There has been much buzz lately about the results from a study by McKinsey Global Institute, which estimated that knowledge worker productivity could potentially be increased with 20-25 percent with use of social technologies. Whether or not these figures are realistic or not, they point to the great potential for improving knowledge work and how social technologies can play a key role in unlocking that potential.

It's clear that to realize even a tiny bit of the potential hinted at in the study, we cannot continue being blinded by technology, putting technology first and people second. The failure of technology-centric approaches was recently illustrated by the findings of the 4th annual IT Adoption Insight Report produced by Oracle UPK together with Neochange. The study found that technology-centric organizations spend 2 to 3 times as much money on technology than organizations taking a more user-centric approach, yet the latter proved to be more profitable, indicating there is substantial ROI in becoming more user-centric.

The failure of the technology-centric approach to improving knowledge work is a major reason why new concepts such as “Digital Workplace” have a reason for existence. The Digital Workplace encourages us to take a more holistic approach when designing the digital work environment for an organization’s workforce. Rather than focusing on the individual solutions and tools such as intranet sites, collaboration tools, communication tools and productivity tools, we need to start with identifying the needs of the organization and its people and take a holistic approach to designing their digital workplace.

Questions such as “Should we replace our intranet with a social networking platform” are totally irrelevant and symptoms of technology-centric thinking that will be a sure path to failure. What we should think about instead is what capabilities a digital workplace needs to provide the organization and the people it should serve. These capabilities should be made available to people as services, designed to fit different usage situations, enabling them to get things done in the most efficient and effective way (see illustration below).

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In this article I will highlight and take a closer look at six capabilities that should be the core of the digital workplace for many organizations.

1. Coordinating

Workspace awareness is about our ability to monitor and keep track of what’s happening at work: who is doing what, who is interacting with whom, whose turn it is to contribute, and so on. Having workspace awareness is essential if you are to coordinate your work with other people’s work.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that creating workspace awareness, and thus coordinating work, becomes a challenge in a distributed and complex work environment. At the same time, the need for effective coordination among different teams becomes increasingly important as the interdependencies between teams as well as the pace of change increase.

The problem is that many current digital work environments primarily have been designed for personal productivity, focusing on supporting individual tasks and less on the coordination of tasks and fundamentals such as creating workspace awareness. Ironically this has contributed to making people less productive and feeling isolated and disengaged.

What is lacking in most digital work environments is a really intelligent system that helps people quickly build workspace awareness and makes work visible. To help individuals and teams create workspace awareness that simplifies coordination, awareness tools such as activity streams can be introduced. Besides signaling to people so they know when it is their time to contribute, an activity stream can help them discover relevant information and external dependencies that they need to be aware off.

In other words, an activity stream can help to reduce workplace uncertainty so that people can make the required decisions and take action. Activity streams can also help to decrease workplace isolation. In a large and dispersed workforce, awareness tools can help bring people closer to each other and make them feel less isolated.

2. Finding People

"At the very least, our systems should help us find each other"

-- Ross Mayfield, founder of SocialText

Finding the right people is one of the most common needs in organizations and sometimes a very difficult task in a big organization. The bigger and more distributed an organization gets, the harder it is to know who is working for the same organization, what they know and what, how and where they could contribute.

The first step in getting to know someone and building a relationship is to be aware about that person's existence. This makes discovery tools important. If our systems can help us discover other people we could benefit from knowing about, maybe because they share a common interest with us or possess a skill that we might be in need of, chances are we will get much better at matching the right person for the right job. Doing so is a key to success in a business. Otherwise they might be wasting their talent and skills on something they are not suited for, and you might miss out on having person on your project that could be the difference between your team's success and failure.

Rich profiles are necessary components in solutions for finding and discovering people. Rich profiles give employees the ability to create an online presentation of themselves and their skills, interests, education, memberships and so forth. At the very least, a rich profile should include a photo of each employee.

The importance of a simple thing like adding a photo of yourself so that colleagues who don’t know you can put a face to your name cannot be stressed enough. For one thing, the photo will make it easier to remember your name and seeing the individual behind the name. You will become familiar to them, making it easier for you to have textual conversations.

3. Networking

In their research paper “Productivity Effects of Information Diffusion in Networks,” Aral, Brynjolfsson and Van Alstyne showed that people's social networks are very important to the information system in an organization as their networks “strongly influence information diffusion … and access to novel information.”

Information diffusion in organizations follows the structure of our relationships with each other, and having access to the right tools for building and maintaining relationships as well as for disseminating information through our social networks can have significant impact on the effectiveness of an organization’s information system.

An MIT study from 2009 by A. Pentland (pdf) showed that employees with the most extensive digital networks are 7 percent more productive than their colleagues. Another study from 2009, sponsored by NEHRA and Partnering Resources, set out to answer the question of whether or not networking actually makes a difference for the success or failure of change initiatives. The study found that 73 percent of the least successful change initiatives were led by people described as having moderate or weak personal networks, and that 93 percent of the successful change initiatives were led by leaders with strong or very strong personal networks.

Networking evidently makes a difference, and a very positive one, both for our individual performance and our collective performance as an organization. “Your network is your pension,” as a colleague of mine use to say. This is why providing social networking capabilities shouldn’t be considered optional for a digital workplace that is to serve a large and distributed workforce and where collaboration and sharing of information and knowledge is important, if not imperative, to success.

