A Path to a Digital Workplace

A few tips for those heading down this road…

What is a digital workplace?

Digital workplace is a term that has over past several years attempts to describe and define the evolution of how the majority of workers interact with the applications and systems they use to do their jobs. Most definitions of digital workplace include to varying degrees of focus on intranets and communication and collaboration systems. Some definitions are very broad and encompass every application and system that the organization’s workers use. For me, I think the most appropriate definition falls somewhere in between. There should be a defined “core” of applications that are instrumental to a digital workplace and that are used by a majority of employees, and there should be a mechanism for cohesive coexistence for applications that go beyond what most workers will use.

This way of describing a digital workplace then focuses on prime productivity applications and universal (or near universal) systems used by most employees, such as HR, service request, and employee recognition systems. Defining what digital workplace means to an organization does not have to be a once and done undertaking. The digital workplace will evolve as technologies, capabilities, and work norms evolve. The boundaries (or lack thereof) an organization puts around their digital workplace should grow correspondingly.

Why do we need a digital workplace?

There are numerous benefits that could be discussed (and debated) that come from embracing digital workplaces; however, I think a simple, rational approach is to focus on productivity gains as well as meeting the needs of the emerging workforce. I call these reasons simple not because they are easy to do, but because they represent a very common sense logic that doesn’t require a lot of explanation. It is indisputable that computers have revolutionized the way work gets done. Computing power has exponentially grown over the past several decades and we now have as much capacity and power in handheld devices that fit in our pockets as did the most state of the art machines of the past that consumed entire rooms. Technology, computers, and the applications that run on them make us more productive. That’s why technology is being interwoven in nearly every aspect of our lives.

Beyond the obvious advancements in productivity that computers have brought, the second common sense compelling reason to embrace the digital workplace is because workers of the near future are only accustomed to this way of interacting, collaborating, and communicating. Millennials will make up a majority of the workforce by 2020, and they have grown up digital. The Gen Z group after them have never known a non-digital world with many using computers since before they could speak.

Quite frankly, organizations that do not embrace the move to a digital workplace are going to grow stagnant and eventually will be overtaken by their competitors and disruptors. We’ve seen a similar type of failure to adapt playout with Kodak, Blockbuster, and the parade of big box retailers suffering from the domination of Amazon.

What is needed to make it real?

Shifting to a digital workplace isn’t as simple as making a decision or cutting a one-time check to a big consulting firm or technology partner. It takes a combination of people, process, and technology to make the move toward a digital workplace. Specifically, you need to make adjustments in those three areas if you are going to seriously take on this endeavor.

Technology is obviously a big part of what makes a digital workplace digital. Large companies often suffer from aged software and enterprise-class applications that weren’t built to play well with others. Modernizing legacy systems such as those isn’t easy or cheap; however, it has to be done. What’s more, it isn’t a one-time investment that is needed. New models of deploying enterprise applications must be sought out and embraced that will enable the digital workplace to remain current and relevant. As soon as you take a break, you get left behind. The technology used in the digital workplace has to be ever-evolving and advancing to harness new capabilities and modes of work. You can’t take months or years to deploy software that by the time you are able to release to your workforce the software is already multiple versions behind.

Processes must shift as well. Both on how you deliver technology and how that technology is used. The latter is a lengthy process of adoption and adaptation. Neither of which can happen if you can’t streamline the process to approve, fund, design, build, test, and implement applications supporting the digital workplace. This isn’t always easy in large organizations. Today, you probably have to ask for permission to build every “widget.” To be able to shift work to meet current changing demands, to improve your speed to market, and to enable continuous improvement by working through a backlog of feature enhancements — you need permission to build a widget factory. This is the difference between looking at each work item as a project versus looking at the whole as a program. If funding happens at the individual project level instead of at the program level, you don’t really have a program. You have a series of projects that are related but are not governed or executed in the most effective and efficient manner possible.

People are at the heart of executing a vision of a digital workplace. There needs to be a shared, common vision with lock-step alignment between all of the groups necessary to see it through. As much as is possible, the groups involved need to work as a unified team. There can’t be competing priorities among the various groups. If you can’t get all the right people on the same team, then I suggest exploring a Center of Excellence (COE) concept. While a COE won’t solve every ill, it could go a long way to establishing clear roles and responsibilities along with shared objectives and goals for the various teams that are at the core of your efforts. Another key ingredient on the people front is ensuring your Employees are trained and experienced from an administrative standpoint with the new tools they are implementing, that they know how to execute the new processes and methods used to deploy them, and that they have a passion for bringing these types of tools to the enterprise.

What are the first steps?

First off, you need a vision to move in this direction. It may not be complete. It will probably get tweaked and improved as more stakeholders get involved. And, it will definitely need more visibility and buy-in. It’s going to need to be formalized and the activities supporting it are going to be governed. That’s all great, but ignore that for now and go write a vision statement.

You are also going to need to set out broad objectives and put forth strategies for meeting those objectives. Again, these can be refined, improved, and need broader visibility and support. Just get something on paper for now; you can (and will) refine it later.

You may need to get some help in putting the vision, objectives, strategies, and plans together. That’s fine too. If you can, get a firm that isn’t tied to any particular solution. Let them help you refine your needs and ultimate direction you want to go. Then start talking seriously to vendors. If you don’t know what you want and need, everything they are selling will sound good.

It’s a long and winding path but taking the time to ensure you have alignment on what awaits you at your destination, the pace you are going to take to get there, and who will be along for the ride will go a long way to making it an enjoyable journey.


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