team meeting
Just as multiple stakeholders influence the evolution of a town, a digital workplace relies on multiple people to succeed PHOTO: wocintechchat.com

Digital workplace leadership is largely a hands-off role. 

It is up to executives to set a vision, then step back and let the organization determine the program.

It Takes a Village

When it comes to digital workplace design, I often use the analogy of town planning. 

If someone asked you “who owns your town?” you’d probably answer “it belongs to the people.” But when asked who influences it, then the city council, major businesses and transport and utilities service providers will also come into view.  

My fellow columnist Steve Bynghall argues “Who owns the digital workplace?” is the wrong question, as it is an “ensemble effort” between stakeholders. He’s right — a digital workplace cannot be centrally planned. 

If you look at how a town evolves, it is usually through a mix of policy, planning, serendipity and citizen choices. While elections impact a town's trajectory, towns grow or decline by people opting to move in and invest, both financially and emotionally. So towns are not micro-planned from the top. 

A local business may grow rapidly, providing jobs and sponsoring events, leading to growth without any credit due to city planners. Similarly, citizens might re-generate a neighborhood through their own endeavors. Yet policymakers can and should have an influence that is driven by a vision.

Digital Workplace's Supporting Role

In digital workplace terms, executive leaders cultivate the vision for the organization. The digital workplace needs to be designed and executed in a way that is consistent with that vision. 

Note I’m not saying top leaders should set a vision for the digital workplace. Trying to establish a digital workplace vision can lead to spirals of pain about the business case. The business case for a digital workplace is that it supports business objectives — it's that simple. 

Once this link is established, the role of leaders is to provide resources and ensure decisions and policy are consistent with the digital workplace execution. For example, it’s no good saying the company should be more innovative and signing off on an innovation-management system if the process itself isn’t resourced.

Back to our analogy. If a town wants to boost industry, it may give incentives to encourage factory building even if it means intruding on an historic site. But if it wants to be a tourist destination, this may be detrimental and they would zone for cafes and museums instead. 

Neither choice is intrinsically good or bad. The decision lies in which one is consistent with the town vision, and the policies need to drive each small step in this direction too. 

building a digital workplace is like building a town
Think of digital workplace design as you would town planning: it involves a lot of stakeholders united by a common vision

A Digital Workplace Framework

A while back I introduced a framework for the digital workplace. It covers 10 dimensions. Five are about digital workplace capabilities:

  1. Communication and engagement
  2. Collaboration
  3. Finding and sharing
  4. Business applications
  5. Agile/Flexible working

And five are about management competencies:

  1. Strategy
  2. Governance and operations
  3. Adoption
  4. User Experience
  5. Technology and security

The capabilities are like planning the content of the town — its transport, open spaces, libraries and business zones. The competencies are the equivalent of the policy framework for what you can and can’t do within the town. 

This is important because most of the execution of the digital workplace will be about using the capabilities in ways that may not have been anticipated in the initial discovery phase. Indeed, it is rare that an up-front requirements gathering exercise unearths use cases that accurately capture what happens a year or so later.

A Practical Example

For example, one of our clients wanted to improve the project management practice across their European operations. We helped them understand the knowledge management processes involved, and set them up to use a combination of Yammer and SharePoint. Yammer was used to share ideas and experience, SharePoint was used to make knowledge assets more accessible. There was a strong interplay: templates on SharePoint would be discussed and refined on Yammer; pilot ideas on Yammer would be refined and standardized in the SharePoint project methodology library. 

None of this solution was planned top-down or sanctioned by senior leaders. Frankly, the need and solution would not have been visible to them. Instead, the organization had set a vision for improving how it bring products to market more consistently. It had also provided collaboration capabilities. Our role was to help the project office determine how they could support that vision and then apply the collaboration capabilities to a specific way of working.

Different Forms of Leadership

People often argue that leaders need to visibly champion digital workplace changes. They do, but the power of their support derives not from their authority but from their visibility. When leaders highlight a new way of working, it's a form of celebrity endorsement because they have the attention of employees. 

Few employees expect senior leadership to use digital workplace tools in the same way they do: the tasks of leaders are quite different. For example, most knowledge workers rely heavily on enterprise search, but leaders don’t use search engines, they search via admin teams. 

This isn’t to say a digital workplace doesn’t need leadership. But it often comes not from leaders in the hierarchy, but natural leaders within a group, such as subject matter experts or innovators influencing how collaboration tools are used.

Senior leadership endorsements aren't about mandating behavior. As I’ve argued with enterprise social networks, the change comes because people subscribe to the vision, not because they are told to do it. Otherwise, can you imagine the memo? 

“From now on we will be a creative culture, open to challenge and honesty … and if anyone disagrees, they’re fired." 

Create the town plan. Then watch how the people who live there bring it to life.