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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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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