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Why you can’t buy a digital workplace

Digital money

Why you can’t buy a digital workplace

Increasingly, I hear IT departments refer to their Office 365 programmes as being a ‘digital workplace’ initiative. Similarly, in my research for SharePoint Intranets In-a-box, I noticed several vendors calling their products a ‘digital workplace’. This is a worrying trend, because a digital workplace is not something you can buy and install.

Digital workplace is a concept, not a product

The primary reason you can’t just buy a digital workplace is that it is not a product but a description of an element of an organisation. We all have digital workplaces already, its just that they may not be intentionally designed.

The second reason is that the digital workplace concept is too broad for any single programme or product – even a wide-ranging suite like Office 365 – to cover. The risk of vendors and companies calling their activities ‘a digital workplace’ is that they effectively re-scope the concept to be something much narrower so that delivery becomes feasible. When we do this, the richness of the concept becomes lost and we risk missing out on the full set of elements needed to make it a success.

I saw this happen with ‘Knowledge Management’ as a concept too. It began as a lens through which to view an organisations’ operations and that was valuable. But when it became diluted by over-marketing to be associated with content management systems, the implementations started to fail and the concept lost credibility. I can see the same trough of disillusionment looming just round the corner for digital workplace if we don’t’ tread carefully.

Beyond what you can buy

My definition of a digital workplace  is that there are 10 elements.

Digital worplace capabilitiesThe five blue elements are capabilities that the digital workplace should deliver. There’s no prerequisite for how they should be delivered: communication in one company may be primarily by emails; in another it may be an employee app. The choices only matter only as far as they are the right design decisions for meeting the goals of the business and the expectations of employees.

The scope of the five element sis intentionally broad, because when you get digital workplace strategy right, you plan across all of these elements coherently. For example, if you are rolling out a new procurement system [Business Application], it means you also think about how people will be made aware of  procurement guidelines and want to follow them [Communicate & Engage], and how they might access the procurement system even when away from the office [Agile Working].

Right away you can see that no off-the-shelf system is going to make those decisions for you (and if they have, it means you’re handing over how you run your business to a software vendor).

Mind the gap

Secondly, you can see that when you go this broad, no single system is going to cover it all. If we narrow the scope of what we mean by ‘digital workplace’ then we omit some critical elements from our integration thinking. We create gaps in the user experience and the employees will fall between them.

For example, I reviewed the digital workplace of one client where the communication, collaboration and search elements had been well planned. However, HR had procured a learning management system (LMS) and felt that all they had to do to make it part of the digital workplace was to add a link on the intranet. What this meant was that none of the LMS content was indexed by the enterprise search. If somebody went to the intranet search box and typed “Project management methodology”, none of the LMS content would appear, so as an asset the LMS was under-utilised.

More encouragingly, some of the Office 365 add-on vendors are focusing more in integration with other employee service platforms. If this makes it easier to create cross-system dashboards and integrated alerts, then that is a positive step for digital workplace capabilities.

You still need to run the show

There’s another side to the risk of viewing a digital workplace as a product, and that’s that the management side will be under-resourced. Financially, it is tempting to focus on the technology side of the equation because it is much more tangible. Most financial models favour hard costs and tangible outcomes. In cognitive-bias speak, this is known as the ‘availability heuristic’ – our decisions are unduly influenced by the knowledge that if we don’t have the software, nothing will happen.

To overcome this, our planning needs instead to focus on the desired outcome. For example, if the outcome we want is to replicate good practice between teams, then the focus shifts away from the information sharing software and concentrates instead on the knottier issue of how to get people to share practice, to understand it and act on it.

When you attend to the outcomes, it may well turn out that 70% or more of the cost to achieve to actual goal is about people and processes rather than the technology. The benefits can be enormous, but sadly there’s no app for that.

A verison of this article was first 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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