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The invisible components of digital workplace success

Looking up at semi-translucent glass tairs with a person walking above us.

The invisible components of digital workplace success

“It’s not about the technology” is such a common PowerPoint slide at the conferences I attend on digital workplaces and digital transformation, that you’d wonder why it needs repeating. Surely we all know this, and yet it gets duly Retweeted like lost wisdom of the ancients.

It’s a classic example of the knowing-doing gap. Pfeffer and Sutton observed that people and businesses often know the right thing to do, but still end up doing something else. We all know we would have happier, healthier lives if we exercised more, ate extra vegetables, and never shared documents as email attachments, but we continue to do so. The barriers are often a combination of habits, costs, fear and lack of understanding about how to change.

When it comes to digital workplace initiatives slipping back into a technology focus, I suspect it is because the technology is tangible, familiar and feels like an easier change than addressing the fundamentals. In turn, it means that budgets tend to get swallowed up by licensing and IT implementation costs, leaving little for the ‘soft’ elements. And yet when you talk to leaders who have successfully implemented digital workplace initiatives, they all point to the non-technology elements as the critical success factors.

 So I want to look, not at the technology dimension, but at the people and process side, particularly from a ‘business as usual’ rather than project perspective. It is these hidden enablers that can be the make-or-break between success in one digital workplace and failure in a seemingly identical implementation elsewhere.

The invisible components of a digital workplace

Over many years I’ve been developing and refining a framework described in detail as 10 elements of a digital workplace .

In summary, there are five ‘capabilities’ that have a technology underpinning: communication; collaboration; finding and sharing; business applications; and agile working.

Then there are five management activities needed to operate those capabilities well: strategic planning; governance and operational management; proactive support for adoption; high quality user experience; and robust, secure and flexible technology.

Although these ten elements have served well, what I’ve come to realise is that there are additional aspects that act as glue to bring the whole thing together. Like the perfect sauce that combines a dish of individual ingredients into something remarkable. These ‘hidden’ enablers are:

  1. Sponsorship
  2. Ongoing resources
  3. Digital literacy
  4. Service design
  5. Measurement

You can see them illustrated in the figure below.

Graphic showing five major sections, Strategy, Gov and ops, Adoption, UX, Tech and then five soft sections, Sponsorhip, Resources, Digital literacy, service design, and measurement.
The key elements of a digital workplace (green and white striped segments) are pulled together by less visible enablers (yellow wedge-shaped spokes).

1. Sponsorship

When clients first engage my company (please do contact us!) to help them with digital workplace strategy, I tend to ask “Why now? What’s driving you to tackle this?”. Often the answer isn’t some change in business need, but the arrival of a new leader who has a vision for how things can be better.

It doesn’t especially matter which department or function they are from, because there’s never a single area of an organisation that can unilaterally drive digital workplace success.

What matters is their emotional input: a good sponsor has to understand the vision ahead of everyone else because it isn’t practical to show the benefits to everyone up-front; they have to champion it so that it gets attention as a project; and they have to stand firm when there are obstacles or nervousness. This is one of the reasons why an ROI-based business case is never enough — it might win funding, but it doesn’t secure the resilience to see it through.

2. Ongoing resources

How many intranets, collaboration platforms, and knowledge management systems have been launched with a fanfare that also heralded Day 1 of their decay because the project team packed their bags and left nobody behind to run the show? Launching an intranet is like launching a magazine not a book. Every day, you need new content, every month you need to be asking where to improve it and what needs to adapt. All of this requires continuous management and evolution of the intranet by skilled people.

Most other elements of a digital workplace need similar efforts. For example, as Martin White and I have often observed, even when people sound like they are complaining about a search tool, what they are often complaining about is a failure to effectively create, maintain, and tag content.

[See also: Diagnosing enterprise search failures]

3. Digital literacy

Gianni Giacomelli recently made a persuasive case around the monetary impact of reskilling. He argued that part of the return on investment that comes from training staff is that it “improves the odds of digital transformation success”. The cost of not doing this is often deeply hidden in the day-to-day friction of failed collaboration. Many calls to return to the office post-pandemic are based not on sound analysis of what can and cannot be done virtually, but on a reaction to poorly-supported people struggling to use virtual tools in the right way and reverting to what they’ve always done.

I recently spoke to someone supporting the board of a small charity. Its functioning would be so much simpler if that board used the MS Teams environment they had set up, but two board members point-blank refused, legitimising other staff members to do the same. The charity wasted resources daily because people could not access reliable information. It was also exposed to data protection risks because sensitive information could not be controlled. I’m sure this story plays out in every organisation that refuses to tackle digital literacy head-on.

4. Service design

In this context, consider digital workplace service design to be a mindset for ongoing improvements. In part it means thinking about the needs and irritations for a segment of employees and improving that experience end-to-end. For example, if a request form requires three physical signatures, you might introduce digital signing. But you could also consider if the process really only needs one signature, or automate the workflow to collect multiple signatures too.

The other aspect to service design is to think about iterative improvement. It’s too hard to analyse and plan all the ways in which a digital workplace might be used up-front. Instead you need to put the basic tools in place, and then devote resources to progressively applying those tools to solving things that really affect your business performance or employee experiences. Pick a problem, improve it in a sprint, then iterate or move on.

5. Measurement

Too often in our digital workplaces, we tend to measure what the tools want to tell us rather than purposefully setting out to get answers to the questions that matter.

The final hidden component in any successful digital workplace is creating actionable feedback loops. Often this won’t be a number from a single source, but a blending of quantitative and qualitative insights. For example, if we want to improve the resolution of customer complaints, we might track the time it takes to close a ticket, but we should also monitor customer ratings and comments on their experience. Even better, we might start to measure upstream activities that will help future performance, such as how many helpdesk staff have taken relevant eLearning modules or how well our knowledge base of solutions is growing.

As you can see, none of these are about the technology. They are, however, about recognising that there are multiple soft factors to success. It can be hard to make changes when the funding isn’t there (that knowing-doing gap), but it is possible before you start on a project to say “what outcomes do we want?” and then “what ongoing budget will we need to sustain those outcomes?”.

This article was originally published over at 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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