So long, app silos: And welcome to the digital workplace hub

Organizations are finally waking up to the need to foster better integration and improved usability by connecting business applications together into a more collaborative and coherent digital workplace. Now a new twist is emerging.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

What do these new digital workplaces as platform need to entail to succeed?


As business applications continue to proliferate in the workplace, enterprises have begun to realize that their ever-more complex landscape of digital tools for their workforce should be more effectively organized and integrated to better deliver their full value and provide returns on their often significant cumulative investment.

The consumerization of the workplace in recent years has had many implications for worker productivity and effectiveness: There are now just too many disjointed digital messages to handle and digital tools to manage for the typical worker, especially as as I've found shadow IT has grown substantially in just the last couple of years alone, opening new floodgates of apps and message flows.

Worse, most of these messaging services and apps are disconnected from each other, lacking basic work context about what's happening in an adjacent app to make the experience more contextual, streamlined, and productive.

A common scenario will serve here to highlight the primitive state of digital work in which we still find ourselves:

If one has an e-mail conversation where the participants discuss all the logistics of scheduling a meeting with each other, when one then switches over to the calendaring app, it should reasonably trigger an automated offer to create a meeting notice for the discussed time, with the mentioned people, at the identified location. But in the vast majority of organizations, our digital workplace doesn't even provide such basic services to us.

The reality is that these situations -- and dozens of workplace scenarios just like it -- take place millions of times as day in the enterprise world, yet are still surprisingly manual, given how automated routine work could be and should be.

Related: Enterprises confront the reality of 'multilayered collaboration'

The New Digital Workplace as Hub and Platform

Thus, many decades into the personal computing revolution, our apps still aren't very smart about each other, and certainly not very tuned into our day-to-day work, and can't help as much as they should. As a result, perhaps one of the signature realizations that came out of the emergence of social collaboration a decade ago, was that our systems of record and our systems of engagement were too disconnected. I wrote at the time that such collaborative silos were becoming a significant issue that were holding back business results:

How will this happen then? I've gone on record that it may be the adoption of effective open standards that returns social networks to fundamental interoperability. But will commercial services adopt them? Their executives and shareholders are likely not to agree. Are there other solutions? Possibly. Either way, if social media [in the workplace] is to progress to the plateau of productivity, we must figure this out.

Workplace integration through open standards struggled

Some in the industry did respond at the time. We saw the rise of technology standards to deal with growing silos of communication, with solutions such as OpenSocial, which allowed both transactional systems and engagement services to live and function relatively contextually within the activity streams of our social collaboration tools. They could even be searched in a federated fashion. As a board member of the OpenSocial Foundation for several years until it merged into the W3C, I saw this as a major step in the right direction for a unified digital workplace.

Unfortunately, back then the complexity of our digital workplace landscape was lower, and many enterprises either were too early in their thinking or didn't see the urgency. As a result, although numerous social collaboration tools still support OpenSocial today, because of the lack of a few key enablers (which I'll explore in a moment) the standard never really took off in the enterprise.

In no small part because of failing to successfully address interoperability and app silos, digital workplace distraction and cognitive overload steadily became a widespread issue: Today a typical business project or work task that might have taken place across two or three systems a technology generation ago, now can easily span 5-10 applications or more today, all in disconnected silos with a suboptimal user experience, with only a few hyperlinks connecting them together if we're lucky.

Gaining a complete and accurate picture of our work processes and their outcomes in digital systems is actually getting harder, not easier because of the the growth in specialty apps and additional supporting services such as file sync/sharing, mobile apps, unified communications, enterprise social networks, and so on.

Then workplace silos were gathered together into hubs

Then about two years ago, I began to notice a new trend in case studies: Some leading organizations were building new branded digital workplaces that cast an unusually wide net to centralize the most commonly used digital services -- regardless of type -- into a few easily-used touchpoints, especially adding mobile to the user experience, where the digital workplace is the most underdeveloped in organizations today. Better forms of communication and collaboration were typically centerpieces as well. The core idea was to collect all the far-flung apps -- systems of record and engagement both -- that most workers had to use, and make them much more accessible, connected, and streamlined.

