For over 16 years, Tony Byrne’s work has included tracking and commenting on the advances and missteps in the ongoing evolution of digital workplace technologies. In some cases, the availability of new capabilities may result in both positive and negative consequences for organizations.

“We’ve seen these digital workplace tools become more social, which is good, though it has tended to create more social silos, which is bad,” he said.

Byrne is CEO of Real Story Group (RSG), an independent analyst firm he founded in 2001. RSG provides enterprises with research, tools and consulting advice on digital workplace and marketing technologies. Byrne previously worked in the software industry where his roles included vice president in charge of engineering and production teams at IDEV, a systems integrator and digital design agency.

The Value of Employee Digital Communities

When asked to describe the most significant advances in the digital workplace arena, Byrne highlighted two areas. The first is the rise in “lightweight team communication services like Slack.” The second is "a growing awareness everywhere-not-named-Redmond that employee digital communities, properly facilitated, can deliver serious business value."

For Byrne, the biggest disappointment related to digital workplace tools centers on knowledge management (KM). “There’s a general lack among the major vendors to evolve real business applications for KM, communities, peer-answers and other similar use-cases,” he said. “They are still just throwing features at us, and features in themselves don’t make the digital workplace more human-centric.”

Byrne 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 workshop on June 18 titled, “The Right Way to Select Digital Workplace Technology.”

We spoke with Byrne about his thoughts on the impact emerging technologies are having on the digital workplace, employee engagement and the future of work.

Humanize the Employee Digital Experience

CMSWire: Which emerging technologies do you think will potentially have the greatest impact on the digital workplace? What do you see as their likely benefits?

Byrne: Of course artificial intelligence and machine learning should eventually make it easier to organize and find information, though I don’t think they will humanize the employee digital experience, and that is the most pressing concern.

I actually think integration platform-as-a-service (iPaaS) technology, with the ability to build unique employee experiences based on profiles and roles, will finally enable enterprises to realize the long-held dream of digital environments more closely shaped to work that people want to get done. And of course that work will be collaborative, but that doesn’t mean you need a behemoth collaboration platform.

I’d like to see a world where user experience (UX) people can design effective, likely role-based, employee experiences, and the building block tools are there to construct it. (We are getting closer to this dream with customer-facing digital.) Alas, none of the major vendors who sell into the digital workplace are thinking this way right now.

CMSWire: Which digital workplace tools are currently being overhyped by vendors? How can firms ensure they get a clear read on what those tools offer?

Byrne: Office 365 is for sure the most over-hyped. It’s bought and not sold, which means digital workplace leaders tend to just passively inherit it. And most customers are quietly (sometimes not so quietly) struggling with the pieces beyond Exchange and Office.

As for the second question: you get a clear read on what the tools can do by shaping actual employee journeys and seeing what technologies will best support them, rather than buying a platform and figuring out what to do with it.

CMSWire: Is a failure to address employee engagement one reason why some organizations are not realizing ROI from their digital workplace platforms?

Byrne: Employee engagement is important, but it’s an overused term. Employees want to be effective and recognized at work; and they want human-friendly systems. We need to stop talking about “adoption” and more about how to foster that effectiveness.

Fortunately, we all have access to robust UX methodologies that can take us there. Too many enterprises eschew UX thinking in the workplace, I think in some cases because they fear the answers that may come out might require a rethink of their entire workplace technology stack ….

CMSWire: What advice do you have for organizations looking to purchase digital workplace software but who feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choice?

Byrne: Well, my colleague Jarrod Gingras and I wrote an entire book on this topic ☺. The key is to apply design thinking to your selection process.

Learning Opportunities

As someone who sells vendor evaluation research for a living, of course I believe that you should get the insider scoop first. But just as important is to develop real, to-be employee narrative journeys, and deploy and adapt those narratives throughout your selection process as the most important test criteria.

CMSWire: Once companies have purchased new digital workplace software, how can they ensure they don’t repeat the mistakes of past implementations?

Byrne: Arguably at implementation time it’s too late. However, a smart deployment team will pilot and iterate carefully, and be sure to draw lessons before larger rollouts.

Employee behavior is not always predictable or straightforward. Figure out what works in the real world before overcommitting.

CMSWire: What are some of your thoughts about the future of work and the kind of skills we will need to cultivate as what constitutes “work” evolves?

Byrne: Our intranets will have more robots but I think the most successful enterprises will make their digital environments more human-scaled. This is going to be hard because it goes against nearly the whole history of enterprise IT.

I don’t know if this requires new skills of our employees, but rather new skills among those of us who make decisions about technologies and experiences. We have to lose some shibboleths and experiment more with emergent tools and methodologies, especially around collaboration and communication services.

CMSWire: What are your favorite games to play and why do you like them so much? Do the games have any lessons about communication and collaboration?

Byrne: For board games, I always like Diplomacy, because there’s very little luck involved and you have to navigate really complex environments to build coalitions to move forward. So it’s a lot like the modern business world.

For playing a sport, I prefer basketball: simple rules but complicated and variegated execution, with an emphasis on flow and grace. (Except for me: I was never graceful on the court, but still loved the game!)

Basketball is an interesting lesson in collaboration because the idea is that everyone needs to keep moving and adapting in real-time, but within the context of a larger strategic game-plan.

Learn more about the Digital Workplace Experience here.