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

As companies increasingly seek to update and modernize their digital workplace, along with the supporting skills their workers, they frequently struggle to determine what an effective organizing principle should be.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

Today's organizations have vastly more technology options available than ever before to improve the way their workplace operates and creates value for its stakeholders. We have a seemingly -- and for all practical purposes, effectively -- limitless set of digital options now available to us to reach important goals: Raise productivity, increase quality, and deliver on customer satisfaction, while also creating a highly competitive and rewarding workplace for our workforce.

However, it's also this very technological abundance that is giving companies real pause this year as they attempt to determine how best to deliberately bring to life a more rational, manageable, and sustainable digital workplace supported by technology, given that emerging tech is relentlessly making its way into nearly everything we do in business.

From an individual worker perspective, an ideal digital workplace should be significantly more usable and effective than what they have today, making work both simpler and easier, while potentially achieving that tech nirvana of being so enabling that the tech essentially gets out of the way and nearly disappears.

As I summarized in my emerging enterprise tech list to watch for 2016, the amount of new advances we must soberly contemplate incorporating for our workforces is growing faster than most of us can keep up with using traditional means.

The implication is that for most realistic intents, the majority of organizations are now directly up against the forces of profound complexity, high scale, exponential change/choice, even chaos theory. The digital world has created a proliferation of opportunities for and challenges to the way we enable, automate, and fundamentally think about our businesses in terms of today's art of the possible. We clearly need workable new ways of thinking to help break down and address these issues.

The Organizing Principles of the Digital Workplace: Community and Social Business, Document and Content, Vendor-Centric, Co-Created Portfolio

Traditionally, the digital workplace has largely been an accidental phenomenon, an accumulation of IT systems, personal computing devices, line of business applications, productivity suites, communication and collaboration apps, and access technologies such as VPN services, remote access, and increasingly, virtual desktops. Add in mobile app stores, SaaS software in the cloud, and every imaginable flavor of bring-your-own-technology (BYOD, BYOA, etc.), then recognize the presence of shadow IT, and it's clear that the workplace tech landscape has become a very crowded and convoluted place indeed.

When should we consider the digital workplace as a whole?

This state of affairs has led companies over the years to periodically streamline the workplace experience in hopes of reducing the sheer number of apps, context switches, physical steps, and the overall cognitive load that workers experience in their digital workplace to accomplish their work.

This has sometimes been achieved by standardizing on and/or customizing a small, core set of solutions from a short list vendors in hopes of employing a base set of common digital workplace experiences that are operationally consistent, pared of unneeded complexity, and are hopefully somewhat integrated. Another common approach has involved more of a directory-based approach by providing a desktop or intranet experience that forms a jumping off point into apps, services, and access to data by providing a mostly cohesive and self-guiding structure with matching guidance on which tools to use for which purposes.

But more commonly, digital workplace efforts have increasingly abandoned attempts to customize or shape individual off-the-shelf systems or applications themselves, especially of the transactional or system of record variety, and instead focused on what's most important: a) Complex, collaborative interactions between high value workers, b) the resulting knowledge created from these team activities, and c) the output artifacts from the aforementioned processes, in particular content and conversations.

Workforce interaction has grown to become a central focus of the digital workplace because a) at a tactical level IT customization has largely failed as a source of competitive advantage because of its high cost and barriers to future upgrades, but much more importantly, b) knowledge work tends to comprise the most valuable activities that create value in an organization -- from sales and project management to product development and strategic planning -- while the outcomes of said work, transactional records such as customer records or financial data, are now understood to still be important, but are not the actual value creators for the business, in and of themselves.

Focusing on the Highest Value Workplace Activities

Thus in a growing number of digital workplace efforts I've seen or been involved with, the focus has been increasingly not on boiling the entire ocean and improving every aspect of it, but on zeroing in on the highest value activities in the organization and making them better, easier, and faster. This is often achieved by using a heuristic or organizing principle to bring people, data, and systems together in a lightweight fashion to create improvements and optimizations.

So just as digital experience management and social business have vied as top-level organizing principles of outward-facing digital experience, there are other models for reasoning about how to structure a digital workplace. These can help ensure that as it evolves over time and new advances emerge, it stays true to its core benefits, instead of potentially descending into an ad hoc morass that steadily erodes the benefits that the underlying technologies provide.

While there are numerous ways of thinking about how to organize the digital workplace, in practice there seem to be three widely used models, with a fourth newer one that seems to be developing quickly, often in a very informal fashion.

