The new digital workplace: How enterprises are preparing for the future of work

As innovation in computing devices, apps, and potent new techniques for applying them proliferate in the consumer world, companies are struggling to close the gap.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

That the average employee today has better information technology at home than at work has become a standard refrain in discussions of IT modernization. The consumer world of bleeding-edge smart mobile devices, jam-packed app stores, wearables of every description, a constellation of game-changing sharing economy services ala Uber and Airbnb -- even the rise of 3D printing -- has decidedly made the typical enterprise look like a rather staid "slow follower" of technology trends.

Now, however, a confluence of trends is providing impetus for organizations to become much more digital than they have until recently. One key reason: The growing dominance of millennial workers as a share of the workforce means that by the end of this decade, nearly half of employees will come from this group of tech-savvy, mobile-centric, socially networked workers. They will be fully 75 percent of the workforce in a decade.

Another trend: The very relevance and effectiveness of an organization now requires 1) meeting a fast-rising and accelerating floor for minimum digital competency and 2) adapting the very business itself to the new digital-centric world. This second piece is perhaps the largest barrier: Digital is now imposing a shift -- and often a complete rethinking -- in the fundamental way we work in nearly every industry, including our core business models. Unfortunately, traditional organizations have been built around legacy 20th century models of business, in which the majority of their market momentum and inherent know-how lies.

Additional Reading: Business have digitized, but not transformed

The Future of the Digital Workplace: Community/Social Collaboration, Non-Hierarchical Organizations, Borderless Dynamic Workforce (Crowdsourcing), Sharing Economy, Enterprise App Stores, Unified Activity Streams, Quantified Enterprise, Contexual Applications, Wearables, Internet of Things, 3D printing, Workplace Robots and Drones

The challenge is that for many -- even most -- organizations, swimming hard up the digital stream largely results in just standing in place. However, until we started facing genuine disruption from the digital world, the threshold below which organizations cannot viably sink hasn't been excessively high. Tech change is now so rapid it's given rise to important observations like Martec's Law, which ominously notes that "technology changes exponentially, but organizations change logarithmically."

Thus the so-called proof points for technology competency in the enterprise has moved well beyond rudiments like having a Web site or allowing iPhones and Android devices on the corporate network. Viability as a technology company -- and I'd suggest that virtually all organizations today must quickly become technology companies -- now means considerably closer parity with the consumer digital world.

Today's basic digital 'proof points' in the enterprise

While there are many new and interesting enterprise technologies and products today that organizations are moving towards, enterprise tech is not the yardstick that's typically used by employees or the wider world. Instead, below are the expectations that the average employee or customer -- drawing from their own daily experiences with the capabilities in today's digital world -- would expect from their IT at work today:

