rubiks cube
A digital workplace introduces a number of wicked problems. Solving them requires a new approach PHOTO: Cubmundo

Building an enterprise-wide digital workplace strategy based on one of the many promising proofs-of-concept available has resulted in a flood of schematic diagrams adorned with enough arrows and interrelated graphics to cause headaches among even the most stalwart. 

The outcomes of 10 benchmarking projects by the Digital Workplace Group highlight the achievements and challenges of such undertakings. 

To me, digital workplace adoption falls under the category of "wicked problems." 

A 1973 Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber paper entitled "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning" sets out the basis for what they regarded as "wicked problems," which were those beyond the capacity of traditional methods to resolve. In particular, they believed linear project management methodologies could not address wicked problems because of the multi-dimensional nature of the problems at hand.

Digital workplace and intranet consultant Chris Tubb provides a good introduction both to wicked problems in general and the impact on digital workplaces in particular.

Maintaining a Delicate Workplace Balance

One of the current issues is we are restricting discussion about digital workplaces to "special cases." In this instance, special case means one where everyone speaks English, there are no time or culture zones, the company is homogenous (no subsidiaries to confuse the strategy), the business case is self-evident and the solution lies in installing as many enterprise networking and collaboration tools as possible — in other words, a technology-first solution.

Over the last 25 years much of my work has involved talking to employees at all levels and locations of an organization in order to develop information, intranet and search strategies. These experiences indicate that organizations are held together by very delicate threads, usually based around the level of trust that employees place in their manager, and their manager’s manager. 

When word goes out that an organization is investing in better collaboration tools that take advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning, this delicate balance comes under threat. I have yet to hear an employee group complaining to the Board that they need better IT, and that is increasingly unlikely if their own careers are placed in jeopardy by the incoming IT solutions.

Multiple Digital Workplace Challenges

Researcher and analyst Jane McConnell is who I turn to when seeking an independent voice in the digital workplace space. She has tracked the emergence of the digital workplace on a global basis since 2011. 

In a recent column, McConnell considers the issues that arise due to separation between desk-less and desk-based workers and between the center and the edges of the organization. She also performed a quick poll, asking over 100 people to identify their toughest “how challenges.” 

The top challenge, cited by over 50 percent of respondents, was how to develop and cultivate a mindset of collaboration, cooperation and sharing in their organizations, followed close behind (at just under 50 percent) by how to make it easier for people to find what they need to do their jobs.

Wicked Problems Can Be Solved

Just because a problem is "wicked" doesn't mean it can't be solved. It just needs a different set of tools

Consultant and strategist Brook Manville offers leaders some good advice on their role in tackling these wicked problems. And professor John Camillus provides a set of tools in the Harvard Business Review to tackle the wicked problem of strategy development which are relevant to digital workplaces. Camillus also argues that not only do conventional processes fail to tackle wicked problems, but they may exacerbate situations by generating undesirable consequences. He notes, 

“wicked problems often crop up when organizations have to face constant change or unprecedented challenges. They occur in a social context; the greater the disagreement among stakeholders, the more wicked the problem. In fact, it’s the social complexity of wicked problems as much as their technical difficulties that make them tough to manage.”

That is precisely the issue we now face with digital workplaces. We have a preoccupation with the technology and little sense of the social complexity that a digital workplace introduces, or the threat many employees feel as a result of such tools.

High-level leadership is clearly important. But the problem lies in both getting to a strategy from a number of initiatives and also in moving beyond a strategy to wide-scale adoption — both wicked problems.

Finding a solution to a wicked problem first requires you accept it is indeed wicked. McConnell provides a 10-point check list which can help you understand what your organization is up against. 

Once you and your colleagues understand the scale of the challenge in your own organization, the solutions will emerge all the more quickly.