Four Common Models for Organizing the Digital Workplace

What's interesting about this list is that each model emphasizes one principle, activity, or type of artifact over all others. Examples include workforce collaboration, digital conversations, documents, the sourcing and management of workplace apps, or even just the desire to make a workable whole out of many, varied constituent parts that meets the most needs. These models are:

  1. Community and social business. The second newest model on this list has been with us for some years, but it was not until very recently that it became a widespread one, with 65% of organizations at least having the requisite platforms in place this year (their usage and effectiveness is still emerging however.) This model puts people and their communication/collaboration in the very center of the digital workplace. Apps and their data certainly still have a place in this model, but in support of high value knowledge work within a situated context of open and participative shared value creation. There have been numerous measures of the effectiveness of this model, with McKinsey most famously claiming there is at least $1.3 trillion in untapped economic value to be had by moving to this model of working. Successfully realizing this type of new digital workplace generally requires updated digital skills in the workforce that inherently take advantage of its strengths.
  2. The document and content-centric workplace. Many knowledge-based firms produce most of their value by capturing their ideas and results on what we used to call paper. Now this output has become almost entirely digital, and so these workplaces invest an inordinate amount in managing the vast digital document flows from their workforce using document and content management systems, such as SharePoint and Documentum. While the hey-day of document management and content management systems is largely behind us, it's still one of the dominant models for the workplace, and continues to resurge in different forms like file sync and sharing as collaborative models evolve. This model is also relatively mute about the place of transactional systems, recognizing their necessity, but emphasizing that documents and content are the lifeblood of so many of our organizations. Nevertheless, this is an older, more limited way of looking at the digital workplace that isn't focused very much on people or fully enabling/realizing their potential.
  3. Vendor-centric model. After years of trying to avoid lock-out, I'm seeing a decided return to single-vendor dominance in the digital workplace in certain sectors. Major changes and improvements in the digital workplace offerings of dominant industry player Microsoft has a lot to do with this shift, and I'm seeing -- especially with very large enterprises -- an interest in getting an entirely ready-to-go, integrated, and supported set of digital workplace tools for communication, collaboration, documents, and productivity. Google is playing effectively at the mid to lower-end with a bit of large enterprise traction, while in the SMB space, there are essentially dozens of competing players. The promise is a set of common workplace tools that work together, are supported consistently, and that will stay up to date. Yet the reality is that most organizations have hundreds, and many of thousands, of applications that run their business. The vendor-centric model has some value in bringing order to the most common workplace activities, but it assumes a relatively simplistic operating environment, which is increasingly not the case. There is also what my fellow ZDNet columnist Michael Krigsman calls the curse of vendor sameness. Yet hope springs eternal that this approach can deal with the most common digital workplace needs and issues, while not diluting competitive benefits of using the best tools for the job too much. In short, it's a classic model for making digital workplace implementation much easier for IT while making it harder for the business to apply the most optimal IT solution to their work and/or ensuring varied stakeholder needs are widely met.
  4. A hybrid digital workplace co-created by IT, lines of business, and workers. The fourth model is the newest but fast emerging, but does now indeed appear to be one nearly inevitable outcome of current trends in tech adoption and IT. The proliferation of apps in the cloud and mobile devices has made IT extremely easy to acquire and nearly disposable for many uses. In fact, the best solutions can be quickly found and used by nearly anyone like never before, without permission or help from IT. This is creating an environment where the business, at the division, departmental, and even personal level selects technology with little to no formal involvement or ownership by IT. Lest you think this is a nascent trend, it is actually long under way with a recent survey of 600 senior IT and business decision makers showing that the CIO already controls less than half of the technology budget in two-thirds of organizations. With this model, IT can instead get out ahead and embrace LOB investment by proactively take advantage, as I strongly recommended recently, of Shadow IT and LOB IT spend, instead of being co-opted by it. This takes advantage of change agents across the organization as a broader source of IT capacity, move to a newer more contemporary model for IT itself, and can even form the backbone of a broad digital transformation effort as well. In this model, IT can organize itself to be the curator and orchestrator of a broader and more inclusive conception of the digital workplace, finding ways to satisfy local needs much more optimally, bring faster change and higher levels of innovation, while bringing order, security, and governance to the overall evolution of tech portfolio.

Finally, I also see another model being used frequently, but it fails to perform well so often, that I did not include it. This model uses a specific mode or style of workplace app as the central principle for the digital workplace. These modes or styles often focus on unified communications (video, voice, chat), team-based collaboration tools (as opposed to enterprise-class), the corporate intranet, or other specific workplace technologies. Because these tools cover a relatively small amount of the digital workplace, it's not uncommon for me to encounter 5-6 different competing digital workplace efforts or collaboration initiatives based on them, each hoping to get their technology or approach to dominate the vision, despite being too limited in their scope. The key lesson here: Come in at a broad level of abstraction, but with enough specifics to drive technology decisions.

From all this, it's clear that we have a good ways to go in order to mature our models of the digital workplace and grapple successfully with guiding the evolution of our digital workplaces. Yet this exploration of the commonly used models conveys a good overall picture of a) the major ways of thinking about the digital workplace that organizations are using and b) the options the companies have, depending on how strategic their digital workplace is to the functioning of their organization.

However, it is an increasingly small audience of companies that doesn't need to have some careful thought put into how they'll stay ahead of the rapid pace of technological change, while ensuring that the business as a whole doesn't continue picking up the IT reins and driving the agenda. Ultimately, creating an effective and highly inclusive vision with adaptable plan that is sustainable will be the key to long-term success with the digital workplace.

I'd be delighted to hear your digital workplace stories and experiences in comments below.

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