dictionary in a public library
Do we all mean the same thing when we say "digital workplace"? PHOTO: Trevor

Another day, another business term.

At times it feels as if in our constant push for reinvention within our workplaces, all we succeed in doing is slapping new names on old concepts.

Other times, new concepts come along that require a common definition in order to move forward. 

A recent conversation on Twitter with business strategist (and fellow Canadian) Molly Anglin (@mollyanglin) about digital workplaces and how we use language to define concepts prompted me to rethink what we mean when we say "digital workplace." 

Anglin works for the Toronto-based consultancy Non-Linear Creations and wrote a great article describing the phenomena of “Defining The Damn Thing” or DTDT within the framework of defining digital transformation, the digital workplace and intranets.  

What's in a Name?

The conversation was highly reminiscent of discussions I've had over the years with peers in the Enterprise Content Management (ECM) industry. 

Fellow CMSWire contributor Lawrence Hart (@piewords) and I have butted heads in this area, with me asserting that we need a clear definition of ECM to engage with non-industry insiders, the mere mortals who use the technologies and Hart arguing that putting concepts into action took precedence over defining the concept (although I seem to remember he was key in campaigning for the AIIM definition to be updated). 

Almost every industry comes up against this.

We've been through the DTDT loop with the ECM industry, and Knowledge Management has more definitions than a normal person can fathom. While Hart's point that definitions sometimes risk turning business communications into an academic pursuit has merit, I believe clear communications necessitates careful use of language. 

Language development is what fired up the capabilities of our species, it allowed us to describe complex concepts to one another. In order to communicate clearly, we must have common definitions — within our group of related industries, within our industry groups — that we agree on.

Getting to the Bottom of the Digital Workplace

Anglin writes that the simplest, non-technical definition of an intranet is a private internal network. General usage of the term by "normal people" (i.e. end users) has subverted it to mean the main internal web site or portal that is served up to them by default when they open a web browser. 

Some people appear to treat the digital workplace and the intranet as interchangeable terms — an internal private network that uses the suite of protocols used by the public internet. Others think the digital workplace consists of the old intranet plus new mobile tools, the defining element of the digital workplace being access to workplace tools from wherever you are. 

However I think it goes much further than that, as does the Digital Workplace Group, which has a nice definition page.

From Tools to Transformation

If we stick with the original definition of an intranet, then the old-fashioned term extranet might actually be expanded and used to describe all those cloud, or hosted systems that we use? I would go further, as shown in the diagram below:

digital workplace diagram
Trying to define the digital workplace
 

To me, the digital workplace consists not only of the intangible software and services we use, but also the tangible, physical devices that enable us to run the software and access the services. So your digital workplace may include your desktop computer, it may include the multi-functional devices you use to scan or print. 

Your digital workplace enables you to do your job. Your organization's digital workplace strategy enables business strategies, and those business strategies may include digital transformation initiatives, and so we are building a virtuous circle of digitization and digital transformation. 

How do you understand and use the term digital workplace in your organization? Or do you not use it at all, in which case what language do you use? How do you go about “defining the damn thing” to your business users?