The Barclays Bank MyZone Mobile Digital Workplace and Portal App

Barclays Bank's Mobile Digital Workplace Hub

Image Credit: Barclays Bank

Some of the leading examples I saw emerge at the time clearly exhibited this new trend: Barclays with its award-winning MyZone intranet, Virgin America's VXConnect, and Coca-Cola's iConnect (tagline: "Communications, Collaborations, Transactions"), each of which were highly social and mobile intranets that significantly invested in integration with relevant systems of record as well, thus creating a more practical, useful, and contextual workplace. The user experiences of these new "portals" were more consumerized and participatory, yet directly connected to or designed around business functions that enabled what the company valued most, whether that was great customer service, unleashing employee advocates, or fostering a healthy employee community.

Up until that time, intranets tended to be relatively generic affairs that rarely got into business functions beyond HR self-service, employee locators, and time-keeping. The old joke was that the cafeteria menu and corporate driving directions were often the most used Web page inside of our organizations. But these new intranets were not only much more visually exciting and accessible from anywhere, but they genuinely brought useful digital services and information significantly closer to the worker, with much less friction in the user experience, and were often more contextually relevant.

Around this same time, we began to see the resurgence of the development of another related trend: Instead of custom-built solutions, off-the-shelf digital workplace hubs emerged that gathered together common IT systems for the workforce, often built on the foundation of that pervasive intranet erector set, Microsoft SharePoint. These solutions brought everything together out-of-the-box into a more contemporary and integrated experience. Vendors like Sitrion had been doing this for years for social intranets, but now enterprises were much more interested in even more encompassing, broader brush, one-stop digital workplaces that had all the most important types of digital functions together in a single place. These often went well beyond collaboration services to include knowledge bases, issue trackers, productivity tools, integrated news streams, idea capture, unified communications, HR services, advocacy portals, and more.

A new generation of rapid digital workplace builders emerged at this time -- examples included Unily, Colygon, Infolio, and OneWindow -- even as old-guard players like Jostle, Huddle, and ThoughtFarmer updated their own offerings to compete. All of these players lowered the bar to realize a more holistic digital workplace by seeking to bring and/or provide best-of-breed combinations of digital workplace functions together into a highly usable package.

But these weren't a silver bullet either, as they still could only provide the limited features that their vendors developed themselves, or hand-integrated from 3rd parties. They often fell behind the capabilities of the underlying platforms they were built on in the meantime. So a new, more inclusive and sustainable digital workplace model was still needed, as the one-size-fits-all hub failed to keep up with technology change.

Digital workplace then took a left turn: App ecosystems, bots

While the concept of digital workplace unification was laudable -- and certainly, focusing on a digital workplace hub has come and gone over the years, from designing default desktop configurations on personal computers in the 1990s to the personalized intranets of the 2000s -- the story arc of the digital workplace was about to take a sharp left turn. By taking inherent advantage of digital platforms to grow an ecosystem, a new type of workplace was starting to emerge that had not been seen before. Looking back, it's clear that this new advance has rapidly become perhaps the most significant trend in digital workplace since it originally emerged out of the PC revolution in the 1980s.

Specifically, this is the advent of a holistic yet highly federated digital workplace. Essentially, the core concept is a digital workplace as platform. It typically consists of contextual app integration contained within a digital workplace hub that is then enabled by a robust and vibrant app ecosystem. In other words, it's an integrated, consistent, and deeply connected user experience that often tracks work context, centralized notifications, single sign-on, and federated search as it works seamlessly with our apps and our data, and is usable from a single digital touchpoint of our choosing.

This platform trend has been further accelerated by a related "new" user experience technology known as conversational user experiences, aka smart chatbots. Bots, combined with even more advances on the horizon, provides further motivation for a new model as the digital workplace is also about to be challenged, disrupted, and extended by many new technologies: Integrated artificial intelligence (so-called cognitive collaboration), control and management of the Internet of Things, and soon truly immersive digital experience such as virtual and augmented reality. This pile-on of new advances is requiring more market response than any single vendor could possibly provide, making digital workplace hub as platform a particularly powerful and timely concept.

The confluence of these trends has created an opportunity for a new type of digital workplace that until recently was not really possible: A digital work foundation that is a) open and deeply integrated, and -- this is the real success factor -- b) is backed by a working ecosystem of application partners that's sufficiently large enough to provide enough off-the-shelf app integrations to create significant additional business value to most workers. Without the second piece, advances like OpenSocial never took off: The potential to build a deeply integrated digital workplace around a hub was certainly there, but limited capabilities without hand-tooled integration work and extensive customization, further choked by a poor or absent app ecosystem, made it a non-starter in practical terms.

