As a venture capitalist and then an online media executive, Fouad ElNaggar has seen at firsthand the importance of not only hiring the right people but also of empowering them with digital workplace tools.

ElNaggar is currently CEO of employee digital experience portal provider, Sapho, which he co-founded in 2014.

“I’ve always been about evaluating, attracting and empowering people to do their best and reach their potential,” he said. “Running a startup, every person you add to a team can make or break your company, especially at the beginning. If you bring stars on, you have to let them do their thing.”

Entrepreneurial Spirit

After graduating with a degree in economics and government from Dartmouth, ElNaggar had initially planned to be an international lawyer and then later considered investment banking. But those career options weren’t a good fit for someone who had “always been an entrepreneur,” even as a child, and who had a “strong independent streak.” 

So ElNaggar went to work for a home textiles firm where he reported directly to the CEO and learned how to run a business. “Once I got a taste of that, there was no turning back,” he said. ElNaggar has since been involved in creating, investing, buying and selling businesses including serving as chief strategy officer at CBS Interactive, which was where he and his colleague, CBSi CTO/CIO Peter Yared, first got the idea for Sapho.

ElNaggar will be speaking at CMSWire and Digital Workplace Group’s Digital Workplace Experience taking place June 18 to 20 at the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel in Chicago. He will give a session on June 19 titled “Drive Measurable ROI from Your Digital Workplace Platform.”

We chatted with ElNaggar about the founding of Sapho, how today’s portals differ from previous iterations, and his thoughts on how to measure employee engagement.

Don’t Conflate Digital Workplace with Mobile

CMSWire: What inspired you and Peter to leave CBSi and create Sapho?

ElNaggar: What we did for the interactive group helped drive CBS’s digital transformation when it came to consumers. So, whether it was All Access, streaming news or fantasy sports, it was about moving CBS into the future, beyond linear television.

We realized that there was a weird cognitive dissonance our employees had when working on this digital transformation for the consumer experience with technology that felt more like it came from the 1990s.

Peter and I had this aha moment — we have to give people a modern experience internally if we want them to be excited to work on modern experiences for our customers. If you look at the consumer side, you have integrated feeds and notifications when something’s ready for you. It’s about enabling simple single purpose tasks and activities.

CMSWire: How have you seen collaboration and communication technologies evolve in recent years?

ElNaggar: The biggest evolution I’ve seen in the last five years is that CIOs are even starting to think about digital workplace. They know that they’ve got to do this.

If you’re trying to get the best people, you can’t have them sign in on a clipboard with a crumpled photocopy with lines on it when they come for an interview or use outdated equipment or software. These things look as ridiculous to people in the 22- to 35-year-old range as typewriters looked me to in the 1990s when I’d been using computers at college. CIOs now think, “I won’t be that competitive if I look this silly.”

Most CIOs are viewed as the person who can’t get the Wi-Fi to work in the conference room. Instead, by bringing in digital workplace technologies, they can be seen as the person who can make employees happy.

CMSWire: In your opinion, what have been some of the biggest disappointments in digital workplace so far?

ElNaggar: Some people have made the mistake of conflating digital workplace with mobile. For us, mobile is just another endpoint. I hope people have moved beyond that mobile-only world — it slowed down innovation. The guys who went in with a mobile-only story, that mobile is the key to your digital transformation, got cycled out. Where employees spend most of their working day is at their computer.

Then, there’s standalone messaging – whether it’s Slack, [Cisco] Spark, Microsoft Teams. It’s mostly a time waster. It’s been positioned as collaboration and communication, but it’s more a home for animated GIFs and a “Hey, there’s cake in the kitchen.” People had higher hopes.

People also got really excited about bots, but it’s been a total clown show so far. Remember that episode of Seinfeld where Kramer became the phone number for Moviefone? He’s having multiple conversations and ends up crying, “Why don’t you just tell me the name of the movie you’ve selected?” No one wants to go back and forth 20 times to figure out what they want.

Learning Opportunities

CMSWire: With many technologies, products are refined and improved and then cycle back round again. I’m curious why Sapho chose to use the term “portal”?

ElNaggar: That’s exactly why we chose to go with that term, “portal,” it’s so loaded. We love to think of people looking back to their old WebSphere portal of the early 2000s, which was pretty static, had limited personalization and was always sending users back to the system of record. The portlets were so fragile and hard to code. That was a very long time before the iPhone and Facebook.

People understand that a portal is where you go to create a horizontal experience across applications. Now, we make it easy for users to build micro apps and link to many different applications. We send work out to the edges and let users transact from the edge.

The average person uses 32 different point solutions. The modern portal is about creating a more consistent, harmonious experience which is broken up into little tasks. As people are realizing the insanity of using 32 different point solutions to do their job, the modern portal is inevitable.

CMSWire: How should organizations think about measuring the impact of their digital workplace initiatives on employee engagement?

ElNaggar: I use a metaphor with our employees. Everyone’s into Fitbit now and trying to get to 10,000 steps. There are lots of different ways to get there. For instance, I could walk around in circles using lots of tight steps, but did I really get anywhere? With Facebook, there’s tons of engagement, but it’s often just negative.

It’s about measuring the employee engagement numbers that really matter. Figure out your Net Promoter Scores for IT. Look at your basic employee churn rate — is it going up or down? Do a productivity survey. One of our enterprise customers saves seven hours a week per employee by using an approvals portal.

You have to go in with that mindset to start tracking employee engagement from the beginning. It will make it really clear how things are working or not working. You need to work with digital workplace vendors who will come in and measure a baseline rate. Some digital workplace technologies don’t want to be measured.

CMSWire: Both Sapho and your Twitter handle — @ThufirHawat — come from Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” What do you find so fascinating about the premise of that sci-fi book series? Are there any lessons in communication and collaboration that we can learn from the Dune universe?

ElNaggar: Our company name, Sapho, is the fluid that the mentat, the human computers in the book, drink to speed up their speed of thought. For us, it’s about providing the technology to accelerate the speed of business in customers’ workplaces.

The resource management themes in Dune and the agility of a hyper-focused force are fantastic. It’s a classic hero’s tale. The whole way Paul [Atreides] thinks about future streams is different. I recently read a great book called “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts” by poker champion turned business consultant Annie Duke. It’s just like Paul thinking about different time strands and outcomes in the future. I love that concept. All of us have weird unlocked potential inside ourselves.

There’s a quote in Dune: “Fear is the mind-killer, fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.” If you think about where we’re going with digital workplace, there’s a lot of fear. People have rolled out other digital workplace solutions and it’s been a nightmare. “Fear is the mind-killer” for CIOs who are trying to build a digital workplace, with them saying, “I don’t know if I can do something.” It’s always harder to do something than it is not to do something. New technology is going to help them and it’s coming.

Learn more about the Digital Workplace Experience here.