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Do digital workplaces drive innovation or efficiency?

Austrian National Library, VW Beetle manufacturing line, 1957.

Do digital workplaces drive innovation or efficiency?

It is tempting to say that your digital workplace both increases efficiency and encourages innovation. I’ve seen it in countless strategy statements and they both sound desirable. But is that realistic, or is it like the recruitment advert looking for someone who is “a team player that works well alone”?

According to Cameron and Quinn, two researchers from the University of Michigan, efficiency and innovation are culturally competing values. Try to optimize for one, and you’ll take away from the other. That’s why being clear about what you’re aiming for with a digital workplace matters, but also a key part of helping it succeed.

“Some organizations are viewed as effective if they are changing, adaptable, and organic such as Microsoft, Apple or Nike… Other organizations are viewed as effective if they are stable, predictable, and mechanistic, for instance most universities, government agencies, and the New York Stock Exchange”.

Cameron and Quinn in Competing Values Leadership.

Any organisation where a focus is on ROI will sacrifice innovation for efficiency, because it is easier to quantify return from changes to known processes (or simple cost cuts) than it is to show value from wholly new processes and products.

Why innovation and efficiency are at odds

I’ve described in some detail how the Competing Values Framework from Cameron and Quinn apples to digital workplaces in why collaboration works for others but not for you, but if you find frameworks a little dry, here’s another way to look at it.

Innovation is about trying out new things, some of which will fail. Most innovation in business isn’t about radical, breakthrough innovation (unless you’re an R&D lab), but about new insights and incremental improvements.

But here’s the thing: innovation is also wasteful. You will spend time on things that don’t work out; you’ll make a change that ends up being worse than what you already had; when you do something in a new way, others don’t know about it so there’s extra friction introduced. Netflix unashamedly prioritises innovation, with some famously brief policies (“Our vacation policy is ‘take vacation’”). But they also have the clarity to realise that they are in a low-risk business.  “We’re in a creative-inventive market, not a safety-critical market like medicine or nuclear power” says their induction deck on Netflix culture.

To be efficient, you need to do that experimentation but then lock in the improvement that works. You may have to train people to follow a new process that will take time to adopt. From thereon, you don’t want people to try different ways or keep experimenting.  That will just slow everyone down, increase costs again, or introduce risk.

Efficiency isn’t always great either though. As Henry Mintzberg argued: how excited would you be about a going to a restaurant that billed itself as “really efficient”’?

A digital workplace for efficiency

Digital workplaces designed to support efficiency are likely to be more structured and more centred around processes and documents than people. If that sounds a little dull – take heart: done well, the enterprise search will return good results! When you need to request something, it will be clear which form applies, and how decisions get made. When you need IT support, there will be systems and service levels in place. These can all make for a satisfying and productive place to be.

There’s a strong caveat here though: sometimes the most efficient thing is to know when to make an exception, and that may well be about talking to the right person. For example, a procurement department onboarding a new vendor may get bogged down in a detailed checklist, when really a quick conversation with the right person in Legal to say “does this actually apply here?” could skip things forward.

So even efficiency-oriented digital workplaces need to cultivate a degree of social capital. Most likely though, there will be a well-managed people-finder to help you track down the right person too.

A digital workplace for innovation

An innovation-centric digital workplace is likely to take a more networked approach. I’d expect open conversations to be encouraged (see last month’s post on Teams vs Yammer for the Microsoft specifics), and knowledge to be shared through internal posts, blogs and seminars.

Barriers to collaboration should be low – for example, creating a new online project space should be approval-free, and even granting access to externals is likely to be straightforward. Digitally, you’re looking for the equivalent of “let’s grab a coffee and a flipchart”.

More formally, there’s a raft of ideation (idea management) tools out there that can help too, including Qmarkets, PlanBox (formerly Imaginatik), Planview Spigit and Brightidea.  Other digital workplace specialists are active in this space as well, for example Valo Ideas and Sideways 6 both work on top of Microsoft Teams. All of these bring a level of process to help cultivate new ideas and ensure they get properly considered rather than simply petering out. However, none of these will fix a work culture that is too dominated by efficiency.

An innovation-centric digital workplace sounds more liberating than an efficiency-oriented one. But there are downsides that come with the inevitable inconsistency. You probably need a good personal network to get things done; when you search for a document, you might find five versions and not know which one to trust; all those freely-created collaboration sites may get spun up but then never properly closed down. Metaphorically, the innovator’s digital workplace is a more cluttered desk.

Finding a balance

Most organisations like to think they are innovative. It just sounds cooler than ‘efficient’. Yet they also often have a firm focus on the bottom line. So, can you mix and match?

One way to find a balance is to have different departments with different work cultures – and it may well be that you want, say, your products department to be innovative, but your finance department to be efficient. This is precisely why R&D exists as a function (and why ‘creative accounting’ is generally frowned upon).

Another is to create projects that take people way from their routine. If you are focussed 100% on execution, then you have no slack to try working in a different way.

A consequence of this then, is that our digital workplaces may well need to be configured in different ways for different departments. A company-wide rollout of Microsoft Teams shouldn’t apply the same policies for all users and shouldn’t even train them in the same way. The trick is knowing when to tighten up, and when to ease back.

A version of this article was originally published by CMSWire.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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