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The Digital Workforce Isn't Going to Disrupt Itself

6 minute read
Michael Graham avatar
2018 was about identifying the disconnect between potential and reality in the digital workplace. 2019 will be when the industry facilitates its own disruption.

Anyone reading this already knows that major digital workforce disruption is upon us. It’s driving reassessment and reorganization across organizations and reinventing the way employees work within — and outside of — them.

Over the last few years, we've seen an explosion of remote workforce communication, collaboration and knowledge sharing tools, all of which seem to be betting big on sweeping changes to the way companies structure team structures, both geographically and logistically. 

Meanwhile, companies of all shapes and sizes are experiencing different forms of growing pains as they try to retrofit their existing workplaces to meet a new digitized ideal. Technology is outpacing them and adoption doesn’t always come with a training manual (digital or otherwise).

There are less overt signs too, such as acute shifts to the way the industry is collectively thinking about and approaching the workforce on a day-to-day basis. Earlier this year, we saw one such shift to the way we think about training when, in July, industry influencer and analyst Josh Bersin coined the idea of “learning in the flow of work.” The idea that learning should be embedded directly into the platforms in which employees work so that systems can coach and train employees on the job —rather than be kept separate from the point of work — is both completely obvious and a total paradigm shift.

While last year was all about identifying and naming the disconnect between digital potential and digital reality in the workplace, 2019 will be the year the industry steps in to facilitate its own disruption by adapting to and adopting some of these shifts, at scale.  Here are four trends we can expect to see as this plays out.

1. The Digital Workforce Explosion Will Need Help

The digital workplace promises in part to make communication, collaboration and knowledge sharing easier, faster and better. But based on what we’ve seen over the last several years, there’s no proof that simply digitizing key aspects of work directly correlates with increased productivity. In fact, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, non-farm labor productivity has slowed to a crawl since 2011, after experiencing strong growth throughout the 2000s.

The digitization of the workforce should theoretically have the opposite effect, but there’s an obstacle: most office jobs were designed before the impact of the growing digital workplace. Introducing new technologies without introducing new infrastructure, processes and philosophy to support them increases confusion more than productivity.

This problem is compounded by companies’ eagerness to adopt an ever-evolving array of tools and technologies. For example, a 2017 study and report by Towards Maturity CIC found that in the Learning and Development function alone, the average number of learning technologies per company was 22 (up from 10 in 2011). Absorbing and using the new capabilities of the digital workplace in a way that actually improves outcomes is a growing challenge. Among our customers, we’re seeing HR organizations that are focused on workforce effectiveness prioritizing the entire “digital workplace,” since prioritizing technology alone has not been a winning strategy.    

Related Article: Digital Workplace Challenges for 2019

2. Users of Critical Business Applications Will Become Critical Users of Business Applications

Robotic process automation has and will continue to eliminate and reduce human execution of repetitive and repeatable processes. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will enable automation of additional processes that involve minor to moderately complex variability. What will be left for humans? Arguably, the most complex and compelling processes that affect business outcomes.

Rather than simply master the technological components of their jobs, people who use critical business applications will need to thoroughly understand business processes, organizational philosophies and industry best practices, and be able to apply critical thinking to the way they use technology to achieve desired outcomes.  This shift in the division of responsibilities (technology versus human) will bring real meaning to the concept of “knowledge workers.”

Related Article: Poor Digital Skills Hinder Digital Workplace Progress

Learning Opportunities

3. Micro Learning at the Point-of-Work Will Get Big

Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2014-2015 found more than 80 percent of all companies rate their businesses as either "highly complex" or "complex" for employees. Part of this complexity is due to the proliferation of SaaS solutions — both enterprise and point — across the application landscape. The same study reported that fewer than 16 percent of companies have a program to "simplify work" or help employees deal with stress. The average US worker works 47 hours per week, with 49 percent working more than 50 hours per week and 20 percent working more than 60 hours per week.

This bodes poorly for employees’ ability to absorb more and more technology via traditional training methods. Micro learning — or point-of-work guidance and knowledge — has emerged as an effective means of providing short bursts of knowledge transfer specific to the user’s activity, at the moment-of-need. Software makers will embrace technologies, such as embedded application productivity accelerators and chatbots, as ways to improve adoption, onboarding and application effectiveness at a low cost but high value. Companies with complex application landscapes will do the same, rather than allow this situation to literally pile up.

Related Article: Digital Transformation Demands Evolving Workplace Skills

4. We'll Know if Users and Applications Are Effective Together

Almost all software companies know every click that every user makes in their applications ... in real time. They’re armed with a wide array of tools to facilitate collection of this data and glean insights from it. What's been missing is a true understanding of what the user was actually doing, what they were trying to accomplish and whether they succeeded or failed. If they failed, where did their efforts break down and why? If they succeeded, were they productive? 

We'll soon be able to answer these questions.

Using cloud tools, software companies will have this level of granular user-specific insight across their entire user bases, informing them of potential product or systemic issues — and opportunities. There’s incentive for them to use this insight to proactively intervene when they see companies on the path to sub-optimal outcomes, as this can lead to potential retention/expansion challenges.

Companies will simultaneously be able to use this information to focus improvement efforts at the individual, team and function level. And in some cases, new insights will reveal the need for application optimization or business process optimization at the company level.

Long story short: adopting technology is only one step in a longer journey to digital workplace disruption. Humans will need to aid this disruption before technology can aid the positive and meaningful transformation of workplace productivity.

About the author

Michael Graham

Michael Graham is the founder and CEO of Epilogue Systems, a company dedicated to redefining workforce productivity and delivering enablement intelligence to organizations through its cloud-based productivity acceleration platform, Opus. Opus complements the digital workplace by offering employees embedded contextual guidance in the flow of work and providing companies with deep utilization insights into workforce and application effectiveness.

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