Who works for your organization?

Employees probably come to mind first, but usually there are also contractors, contingent or seasonal workers, some consultants, agencies that you outsource to, partner organizations or even whole service departments like payroll that are outsourced.

All of these people contribute to what you do and represent a spectrum of relationships. But often our digital workplaces fail to reflect these nuances, instead reducing it to a black or white, “inside the firewall or out.”

This means that those inside, such as contractors who may work for a competitor the week after, could see more than they should. Those outside are hampered by a keyhole-view of your information. This often results in requests for documents to be emailed by someone on the inside.


Caption: Work doesn’t stop at the firewall. From The Digital Workplace Manifesto

The Permeable Digital Workplace

To cope with more subtle relationships, our digital workplaces need degrees of permeability. Without it, we fall back on email attachments as the lowest common denominator for collaboration, with all the associated horrors of version control and "file too large" bounce backs. No wonder employees resort to unofficial solutions such as Dropbox -- it’s not that they don’t care about security, it’s just that they want to get the job done.

A well-planned digital workplace should consider the following questions:

  1. What types of collaboration do we need with each party? Is it just file transfer, or are there many iterations with multiple channels?
  2. How enduring is the collaboration? Will it be an ongoing service that you are outsourcing or something with a clear end-point?
  3. What do they need to understand about our company to be effective? If they were a regular employee, what information would they use to make the right decisions?
  4. Who needs to own the information? If a partner offers to supply a collaboration space, what controls do we need around future access? For example, will it be auditable in three years time?
  5. If we provide a collaboration space to work with a partner or customer, what support process will we need to have? Will there be a dedicated help desk that the partner can call if they hit problems?

For large-scale outsourcing such as payroll, these questions typically get addressed, but that's not the case for all supplier-customer relationships or fixed-term projects -- and this is where much of the growth is in the marketplace.

Cultural Permeability and the Outsourcing Overhead

Do you always use the same contractor, not because they’re the best fit for the work, but because the overhead of working with someone new is too much to contemplate?

A virtue of making it quick and easy to extend your digital workplace (read: as quick as setting up a Google Drive or Dropbox space) is that it becomes viable for even short-term engagements. This in turn gives the organization additional agility when it comes to selecting suppliers.

But bear in mind the overheads beyond the paperwork: what else does it take for someone to work effectively with your organization? They need to understand how you get things done, and that means values, working culture, terminology, your operating framework, etc.

Richard Adelstein in The Rise of the Megacorporation argues that large companies came about as the only practical way to coordinate labor on a large scale in the 19th century. We’ve moved beyond that now, but we do still need to overcome the friction of new relationships. We might refer to this as "induction" or Forming-Norming-Storming (Tuckman), but we can’t bypass it just because the people we're working with lack traditional employee status. Instead, we need our digital workplace to help make this more efficient. For example:

  • Giving access to events and employee culture through corporate news and discussions: Walmart has WalmartOne, open to the public, but aimed at colleagues and associates. Ikea too set up co-worker portals not just for employees, but for their families to use for pension and healthcare benefit transactions.
  • Scalable onboarding processes: NNE Pharmaplan’s onboarding solution is based around e-Learning and gamification and could easily be extended to non-employees.

Security Concerns

Managing security -- or more precisely, access control -- around this isn’t easy. As a consultant, I see how time-consuming it sometimes is for my client contact to set up access to view their intranet for example, even when the intranet itself is only approved for content at the lowest security rating. Sometimes the process is undefined and falls back on personal relationships to "get things done."  It all soaks up time and delays getting the actual work started.

Typically, if it is inefficient to get someone in, it is also inefficient to take them out again, leading to access lingering on long after people have moved on.

We also need management tools that are meaningful to content owners. We struggle with this. Even on a personal level it has taken Facebook many iterations to get to the point where it can clearly answer, “who can see my stuff?” In the workplace, it is hard for the IT guy that runs Active Directory to know what access is appropriate, so having a clear way to show the content owner a list of who can see what and why helps.

Who Works for Your Organization?

Organizations operate in a network of relationships with both individuals and other organizations. The more you can reduce the overheads in establishing productive relationships, the more freedom you have to select the best partner for the job and to get to work quickly. Your digital workplace has a key role to play in this.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  keith ellwood