Digital workplace as a platform emerges

This platform idea is all well and good, you might say, but who is actually providing such a workplace hub like this that works well today? It turns out that small set of leading actors are both thriving and using this model, and almost certainly thriving significantly more because of having it. Three offerings stand out in particular, though only one is truly enterprise-class:

  • Slack. Perhaps the poster-child for next-generation collaboration today, the team-based messaging tool has been growing in leaps and bounds for a couple of years now. One of Slack's outstanding accomplishments has been creating a very successful set of app integrations, over 650 at last count, that has helped drive its adoption and growth. Slack can now easily take the center stage when it comes to many kinds of digital work, through clever and effective integration of external apps from e-mail and calendaring to office management and accounting. There's also a whole world of 3rd party smart bots that can help with a wide range of activities as well. Slack's ability to attract developers to integrate into Slack has been key to its success and fast growth, but vitally it also creates a far, far richer offering than the company could ever on its own. In fact, the apps are what effectively turn the collaborative canvas of Slack in a genuine digital workplace. Do Slack's users make much use of the apps? The company reports that over 400,000 apps are installed into it every month by its users. The service thus creates a more unified digital workplace like few others on the market today. While it's still early days for Slack, it stands out as the most effective digital workplace-as-platform on the market today, even if it's also not always suitable for enterprise-scale collaboration.
  • Salesforce. Usually not thought of a digital workplace provider, but more of a CRM, sales, and marketing solution, Salesforce has become a broad presence across many business functions in enterprises around the world. Yet as I explored in my recent analysis of the where the platform is going, Salesforce is not only positioned to become a player in digital workplace, it already provides a broad swath of related functional services in a collaborative fabric (Chatter and Community Cloud), and a strong platform architecture that puts it fairly close to becoming the center of work in many organizations today. What's more, Salesforce was an open platform before almost any other cloud service. Its AppExchange store has been operational for over a decade and now has well over 3,000 apps with over 4 million installs. These apps offer almost every conceivable type of function that a business could require, with many of them well integrated into the Salesforce data model and each part of the Salesforce user experience. I come across many large organizations that run a surprising amount of their applications within Salesforce, because it offers a simple, scalable, consistent model for digital work. The move by the company into office productivity tools by acquiring Quip is further indication that digital workplace is on the mind of this fast-growing cloud company.
  • Atlassian. While less advanced in its journey than Slack or Salesforce, Atlassian has quietly been building an increasingly robust app ecosystem for its collaboration and and process management platforms. While a market leader in several of the categories it plays in, the company is not as well known as the first two on this list, yet is still a useful proof point that this new digital workplace platform model is emerging and proving successful. The company has reported to me that its Atlassian Marketplace is widely used by its customers to find apps to augment and improve the experience. It's further evidence that general purpose collaboration tools are useful centers of the digital workplace, by providing context about why a group of apps are used together to solve a given business problem.

What exactly do these new digital workplaces as platform need to entail to succeed? The key appears to be having enough apps and a good user experience. There does appear to be a significant chicken-and-the-egg challenge with this model, which is probably why it's taken so long to emerge: If a digital workplace platform doesn't have enough apps, it doesn't really help anyone, and the cost on both sides (platform and developer) isn't worth it unless there is significant end-user adoption. The key then has been to proactively support developers, have a clear value proposition for them, proactively outreach to them, make it easy to integrate, and have staying power and presence in the market.

All of this together is a tall order and is why each of the companies above came about roughly the same approach in very different ways and why few others have gotten this far. The question you're probably asking at this point is if this is really going to be the model that most enterprises ultimately use to realize their digital workplace of the future? That is far from clear yet. There are pros and cons to this model, and we're very much in the process of watching this approach develop, but it will be attractive to a good number of organizations as they seek to find a better organizing model and way to think holistically about the digital workplace.

In the meantime, we have a lot of industry discussion to have over this to see if it's truly a better way long term to manage our digital workplaces. For sure, this evolution will be discussed and debated considerably in coming years, but I now believe it's likely to be one of the breakthroughs we've been waiting for to achieve a better design for an even richer yet more coherent and usable digital workplace.

Additional Reading

What's the organizing principle of today's digital workplace?

The blending of apps with our collaboration tools: An inevitable trend

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