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Editorial

Who Owns the Digital Workplace? You're Asking the Wrong Question

4 minute read
Steve Bynghall avatar

When organizations first actively explore the digital workplace and what it means to them, most teams don’t know where to begin. 

Sometimes they start with the question "who owns the digital workplace?" 

Is it the IT function? Is it internal communications? It is a wider team? 

The answer hinges on how you define your digital workplace. 

If you regard it as a specific environment or channel, perhaps an "intranet plus" that links to other applications, it's a relatively uncomplicated answer. It will be a question of channel ownership, so the owner of the digital workplace is likely the IT function, Communications or both. Perhaps a cross-functional governance structure owns it, to reflect integration with other systems such as your HR portal.

How Do You Define the Digital Workplace?

But when your definition of the digital workplace takes a broader approach, viewing it as more to do with the employee experience of all workplace technology, the ownership question gets far more complicated. In my view, it complicates matters to the point where you may conclude there can be no overall owner.

When IT controlled all hardware and software used in a workplace, they were the clear owners of the digital workplace. But that's no longer the case. Multiple owners are responsible for individual parts of an organization’s portfolio of applications. 

Specialist applications aren't the only ones effectively owned by the departments that use them daily — and as such are less likely to receive IT support. Even higher profile software, such as the content management system for the corporate website, may be owned by marketing with little or no support from IT.

Digital Workplace Ownership? It’s Complicated

Patterns of digital workplace ownership are furthered complicated by the complex structures of organizations. 

Consider a global organization. The organization may "provide" a digital workplace for the global entity, a specific entity (brand or country), a division, a region or a function. Employees in more decentralized organizations may interact with two or three of these dimensions, with little or no coordination between them.

The growth of cloud computing and fully outsourced services further complicates the ownership question. Are the external providers of these platforms, services and applications part owners of the digital workplace? They may not effectively "own" the system from an internal organizational point of view, but they may be de facto owners because they have so much influence on your digital workplace roadmap. 

Do you own your organization's experience of Office 365 or does Microsoft?

Finally we must consider the individual employee, with her own personal device, choice of apps and so on. Some of these might be officially sanctioned, some discouraged but not actively countered, and others operating strictly under the radar. 

Learning Opportunities

As employees can dictate their own digital workplace experience, do they own it, to a certain degree?

Stakeholders, Not Owners

With so many different patterns of ownership, it becomes clear that no overall owner of the digital workplace exists: There's only stakeholders and those who can influence it. 

In some respects, the term and concept is similar to "employee engagement," in that both are truly beyond the control of the organization. You can't own employee engagement as you can't dictate how engaged an employee will be. But you can influence it. And that's a similar picture to the digital workplace. 

With no overall owner of the digital workplace, “who owns it” is clearly the wrong question to ask. Trying to define an owner is not only a waste of time, but also suggests an over-simplified approach to a complex issue.

Structures and Roles for Improvement

A better and more practical question is to ask how can we improve and develop the digital workplace and what roles and structures can help us achieve that? 

Other thought leaders in the space have touched upon this. For example, James Robertson and Step Two have emphasized the importance of the journey while Digital Workplace Group have often stated the importance of leadership among digital workplace teams.

The roles and structures which can add value include an owner of the strategy, the components of a governance framework, various IT architect roles, business analysts, search experts, those in change management, key channel owners including the intranet team and so on. Of course, areas of "ownership" will naturally occur within these roles. 

An Ensemble Effort

In my view, there is no overall owner of the digital workplace. Someone may be charged with improving the experience. Someone may own a digital workplace strategy. Someone may have the technical ownership of the major constituent channels provided by the organization. Someone may be the de facto figurehead. 

But only by working together across a range of different roles are organizations able to effectively move forward with improving the digital workplace. It’s an ensemble effort.

About the author

Steve Bynghall

Steve Bynghall is a freelance consultant and writer based in the UK. He focuses on intranets, collaboration, social business, KM and the digital workplace.

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