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We're running dangerously close to the trough of disillusionment with the digital workplace unless we tread lightly PHOTO: Vitaly

Increasingly I hear IT departments refer to their Office 365 programs as being a "digital workplace" initiative. Similarly, during my research on SharePoint Intranets in-a-box, several vendors called their products a "digital workplace." 

This trend is troubling. A digital workplace is not something you can buy and install.

Digital Workplace Is a Concept, Not a Product

The primary reason you can’t just buy a digital workplace is that it isn't a product. Rather, it's a description of an element of an organization, including the propeller and processes that drive it. 

Everyone already has a digital workplace, it’s just that some may not be intentionally designed.

The second reason why you can't buy a digital workplace is that the concept is too broad for any single program or product — even a wide-ranging suite like Office 365 — to cover. 

The risk of vendors and companies calling their activities "a digital workplace" is they effectively re-scope the concept to something much narrower to make delivery feasible. When we do this, the richness of the concept becomes lost and we risk missing out on the full set of elements needed to make it a success.

The same thing happened with knowledge management: It began as a lens through which to view an organization’s operations. And that was valuable. But when it became diluted by over-marketing to be associated with content management systems, the implementations started to fail and the concept lost credibility. 

The same trough of disillusionment is looming for the digital workplace if we don’t tread carefully.

Beyond What You Can Buy

My definition of a digital workplace includes 10 elements.

Diagram Illustrating Ten Elements of a Digital Workplace

The five blue elements are capabilities that the digital workplace should deliver. There’s no prerequisite for how they should be delivered: communication in one company may be primarily by emails. In another, it may be an employee app. 

The choices only matter in that you make the right design decisions to meet the goals of the business and the expectations of employees. No off-the-shelf system is going to make those decisions for you: if it does, it means you’ve handed over how you run your business to a software vendor.

The broad scope of the five elements is intentional, because when you get digital workplace strategy right, you plan across all of these elements coherently. For example, if you are rolling out a new procurement system [Business Application], it means you also think about how people will be made aware of procurement guidelines and want to follow them [Communicate & Engage], and how they might access the procurement system even when away from the office [Agile Working].

Closing the Gaps in Employee Experience

When you go this broad it becomes clear no single system can cover it all. If we narrow the scope of what we mean by "digital workplace," we omit some critical elements from our integration thinking. We create gaps in the user experience and the employees will fall between them.

For example, I reviewed the digital workplace of one client who had well-planned communication, collaboration and search elements. However, HR had procured a learning management system (LMS) and felt that all they had to do to make it part of the digital workplace was add a link on the intranet. 

The result was none of the LMS content was indexed by the enterprise search. If somebody typed “project management methodology” into the intranet search box, none of the learning content would appear. So the LMS went underutilized.

What's promising is some Office 365 add-on vendors are focusing more on integration with other employee service platforms. If this makes it easier to create cross-system dashboards and integrated alerts, then that is a positive step for digital workplace capabilities. 

And saying your product "brings together" a digital workplace is a more plausible claim than saying it is a digital workplace.

You Still Need to Run the Show

Viewing a digital workplace as a product carries another risk: the management side will be under-resourced. 

Financially, it is tempting to focus on the technology side of the equation because it is much more tangible. Most financial models favor hard costs and tangible outcomes. In cognitive-bias speak, this is known as the availability heuristic. Our decisions are unduly influenced by the things we can see and touch. If don’t have the software, nothing will happen.

To overcome this, our planning needs to focus on the desired outcome. For example, if we want to replicate good practice between teams, the focus shifts away from the information sharing software and concentrates instead on the knottier issue of how to get people to share practice, to understand it and act on it.

When you maintain an outcome focus, you may find 70 percent or more of the cost of achieving goals is about people and processes rather than the technology. The benefits can be enormous, but sadly there’s no app for that.