  • Rapid upgrades of devices and applications. The consumer world is updating applications and hardware faster than ever, but this increase in speed is largely not happening in the enterprise. As a result -- and which is nearly a scandal in terms of inadequate technology evolution -- nearly a third of large enterprises still have significant Windows XP deployments. In contrast, cloud and SaaS often makes such upgrades nearly transparent and seamless. Unfortunately, older on-premises application models can't change this quickly: The legacy baggage of operating systems and applications that must be updated or replaced in-sync to move to new versions and only becomes exacerbated and unmanageable over time until new models are adopted.
  • Search that works. Most enterprises have relatively awful internal search capabilities. As a result, employees take far too long to find things, and search sessions often fail outright, despite the enormous IT investments in capturing and storing corporate data, which is then unable to be located. The reasons for this are actually fairly well known: A weak and limited link ecosystem within most enterprises (this is why Internet search is so much better), poor meta-data, combined with overreliance on algorithms instead of feedback loops of user search behavior. In fact, most enterprise data isn't even linkable, as it resides in databases, documents, and application silos. When is the last time you heard of SEO being done inside the enterprise? You probably haven't. The only real solution today: Bring the structure of the Internet as much as possible into the organization.
  • Social, chat, and rich media tools to communicate. Put simply, lightweight communication and collaboration tools are now the norm in the consumer world. So is ready access to easy-to-use video calling, often multi-point. Don't have Skype-like ubiquity and ease-of-use at work? Don't have simple chat tools and social networks in place that workers actually know about and how to use? Then you have antiquated digital tools and unnecessary barriers to productivity actively in place.
  • Capable mobile apps that take advantage of what smart devices today can do. Most organizations are challenged in just migrating their existing apps to work at all on mobile devices, much less taking advantage of the unique power that smart mobile devices bring to bear, and which are used in by the top consumer mobile apps. These are capabilities like location, spatial orientation, optimization for touch, lightweight integration with popular productivity tools (Dropbox, Evernote, etc.) and social networks, voice interfaces, discoverabiilty and delivery via app stores, the list goes on. 'Mobile-first' is finally becoming the mantra of today's CIO and CDO, but it requires both learning major new operating systems (iOS, Android, Windows Mobile) and building the development and management infrastructure enterprise-wide. This is starting to happen in many organizations but will take time.
  • Applications that are easy to use and 'consumerized'. Most enterprise-class products, while they often by necessity must be more complex their consumer counterparts, don't operate in a very competitive internal environment. In other words, they don't need to be great or continue to get better, once they get in the door. Ease-of-use, enjoyable user experience, and therefore usability, are often compromised significantly in order to meet feature checklists. This is so common it's led to the coining of the derogatory term 'enterprisey', which is used to describe boring, hard-to-use, and needlessly complex business technology. In the consumer world, those digital services that are most successful are that way because they are enjoyable, effective, and vitally, simple to use (and yes, have the best data/functionality as well.)
  • Easy new digital ways to buy and pay for things. There really is no analog for Paypal or Square for the workplace, and most are rarely usable for businesses purposes, either accepting or for employee use. Requisitions and corporate credit cards still rule the day, despite looking increasingly very outdated.
  • Ability to use the digital channels, apps, and devices of preference to communicate and officially conduct work. In the consumer world, parties can choose among thousands of communities, social networks, chat channels, forums, and apps in which to engage with each other. While channel fragmentation is even a problem in the consumer world now, the choice is entirely in the hands of the collaborators. The very best channel and format for communication can be chosen at will. In the enterprise, a very few pre-selected tools and channels are provided, regardless if they are suitable or good for the job. This is true not only for employee communication, but especially for customers. Most companies are woefully behind in their move to a fuller range of digital channels.
  • Zero artificial barriers to sharing files or data. While security and privacy are becoming more challenging in the digital age, it's no excuse to make it very difficult for employees to share information, which in the corporate world is still largely done by e-mail. However, digital work artifacts continue to grow in size with presentations and video choking e-mail servers and often just bouncing due to out-dated attachment size limits. The consumer world long since moved to solutions like lightweight file sync and share tools, and though there are certainly business near-equivalents like Box or Citrix ShareFile, though even they are often too enterprisey to be a full solution.
  • High availability of digital services. Today's modern cloud services are so distributed and redundant, that the leaders are increasingly closing in on four 9s of availability. That means they are operating and available 99.99% of the time, which means they're down less than an hour a year. In my experience, most enterprises only have about three 9s of availability, and often less, which means more than a day of downtime a year, and often quite a bit more.
  • Working using new techniques by applying today's new digital modes of work and business models. As most of you know that have read my explorations of how the external digital world is fundamentally remaking how we work, people have become used to working with these ubiquitous new digital toolkits in profoundly powerful new ways. Now they want to do the same at work. What's more, customers increasingly desire the same thing.

You might notice that this list of digital workplace expectations is surprisingly simple and fundamental. There's no big data here, Google Glass, or enterprise gamification. It's is a far cry from the cutting edge of what's possible in the consumer world or even the enterprise. Rather it's just the realistic minimum that enterprises need to support today in terms of treading water on digital competency, remaining competitive, attracting talent, and sustainably creating value for their customers and shareholders in recognizable and useful forms.

Must also maintain the 'big picture' in digital change too

But staying just above the digital competency floor isn't enough. In fact, what organizations must also be doing is maintaining a clear large-scale and integrated business/technology vision towards the future, the details of which I'll explore here in the coming weeks. So, in addition to the basic 'table stakes' for digital in the list above, organizations must successfully cope with the critical macro changes taking place in a) new models of work, b) required evolution of enterprise applications, and 3) new types of devices which will truly reshape businesses in terms of their processes and structure. All while demanding considerable shifts in culture and mindset in our leadership and workforces in order to adapt to and align with successfully.

A short list of these enterprise macro technology changes (also in diagram above) are: New modes of collaboration; changes in how we structure our organizations because of digital networks; new ways of developing and managing workforces and talent;  the collaborative economy as a new core business model; upgrades to the digital workplace to reflect the complexity and ubiquity of tech; new devices including wearables; the explosion of the Internet of Things; 3D printing; and even a new generation of workplace robotics.

See also: Crowdsourcing gains enterprise credibility

To close the gap, we must not forget that a big part of the challenge is that the reason the enterprise and the consumer digital world often look so different, is because they are different. And while you can't replicate the Internet within the enterprise exactly, you can bring in and adapt what works about it best, such as an effective and pervasive deep link structure, simple APIs for everything, a relentless focus on user experience, new models for working together, cloud-based technology stacks, decentralized service delivery, and just-plain sufficient investment in technology.

But the hardest part of the whole challenge facing the enterprise is likely adopting a 'digital-first' mindset. As in, how do I rethink my business in terms of digital possibility in today's fast-changing and complex technology landscape.

For now, however, the lack of sufficient investment may perhaps be the root barrier: The vast majority of IT departments today are still considered overhead -- which is not the case for mature digital businesses, where it is critical to P&L. Consequently, I believe most organizations are significantly underinvesting in the types of digital transformation that must happen today. In other words, if you compare your IT spend to the R&D budgets of large, successful technology firms, you'll likely find that your resources are insufficient to close the gap, much less seize opportunity.

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