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Leading the digital workplace


Leading the digital workplace

I want to argue that digital workplace leadership is largely a hands-off role. It is about setting a vision and then letting the organisation determine the programme.

Take me to your leader

When it comes to digital workplace design, I often use the a town planning analogy. If you were asked ‘who owns your town?’ you’d probably answer ‘it belongs to the people’. But when you ask who influences it, then the city council, major businesses, and service providers for transport and utilities will also come into view.  Steve Bynghall recently argued that ‘Who owns the digital workplace?’ is the wrong question, as it is a an ensemble effort between stakeholders. He’s right – a digital workplace cannot be centrally planned.

If you look at how a town evolves, it is usually a mix of policy, planning, serendipity, and citizen choices. I don’t just mean that leaders are democratically elected, but that towns grow or decline by people opting to move in and invest both financially and emotionally. So towns are not micro-planned from the top. A local business may grow rapidly, providing jobs and sponsoring events, leading to growth without any credit due to city planners. Similarly, citizens might re-generate a neighbourhood through their own endeavours. Yet policymakers can and should have an influence that is driven by a vision.

No business case for a digital workplace

In digital workplace terms, the main thing is that executive leaders cultivate a vision for the organisation. The digital workplace needs to be designed and executed in a way that is consistent with that vision. Note I’m not saying that the top leaders should set a vision about the digital workplace. Trying to establish a digital workplace vision can lead to spirals of pain about the business case. Instead, the case for the digital workplace is that it supports business objectives for which there is already a case. Once this link is established, the role of leaders is to make resources available and ensure decisions and policy are consistent with the digital workplace execution. For example, it’s no good saying that the company should be more innovative and signing off on an innovation-management system, if the process itself isn’t resourced.

Back to our analogy, if a town wants to boost industry, it may give incentives to encourage factory building even if it means intruding on an historic site. But it if wants to be a tourist destination, this may be detrimental and they would zone for cafes and museums instead. Neither choice is intrinsically bad or lacking reason; but the decisions need to be consistent with the vision and the policies should drive each small step in the same direction.


Digital town

Think of digital workplace design as you would town planning: it involves a lot of stakeholders united by a common vision.

Setting the scene

A while back I introduced a framework for the digital workplace. It covers ten dimensions. Five are about digital workplace capabilities:

  1. Communication and engagement
  2. Collaboration
  3. Finding and sharing
  4. Business applications
  5. Agile / flexible working.

And five are about management competencies

  1. Strategy
  2. Governance and operations
  3. Adoption
  4. User Experience
  5. Technology and security.


The capabilities are like planning the infrastructure of the town – including its transport, open spaces, libraries, and business zones. The competences are like the policy framework for what you can and can’t do within the town. This is important because most of the execution of the digital workplace will be about using the capabilities in ways that may not have been anticipated in any initial discovery phase.  Indeed, it is rare that an up-front requirements gathering exercise unearths use cases that accurately capture what happens a year or so later.

A practical example

For example, one of our clients wanted to improve the project management practice across their European operations. We helped them understand the knowledge management processes involved, and set them up to use a combination of Yammer and SharePoint. Yammer was used to share ideas and experience; SharePoint was used to make knowledge assets more accessible. There was a strong interplay: templates on SharePoint would be discussed and refined on Yammer; pilot ideas on Yammer would be refined and standardised in the SharePoint project methodology library.

None of this solution was planned top-down or sanctioned by senior leaders. Frankly, the need and solution would not have been visible to them. Instead, the organisation had set a vision for improving how it bring products to market more consistently. It had also provided collaboration capabilities. Our role was to help the project office determine how they could support that vision and then apply the collaboration capabilities to a specific way of working.

Leadership by celebrity endorsement

It is often argued that leaders need to visibly champion digital workplace changes. They do, but the championing is not by merit of their authority but their visibility. When they highlight a new way of working they do it as a celebrity endorsement because they have the attention of many employees. Few employees would expect the most senior people to use digital workplace tools in the same way they do; the tasks of leaders are quite different. For example, most knowledge workers rely heavily on enterprise search, but leaders don’t use search engines, they ‘search’ via admin teams.

This isn’t to say a digital workplace doesn’t need leadership. But it often comes, not from leaders in the hierarchy but, from natural leaders within a group, such as subject matter experts or innovators influencing how collaboration tools are used.

Senior leadership by endorsement also isn’t about mandating a behaviour. As I’ve argued for enterprise social networks, the change comes because people subscribe to the vision, not because they are told to do it. Otherwise, can you imagine the memo? “From now on we will be a creative culture, open to challenge and honesty… and if anyone disagrees, they’re fired”. You create the town plan then let the people that live there bring it to life.

A version of this article appeared on 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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