interconnected.

With all this it's a wonder that works get done. Yet despite this it's clear that worker productivity has continued to improve steadily over the last decade a half, so benefits are clearly accruing from the near-infinite variety of tech choice that businesses have today. So where does this leave the typical worker and what kind of environment are they likely to face this year? We have a few hints of this from the latest research in the space.

Related: Can technology improve business innovation?

Key Aspects of the Digital Workplace in 2014

From a variety of sources and my examination of what large enterprises are planning for this year -- including the wonderful new report The Digital Workplace in the Connected Organization in 2014 by workplace technology guru and industry colleague Jane McConnell, we see these significant new workplace/tech factors as moving into focus within organizations this year:

  • Coalescense of organizational knowledge into open streams and digital communities. More businesses are operationalizing and access-enabling their internal know-how in more easily accessed venues that enable discovery and connection between people and data. The facilitating technologies include internal social networks, online communities, centralized activity streams that include e-mail, content/document management platforms, aggregation services, enterprise search engines, and multi-source business intelligence/analytics tools. To an extent greater than ever before, we can see an emergent "enterprise knowledge stream" forming where global data about the business manifests itself in flows within workforce applications, intranets, and existing stream-enabled enterprise applications.
  • A move towards more dynamic and real-time business structures and processes. There is an increasing desire -- and more importantly an active push to enable -- teams with the tools they need to self-organize around business problems, while also detecting and responding to business events much more quickly than before. This has long been the desire of businesses, but ubiquitous mobile devices with collaborative apps, inexpensive multi-point HD video solutions, and enterprise social networks (ESNs) are now getting deployed, used both widely and properly, and thus realizing the promise in many organizations
  • New modes of work that create higher value than legacy methods. Like the push for real-time business processes across marketing, sales, and customer care, there is an understanding that the old way of working, where a team does all the work itself in a self-contained manner is the hardest and most expensive way of accomplishing a task or goal. Cross-organizational communities, crowdsourcing, and other open business methods are showing how just about every part of the enterprise, from hiring to product development to brand management is better done in close conjunction and collaboration with all relevant stakeholders wherever they reside on the network. This ranges from working out loud on the ESN to facilitating customers supporting each other in an enterprise customer community.
  • Seamless multi/omni channel engagement across apps, locations, devices, and languages. I was struck recently by how many large social business initiatives are starting to leverage automatic language translation services. These convert posting from another part of the world to the local language on-the fly. Why? Because they are finding that language is often the greatest barrier to effective workforce collaboration. There are many other barriers of course, but organizations are becoming aware that we can achieve much higher levels of integration with our communication and collaboration tools than we had previously, if we only focus on removing them. Technologies and standards now exist to make it simpler for apps to talk, and it's increasingly expected. Silos will continue to pop up but the big workforce trend is towards connecting our many channels of communication together. Mobile devices is where much of this will happen, with mobile-first the mantra for integrated engagement this year.
  • Intrinsic knowledge retention and the evolution of the physical workplace. Baby boomers are retiring and organizations are finding that technology is making it possible to restructure workplaces to be more collaborative and freely structured for the needs of the moment.  This has led to the creation of work environments that naturally support such evolution. Mobile devices, video telepresence, and unified communication are enabling the molding of new physical workspaces (which also often become seamlessly connected to virtual ones).  Platforms that prevent knowledge evaporation, such as ESNs, content/doc management, and communities are now capturing much of the tacit knowledge in organizations, and positioning of the staff transitions that are now starting to happen en masse with the retirement of a generation of older workers.

Any examination of the workplace in 2014 would have to mention the obvious as well, including the pervasiveness of mobile devices including tablets, powerful analytics tools heralded by the big data revolution, and the fundamental rethinking of CRM that is much more than just a glorified record keeping tool.

But as I pointed out recently, the real long-term problem that workplace technology must help with -- albeit in a fashion that necessarily has some limits -- is with workforce engagement. The reality today is that most workers in large organizations aren't very well engaged, leading to significant underperformance and failure to reach potential in a great many organizations.

This underperformance has many root causes and reasons but ultimately boils down to two factors: Motivation and an effective means of enabling the worker to achieve what's possible. Technology can actually help with both of these concerns, but only if we're trying to solve the problem. This then should be the one of the most importance areas of concern for technology in the workplace in 2014.

Additonal Reading:

The new digital customer journey: Cross-channel, mobile, social, self-service, and engaged

CRM Watchlist 2014 winners: Customer engagement

Saving the dry, lifeless soul of enterprise software

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