Business adoption of social tools may be subject to debate. What is not, is its adoption of digital. Employees’ sense of their workplace, workmates and tools for getting work done is increasingly digital. This is true independently of how social a company is or is not.The vast majority of employees only hear from their leadership electronically, if at all. Similarly their primary or only relationship with many of their peers may now be digital.

The Workforce Diaspora

As companies chained, franchised, merged and globalized, it became common for workforces to span multiple locations and time zones. Add in workers in the field -- from construction crews to salespeople, teachers, firefighters, plumbers and real estate agents, not to mention free agents -- and the traditional sense of office building as workplace and primary connection to work and management has eroded considerably.

So -- how does leadership lead? How does even unenlightened management manage? How does this coveted sense of collaboration or esprit de corp emerge? How do we know who and what we work for? Primarily through technology. (This meme that the CIO role will be subsumed by the CMO is completely silly. While it may be true that all marketing is becoming tech, the inverse is not true at all. But that’s another story.)

What have we lost and gained in our physical dispersion? Where we once depended on proximity for leadership and esprit de corp, we at some point in the 1980s decided we could do without it, and more recently have realized the folly of that. Digital communications have been part of the scene these last 25 or 30 years, and are now being used to re-humanize the workplace across boundaries of geography and job types. The new digital workplace – the intranet – has replaced both the office building and the secretary as the primary source of information and familiarity with the company, its resources and its people.

A Subjective Technology Timeline

In exploring the rise of the digital workplace, I developed a slightly random timeline that coincidentally aligns roughly with my own curriculum vitae. Through it you can track the progress of major office technology, and think about the opportunities it created and how well -- or not -- business has adapted to them.

Learning Opportunities

Anno DominoFirst Release of...Why it kind of mattered...
  • Lotus 123
A precursor to Excel, it made accounting and planning vastly easier for office workers. Yellow screen. My first sighting was at an (awful) summer job that year.
1989Yes -- Word Perfect was first. Just like Betamax. And Rome.
  • First ISPs, allowing for domain email
Before this, universities and the military all had email. My first email address was in college. I had to go to the computer room to access it. Just as I had to do my programming there. At a terminal. Using vi.
  • Microsoft Office (including Excel, PowerPoint 2.0)
World domination begins here.
  • First release of AOL Instant Messenger
  • Outlook launches with Office
I worked at AOL from 1998-2001. It was actually kind of awesome and AIM was a fantastic collaboration tool (though I now use Skype).
  • Microsoft SharePoint
Should have stuck to Office.
  • SocialText 1.0
Which by 2008 was still clearly the best overall collaboration tool.
  • Confluence 1.0
  • Facebook Launches. Eventually people over 21 notice
  • First release of BaseCamp 
My first wiki. It sucked. It was a piece of garbage and it changed everything. The developers at Adobe, who was paying my mortgage at the time, thought everyone should be using it.
  • First Google Docs release
  • IBM Connections 1.0
Still almost good enough.
  • Dropbox, Yammer (note that Twitter launched in 2006)
  • Enterprise 2.0 by Andrew McAfee published
  • Jostle Corp Founded
Yes, I am VP of Marketing at Jostle.
  • Jive 1.0
Biggest and best marketing budget in the industry.
2011 - today
  • Hundreds of social collaboration, social enterprise companies
  • Poor level of clarity
  • “Social” collaboration on down slope of hype-cycle

An Opportunity to Develop

So what do we want now? How do we make dispersion -- even within the corporate headquarters --an asset rather than a curse? What do we gain in the digital workplace?

  1. The chance to expand impact and intimacy of leadership. Leadership is best effected up close and personal. It makes it a bit difficult to scale -- especially in these days where we expect our leaders to pull information from the team and help to connect the dots, while continually refining and retelling our corporate narrative such that we continue to believe in the mission and impact of our labors. New intranets -- digital workplaces -- give leaders the chance to formally and informally rub digi-elbows with the broader workforce. Whether that leader is the CEO or the enterprising woman in marketing who has ideas.
  2. The chance to connect the fabric of interests, awareness and expertise that is the workforce so that opportunities and challenges are optimally identified and addressed. To dynamically absorb new people and adjust to the pace and complexity of the environment.
  3. The chance to work purposefully in teams toward a specific goal.
  4. The opportunity to build the community of the organization -- a shared set of values and expectations. A sense of belonging and trust. The seeds of that esprit we seek.

This is the opportunity of the Digital Workplace. This is the opportunity that we are just beginning to articulate properly and develop. The digital workplace has the potential to let us know who we work for, what the mission is, and how it is translated and accomplished on a daily basis. It lets us connect and collaborate with co-workers, find documents, processes, expertise and other resources, and keeps us in touch with goings on.It helps us to be part of an organization -- to belong and to achieve.

It has been three decades since digital communications made their way into the workplace. We only now are beginning to understand its true impact on business  -- not just operationally but paradigmatically. We work today in what John Green called “our triumphantly digitized contemporaneity.” Our digital space helps us reclaim our humanity at work while accelerating the goals of the organization -- on a good day. A good deal for all.

The best is yet to come.