These capabilities can be brought to people using a variety of different services. As an example, community services that connect people with similar interests, jobs or needs across geographic and organizational structures can lead to increased knowledge sharing and learning among the community members. When connected to processes and people’s daily tasks, such services also have the potential to simplify anything from managing exceptions and solving problems to continuous improvement and innovation management. 

4. Meeting

The more distributed and specialized the workforce becomes, the harder it becomes for individuals to meet in person. The more work we have on us to do in shorter time, the less space we have in our calendars to meet. Paradoxically, as work is becoming increasingly interdependent, we need to have more meetings with more people. Under these conditions the only solution to satisfy this need is to meet virtually.

The digital workplace needs to provide services that allow people to meet, talk, get to know each other and do things together as the situation requires. Since many meetings will need to happen outside projects, processes and existing organizational units or teams, there must also be ways for people to create spaces, transient or semi-permanent, where these meetings can take place.

In general, physical face-to-face meetings are more effective than virtual meetings. Thus it makes sense to create a digital meeting environment that include many of the "features" of the physical face-to-face meetings: the possibility to make eye contact, the interactivity, the ability to use body language and facial expressions, and so forth. Video, voice and desktop sharing are features that take virtual meetings in that direction.

Besides enabling virtual meetings between people separated by geography and organization, the digital workplace should help people to be seen and discovered by each other and to get recognized for what they know and do. By bringing people together it can also help to create and maintain a sense of belonging among the individuals in the workforce, resulting in a more engaged workforce than otherwise would be the case.

5. Communicating

Plenty of research has showed that the more people communicate, the better. The Allen Curve, discovered in the late seventies by Thomas J. Allen, revealed that the communication frequency between two engineers drops exponentially as the distance between them increases. The critical distance seems to be just about 50 meters -- if people are further away from each other their communication more or less breaks down.

The MIT study by Pentland mentioned earlier in this article also showed that 40 percent of the productivity of creative teams is directly related to the amount of communication they have with others to discover, gather and internalize information.

In these days when it is impossible for all the people who need to work together to be in close proximity to each other, we obviously have to look at ways to create virtual proximity; ways for people to stay close to each other in the virtual sense, using digital tools. Social networking, easy sharing of rich media such as photos and videos, activity streams, presence indicators, instant messaging, connectivity everywhere and mobile access all contribute to creating a sense of virtual proximity.

For employee-to-employee communication there has, until recently, been few digital tools available to employees other than email and, to some extent, Instant Messaging. The intranet has primarily been a place for corporate communications and distribution of formal information such as policies, process descriptions and employee handbooks. Little room has been given to employees on intranets.

Despite being able to comment on corporate news and participate in discussion forums, the intranet has been the least natural place for employees to discuss work-related issues. This lack of open platforms with spaces for employee-to-employee communication dedicated to specific work-related subjects has definitely contributed to the overuse of email that is so common in organizations. 

6. Sharing

"You can't manage knowledge. Knowledge is between two ears, and only between two ears."
-- Peter F. Drucker

Knowledge not shared is knowledge lost. When we don't share what we know, the knowledge stays with us and leave the company with us. When we do share what we know, others can participate and help to develop and maintain a much richer body of knowledge than the one we possess ourselves, in our brains. When we share and use the knowledge we have to create something together, the results will in most cases be much better than we could have accomplished on our own.

Although sharing knowledge should be voluntary, we should make it as easy to share as possible. Making sharing the default option is the first step to making sharing easier. It doesn't just encourage sharing, but it will also encourage participation, as people can join a team, community or network to learn or contribute without requesting and waiting for someone’s approval first.

There will always be someone, usually the one who is "in power," saying that you will risk having people "crashing the party" and either running away with information without crediting the creators or destroying it. But we can rest assure that those instances will be the extremely rare case. We always overvalue the risk with openness and undervalue the value of openness.

How to Make the Digital Workplace Happen

The Digital Workplace approach is a way to understand the bigger picture from a business- and people-oriented perspective, instead of taking the opposite approach where you focus on technologies or products and then try to make them fit together. So how do you make the Digital Workplace happen? How do you eat the elephant?

First of all, everybody within an organization has a stake in the Digital Workplace. If you have read the old story about the elephant and the blind men, then you will most likely understand the value of bringing stakeholders and people with different perspectives and expertise together to create the vision of the Digital Workplace. It cannot be created by one department alone or by a select few experts. It has to engage the whole organization, although through representatives.

Secondly, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Most cities have evolved over hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years. Ok, it won’t take that long to build the Digital Workplace.

Or rather, just like a city, it will never be finished; the Digital Workplace is a process rather than a product. It should evolve, with capabilities and services being introduced step by step, in an iterative fashion, following clearly prioritized business and user needs. We need to establish continuous improvement of knowledge work in the same way as we do in factories and production lines, continuously improving practices, services and capabilities. This is the opposite from the typical product- and technology-centric approach where you try to solve all problems in a flash by introducing a new platform in a big bang deployment.

The painful truth that you will wake up to one day after launching a new intranet or social collaboration platform is that there are no silver bullets, no quick fixes and no magic pills. The Digital Workplace is a journey, and as such, it shouldn’t end until your organization no longer has a reason for existence.

Editor's Note: To read more of Oscar Berg's thoughts on the digital workplace:

-- The Digital Workplace: Social Integration Through Activity Streams