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The phrase “digital workplace” is bandied about a lot these days, mostly by consultants trying to sound up-to-the-minute. I describe myself to mystified clients, friends and family as an “intranet and digital workplace consultant”. So has the Digital Workplace Group got a definition? Well, fortunately, yes we have…

Definition:

The digital workplace is the collection of all of the digital tools provided by an organization to allow its employees to do their jobs.

Does your organization have a digital workplace?

Yes, unless you are just using wax tablets, books and biros.

Is the digital workplace a fancy intranet?

I don’t think so. The intranet is part of the digital workplace, fancy or not.

Is email part of the digital workplace. Calendaring? HR system? Enterprise resource planning?

Yes. Yes, yes and yes.

Is the rickety old billing system part of the digital workplace?

Sure.

Is the door entry system and security system part of the digital workplace

I don’t really care, but probably. This sort of thing might be more interesting in the future when the physical world becomes kitted out with sensors that can tell us useful things.

Is the digital workplace some fantastical system that moulds around us and our business processes in novel and exciting ways?

It might do in the future, but at the moment, in general, it is dumber than a bag of hammers.

The digital workplace: right here, right now

Let’s be clear: The future is built on the ruins of today, and today the digital workplace is made up of the things that companies provide to their employees to get their stuff done.

In terms of hardware we’ve got desktop and laptop PCs, smartphones and the occasional tablet. On those screens we’ve got email, instant messaging and the things to make and organize files with. There are pretty shabby applications to do business with, move money and get paid, and to run real world systems and processes.

There is the intranet for communications, phone numbers, the enterprise social network, collaboration and dozens of web-based applications — some within the firewall, some outside of it. It is a tangled mess of information technology, hardly any of it linked up, not all of it owned by your IT department and none of it managed or planned together. It is a cacophony and not an orchestra.

But, unless we take this concept of the digital workplace and apply it to what we have now, it will remain shrouded in a tenuous mist of science fiction, with visions of smart systems that in general we aren’t building, and we’ll be dragged down in arguments about whether we’ve built a “true” digital workplace or not.

When the digital workplace was born

There was a moment, a different moment for different people (and I think around 2001 or 2002 for me), when the workplace went from being centred on offices, meeting rooms and desk phones, to being focused on the computer on the desk, or indeed the train, the airport or the kitchen table. Forms went online, as did diaries and project spaces; instant messaging landed and email rose to a crescendo — and the majority of our attention was pulled irrevocably to those screens. That’s when I think the digital workplace was born: silently and stealthily. We didn’t really notice it happen—one day it was a machine on a desk, the next it was work. We didn’t organize ourselves in the right way to manage the change.

Let’s start treating that moment as a historical fact. Then we can bring our skills and techniques to bear on improving the mess of our emergent digital workplaces and how we use them (without being constrained by the false barriers in our thinking: between the intranet and everything else; between what is technology and what is culture; between what department owns what part of what system) and readdressing our management cultures to cope with this change.

Up next in this series

This is the first post in a blog series about the digital workplace – what it is, how to approach it, how to improve it. Upcoming posts will cover the following questions:

  • Why do most companies ignore the digital workplace?
  • What is the intranet’s role in the digital workplace?

Follow @DWG on Twitter or subscribe to the DWG newsletter to keep up with the series.

Related research: Digital workplace fundamentals

Digital workplace fundamentals – an integrated approach

How good is my intranet?This report suggests a blueprint for launching a successful digital workplace initiative anchored on two key prerequisites, namely scope (what is included) and approach (how it is delivered).

Among the key takeaways highlighted in this report are 1) the digital workplace permeates all aspects of working life, 2) it affects technology, physical workplaces and people, and 3) cross-functional teams increase the chances of a project successfully meeting its outcomes.

Download the free report » 

About the author

Chris TubbChris Tubb is an independent intranet and digital workplace consultant, who lives in Brighton.

For the Digital Workplace Group (DWG) he is a strategy consultant, lead benchmarker and a member of the research team.

Working with intranets since 1996, in and out of IT and Communications departments, Chris was formerly responsible for intranet strategy and architecture at Orange SA and France Telecom Group.

5 Comments

  1. Hi Chris. I enjoyed your post. I agree with your definition of the digital workplace with one tiny but significant change: replace “provided by an organization to allow its employees to do their jobs” with simply “used by employees to do their jobs”.
    More and more, employees are using tools that are not provided by the organization. These tools may be approved by the organization or tolerated by the organization but are not provided by the organization. Trends in BYOD, BYOPC and BYOA show this as far as devices and apps go.
    People also use consumer tools in the cloud to do their jobs, and I consider this to be part of the digital workplace.
    What do you think?

    Reply
  2. Hi Jane,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, this topic has debated at length at DWG Towers – we are of course aware of all of those trends and there are a lot of lenses we could look at the term through. This are indeed important aspects of an employee’s digital experience and it begs the question about where things start and stop.

    I suppose, in the end, we need to set a boundary for the term to be useful and, as DWG is in the business of trying to be useful to people who are managing these wide technological spaces, that is the lens we have chosen. If the term “digital workplace” is just synonymous with technology, we can save ourselves all that typing.

    So it is around that organisational provision that we draw a line. That line might be a device given, a service provided (say GOOD on a employee’s iPhone) or even begrudging but explicit consent that say Skype is OK. These “leaks” are of course unfulfilled user requirements, but in the wake of this year’s revelations concerning information security, this is a hotter topic than ever for many organisations.

    But it is important for digital workplace managers (and those that serve them) that those decisions are conscious and taken in consideration of all the facts of things like risk, regulatory, discovery, coherence, findability and business continuity, and to reflect about the best choice to maximise the benefit to the organisation.

    I covered lots more on this topic last year with my paper on Digital Workplace User Experience:

    http://www.dwforum.com/2013/01/user-experience-of-the-digital-workplace/

    Reply
  3. I’d like to endorse Jane’s suggestion, and then raise another one. At the recent KMWorld conference in Washington Jane organised an excellent one-day DWP conference-within-a-conference. In her opening remarks Jane commented that few participants in the DW Trends survey mentioned ‘customers’ when asked what their definition was of a Digital Workplace. This comment highlighted for me the fact that DWP practitioners seem to focus on their organisation in isolation and do not take into account the fact that the work that employees undertake will be with suppliers, partners and customers.

    Last year Accenture published a very interesting report on cross-enterprise collaboration which was more about HR and culture-related issues than technology. I’m wondering if some of the slowing down of digital workplace activities is because the speed at which key suppliers and customers are adopting DWP principles and practices is the rate-determining step.

    In the early days of EDI (electronic data interchange) in the mid-1980s many of the early adopters became very frustrated with the suppliers and customers who could not, or would not, adopt EDI. However once the message about speed and quality of processing was understood by the entire supply chain the rate of adoption was quite dramatic. II suspect the same will be the case with DWP

    Reply
    • Hi Martin,

      If your job focuses on customers, suppliers or partners, it’s covered by the definition. As you and I have remarked in the past it is much easier to imagine common internal business processes than to bring to mind all of the many hundreds or thousands of business processes that are specific to the day to day running of large companies.

      Reply

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