Attendees at the Digital Workplace Experience 2019 conference listen to a speaker in a breakout session.
PHOTO: Eric Clarke

Digital workplace practitioners recognize technological advancements like augmented reality and artificial intelligence exist at their disposal. And there is no denying the investment in digital workplace technology: Slack’s valuation went over $20 billion on its first day of trading Thursday, June 20. Yet, digital workplace practitioners still grapple with effectively using document management systems, leading change management and living with the reality that email is still the top workplace communication tool. 

Those were some of the findings and challenges presented at last week’s third annual Digital Workplace Experience conference at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel in downtown Chicago. (Editor’s note: Simpler Media Group, which owns CMSWire, partners with Digital Workplace Group as the producers of this conference). “Why in the midst of these very evident signs of technological progress are we still struggling with the basic issue of delivering the right information to the right people at the right time?” Siobhan Fagan, managing editor of CMSWire, asked the crowd during her morning address Wednesday, June 19. 

Here are some takeaways from the conference from Fagan and other presenters from the Digital Workplace Experience:

Need to Ace Digital Workplace Basics First

Fagan, citing findings from the recently released Simpler Media Group “The State of the Digital Workplace Report," said document management beat artificial intelligence, machine learning, microservices and other more nascent technology as the most important tool in the digital workplace toolkit. “But when we asked the same people how their document management systems were working, only 12% said it was working well,” Fagan said.

Enterprise search followed document management in the survey but, again, only 11% said it was effective. “This pattern repeated itself over and over across many tools and technologies,” Fagan said. “In each instance, the tool's reported importance far exceeded the actual efficacy.”

The one tool that people said worked best? Email, the only one of 19 tools that got over a 20% thumbs-up rate: 43% said it worked well. “Our findings this year support what we found the two years previously: there is a disconnect between the tools that we need and how well these tools are working for us,” Fagan said. “We need to do better. Document management, enterprise search, collaboration tools. These are the foundations the digital workplace are built on. We need to get these right before we can successfully add on these newer technologies coming down the pike, or in some cases that are already here.”

Related Content: The State of the Digital Workplace

What Makes a High-Performing Digital Workplace Team?

High-performance teams with mature digital workplaces have a very strong vision, strategy and roadmap behind them, said Nancy Goebel, managing director, member and strategic partnerships, for Digital Workplace Group. “They identify people who have passion and can serve as passionate advocates for the agenda,” Goebel said. “They may not always come from a technology background. They may be business professionals who just want to see things happen better, cheaper, faster and are drawn to the space. And as passionate advocates, they carve a path and they figure out how to get it done.” 

Related Article: Why the Digital Workplace Causes Confusion

‘Urgent Moment of Transformation’

Too often today, organizations have the wrong idea on the value of production, said Alex Kantrowitz, senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed. “We spend a day doing our expenses, and we feel it was productive,” Kantrowitz said. “We spend a day finding the right person in the organization or the right document, and we're like, ‘Yeah, we did the right thing today.’”

“I think that we're in an urgent moment of transformation,” Kantrowitz added, “because you look at all the technology companies … and what they're doing is they're giving us a chance to spend our time actually coming up with ideas between them and the automation that we're seeing coming into this economy. We're going to move a lot further away from execution work, and way more into the inventive work.”

Organizations that think winning will be about efficiency is looking at it "completely the wrong way." It's really about, Kantrowitz said, minimizing execution time and making room for inventiveness. "Because if your company isn't going to become inventive," he added, "you're going to be screwed, because everybody else is just going to pass you."

Related Article: From Control to Curiosity: The Starting Point of Innovation

Effective Leadership in the Workplace

Toni Vanwinkle, senior director of Digital Workplace Experience at Adobe, discussed the importance of servant and collaborative leadership. With servant leadership, organizations can think of themselves as organisms and not organizations where we inspire employees through management chains. This way, you can turn the traditional leadership pyramid upside down.

As for collaborative leadership, leaders need to have the skill and discipline to “reach across the aisle” and encourage more people in organizations to be leaders. “In my organization, I talk about superpowers,” Vanwinkle said. “We all have a superpowers we bring to the table. And imagine what we can do if we were the Justice League.”

Envisioning the Perfect Onboarding Experience

What’s on the mind of some other digital workplace leaders at large organizations? Onboarding. Jayne Lerman, EVP of Employee Digital Experience at Mastercard, said one of the employee’s vulnerable times is onboarding. “We really want to set people up for success," Lerman said. "And you start to think about even things like AI, and how can we enhance it? Maybe with a personal assistant. Could you imagine if you had all of those answers?”

Employees are vulnerable during onboarding because this is the “beginning of time and you really want to impress.” They probably have 1,000 questions to ask. How can we, as digital workplace leaders, set them up for success? What if they could find answers themselves through a digital personal assistant? ”So you really need to think about the individual and how they're feeling,” Lerman said. “And how do we set them up for success?” 

Related Article: The Lighting-Fast Evolution of the Digital Workplace Continues

Pushing for Knowledge Sharing in the Workplace

Nisreen Farhan, advisor of digital transformation at IMF, called on digital workplace practitioners to push for changing the way we work. “We base all our work on knowledge, we exchange knowledge to make policy, we exchange knowledge on direct reports,” she said. “Our biggest asset is our stuff in our brains, but we keep it to ourselves. We are individual contributors, and we don't like sharing. So how do we change? How do leaders convince them to change the way that we work?”

That starts with HR, Farhan said, because they can inspire and celebrate individual contribution. “And we have to change into celebrating knowledge leaders, into celebrating people who share knowledge,” she said. “Our leaders have to shift from celebrating the technical expertise ... to celebrating communities.”

Google’s Digital Workplace Challenges Just Like Yours

Kate Matsudaira, director of engineering at Google, said Google has a lot of the same challenges in the digital workplace as most organizations. “We have a lot of vendors with systems that don't integrate and work well together,” she said. “We have legacy technologies that are absolutely business critical that we don't want to invest in. And of course, we're being asked to do more with less. And did I mention the super high expectations of our employees, with respect to the technologies and the workplace that they're in?”

Related Article: Digital Workplace Challenges for 2019

Tough Questions of Equality, Fairness in Data

Josh Simons, Kennedy Scholar at Harvard University, spoke about where there is injustice and inequality in society, there will also be injustice and inequality in data. And wherever there are injustices and inequalities in data, he said, they'll be reinforced via machine learning models that use that data to make decisions.

Simons called on digital workplace practitioners to take note of these challenges. “Organizations that use this data to make decisions have to make tradeoff choices that implicate fundamental questions of who that organization is, and what they believe in,” Simons said. “What standards of fairness do I want to impose? How? Why? And how am I going to communicate what I decide to do?”

Making Your Worst Day Your Best Day

Nick Allen, global director of design and user experience at GE Healthcare, closed the conference with an emotional plea to digital workplace practitioners to be unafraid to fail and believe that anything’s possible. He referenced a “make someone’s worst day their best day” model. Design with empathy and compassion and listen to your stakeholders, Allen encouraged. “The power you all have at enterprise companies is enormous,” Allen said. ”You can do the impossible. You can help make someone's worst day be their best day.”