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The myth of the digital workplace hub

The myth of the digital workplace hub

“I just want one place to go for everything” is something I often hear from employees when talking about their digital workplace. Often, too, you’ll hear software vendors and consultants talk about intranets (and more recently Microsoft Teams) as being a ‘digital workplace hub’, a ‘single pane of glass’ or an ‘enterprise front door’. On the surface it sounds appealing because it sounds simple, but I reckon that if you ever achieved it, you wouldn’t want it. It’s a bit like how a ‘one stop shop’ sounds like a convenience store but turns out to be a mega-mart. 

What a digital workplace hub looks like

Usually when people pitch the idea of a single entry-point, they visualise it something like this:

Multiple systems (Dropbox, Workday, ADP, SharePoint) linked as spokes to a digital workplace hub.
The ‘single entry point’ myth of a digital workplace Hub 

The implication is that everything routes through one place, usually an intranet. But if it was real would be very limiting. For example, if I’m on Yammer and want to share a photo from Dropbox, I’d like Yammer to access it directly, and not have to fire up a hub to make that happen. So in practice things are already much messier, but also more networked (we might call it an ‘internal net’, or ‘InterNet’ for short… remember you heard that here first).

Nobody starts from the same entry point

A second problem with the hub concept is that people working in different roles will want different start points. An engineer using a CAD system every day isn’t going to fire up an intranet first to click on the link in the ‘Tools’ menu (even if it is seductively called ‘Quick Links’). A sales representative will have Salesforce open first thing, they don’t need another system to get there. Moreover, each user type probably doesn’t even want to see all those other tools. Their digital workplace world looks more like this:

User with 3 bands of application 1) always-open tools 2) regular tools for collaboration with others 3) infrequent tools e.g. employee services.
Each user will have a small set of ‘always open’ tools which vary according to their job. The rest of their digital workplace will include semi-frequent and infrequent tools.

Software vendors might argue that with personalisation that’s what their system does. But remember people are bypassing that personalisation layer and doing it for themselves on their device desktop or home screen.

Hubs are fragile

I’m assuming that a hub is doing more than just linking out, so that users interact via the hub rather than going into another app. There’s definitely an economy in having a layer that brokers connections so that you only need an API between every system and every other system. However, there are also multiple downsides to a hub and spoke approach:

  • It’s a single point of failure – if the hub breaks you can’t do anything
  • It will be a poor UX as the hub interface isn’t optimised for each use case
  • Although there are many systems that have lots of connectors (e.g. Teams, Slack, Zapier) there isn’t a single solution that covers all bases.

If there’s one thing the internet has taught us, it’s that a centralised approach is less desirable than a distributed one.

Is Microsoft Teams a digital workplace hub?

As everyone is talking about MS Teams at the moment, some of that talk is pitching Teams as the new digital workplace hub. After all, it has several hundred connectors and the ability to surface content from other applications on tabs.

There’s certainly value in this as a way to make some tasks slicker. A team working on customer problems may pull in a tab showing helpdesk tickets for example. But to me this is creating a specific dashboard and not a universal hub. 

As soon as you try to add in all the infrequent systems, then Teams becomes a mess because it doesn’t readily support the kind of signposting you need when in unfamiliar territory. Sure you can embed an intranet home page into Teams, but that’s superficial – it’s no more integrated than saying your browser is a hub because everything you do is in the cloud.

The second limitation of Teams as the universal entry point is that it only works if all of your workforce has jobs that require Teams to be routinely open. For many roles Teams will be an infrequent tool – frontline workers, specialists, and those in operational roles are much more likely to ‘live’ in a system designed specifically for their workflow, and only drop into Teams when needed.

The problem hubs try to solve

So let’s backtrack and consider that problem a hub is a ‘solution’ for. There are multiple pain-points in our digital workplaces that are very real:

  • too many places to monitor for updates, so employees lose track of what is happening
  • fragmented content making it hard to get information to make a decision
  • too many interfaces to learn
  • too many options for ‘what to use when’

The ‘front door’ metaphor works when you are new and need signposting, or when you are doing something infrequent, such as changing a pension plan. In this scenario you want to know what the start point is to begin looking. It’s like when you go to a shopping mall the first time and you use the main entrance to look at the map. After that, if you know you want the pharmacy, you go straight in via the side door that’s much quicker.

A better vision than a hub

I’d like to propose a more adaptable way to address the problems hubs try to solve: 

Same services in first image, collated into a user view via a search and notification layer
A digital workplace integrated through search and notifications rather than a hub

  1. Flexible entry points. We should let people choose the entry-point that suits their work. This is where they will be focussed and is the thing they will fire up first, like the icons you put on the first screen of your phone. It happens at the operating system level.
  2. Aggregated notifications. We should then support the challenge of keeping track of updates by aggregating notifications. It is knowing what to attend to, rather than having everything in one place that is the issue. At the moment too many notifications still appear as emails with links; we can do better by making the notification an actionable card, for example to approve and expense or confirm a discount. If the response is more involved then it is OK to take someone into an interface that has been optimised for that task. 
  3. Proper search. Rather than trying to bring everything into one place to make it easier to find things, we need to get much better at indexing multiple sources and presenting unified search results
  4. Signposting for infrequent tools and information. Notifications and search don’t work when someone needs to use a service for the first time and doesn’t know the name or what the options are. In this scenario, an intranet or other presentation-rich tool works well.

If all that aggregation still sounds like a hub, then let me emphasise the final point: having put all these connections in place, we should then surface them wherever makes sense to the individual, and that may vary across work styles in the same organisation. For people that work all the time in MS Teams, the notifications may appear there alongside chat and task notifications. For frontline workers your universal search may exist in a dedicated employee app, and for others it may be an  overlay that sometimes they access in the browser, and sometimes as an app.

This post originally appeared over at CMSWire.com

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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