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Using artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver digital workplace innovation sounds sexy and sits on a critical foundation of sophisticated personalization. But providing even basic personalization depends upon the more mundane work of maintaining accurate employee data, such as Active Directory (AD) lists. We need good business process management for common employee processes in order to deliver personalization today and AI innovation tomorrow. It may not sound that exciting, but the future won’t arrive on the back of a magical unicorn (unless, of course, Elon Musk’s next venture is to breed magical unicorns… in which case all bets are off).

The personalized, AI-powered future digital workplace

Imagine a world in which the digital workplace serves up critical information and insights to your phone or laptop a few moments before you even realize you need them.

Now, imagine you walk into your office on a Monday morning and get a notification about a colleague with whom you work closely, who it turns out is visiting your office that week. Your phone advises you: “Nancy is here in the Seattle office today; would you like to grab coffee with her?”

Or imagine you have a big meeting shortly to review the status of a key client. You power up your laptop and your intranet automatically provides an integrated snapshot of all client billings, project statuses and recent contact points across the company.

In the first example, the digital workplace is persistently aware of your social graph and ties that information in with building-entry data, calendar info and other sources.

In the second example, the digital workplace understands the context of your meetings and pulls relevant data from multiple sources into a just-in-time, smart dashboard.

This is where we’re headed, slowly but surely.

Both of these examples sound like the cutting edge of what Google or Amazon provide today. The examples represent advanced data mining and sophisticated application integration. But all of this requires a foundation of accurate user data. Leading tech companies are nailing this for consumers, but many companies struggle with even the basics for employees.

Bringing consumer-grade personalization inside the firewall

Leading personalization today is based on applications knowing us deeply. They understand who we are and learn to deliver better personalization by tracking our activity and our content from many sources.

Amazon knows what products I’ve bought and what I have saved to my wish lists, and recommends new products I might need or like. It will update me on price changes to products I’m interested in and provide detailed updates on delivery status.

Netflix knows my tastes in film and TV, as well as my demographic information. While it suggests dramas and emotionally moving stories to my wife, Netflix finds action movies, cartoons and scientific documentaries for me (I know, I’m such a typical male).

Google tells me if my flights are delayed (based on seeing a flight receipt in my inbox), lets me know the traffic conditions on the way home, and creates slideshows from my photos to capture my family adventures and memories.

In each of these examples, the applications are building rich profiles about us and tying them to data analytics about massive content corpuses. To get there, an application has to know all our basic demographic data, track our physical locations and activity, and be persistently tied in to our digital activity.

That’s the leading edge of consumer technology. On the digital workplace front though, we’re mostly way behind despite having incredible access to tons of employee user data (at least in theory).

Lessons from being a social intranet mercenary

A while ago I worked as a professional services consultant for a social intranet software company. In this role I would help new clients plan for, design and implement modern intranets offering rich communication, collaboration and personalization features.

After parachuting into dozens of different organizations to set up intranets, I learned an important lesson about the digital workplace: Employee directory services like Active Directory (AD) are super important – and they’re usually in poor condition.

One of the first steps of implementing a new social intranet would be to define locations, departments and role-based groups, like “people managers”. We needed to create community spaces, implement security groups and deliver personalized content via the new intranet. In order to do this, we had to tie the software to predefined lists in Active Directory or a similar employee directory service.

The struggle: Business process management for employee data

Enter the gong show.

The moment I asked the clients for these canonical lists of employees, nine out of ten would run into problems, stumbling around with: “Well, we have some location lists, but not all”… or “We have lists but they’re not quite up-to-date”… or “Each country office is responsible for its own list and we don’t know which ones they use”… or “We don’t have an owner for these lists or a consistent process for updating them”.

The end result was that, as part of the process of installing a new intranet, we would also help identify needed employee lists, clean up lists in the directory and define processes for keeping the lists up-to-date. More than just installing intranets, we were actually working on business process management (BPM) and data governance.

In the world of digital workplace strategy and innovation, the work of maintaining user directories may sound a bit bland and vanilla (and no offence to people who like unsweetened vanilla yogurt), but this is actually critical to delivering solid digital experiences today and the smarter digital workplaces of the near future.

Today’s digital workplaces need good user data to deliver basic personalization

A strong intranet and broader digital workplace today will know who you are and consistently deliver relevant, personalized information and tools to you. Think of seeing personalized feeds on the intranet homepage that show news about your location, department and interests. Or any system you log in to that shows data specific to you, such as your human resources information system (HRIS) or expense management system.

These are the basics.

But digital workplace personalization is still disjointed and inconsistent. Systems of record with highly structured and regulated data (such as HRIS databases) can show me my information. The intranet might deliver some personalized news, perhaps based on some clearly identifiable information such as location. But rarely do we see consistent and valuable personalization throughout the digital workplace.

We need effective business process management (yawn!) to maintain employee directory data

Maintaining even basic demographic data about employees requires good process management. We need to constantly keep directories and lists up-to-date, noting changes to employees’ statuses, roles, locations, etc.  

Employee changes that require consistent user directory processes include:

  • new employees joining
  • managerial promotion
  • location change
  • department change
  • organizational restructuring
  • employees leaving.

When we manage the above changes effectively, as soon as an employee goes through a change, the digital workplace will reflect it. For example, if Nancy becomes a manager, she’ll get onto the right new AD lists, acquire new levels of access to certain applications, be added to the list for special technical and skills-based training programmes, etc. She will gain new access to content and start to automagically receive news relevant to her that she didn’t get before.

To deliver timely, consistent employee data changes, operational teams such as HR, IT, Facilities and Finance all need to work closely together: I’m talking cross-functional process workflows here, people!

Next step: Matching consumer-grade personalization

In order even to come close to matching today’s consumer-grade personalization, organizations need to get better at maintaining basic employee directory data.

It’s a bland topic, I know. But it’s important. The bulk of the work is not about the technology, but about mapping processes and coordinating activities across operational silos.

Once we are good at maintaining basic demographic data in our employee directories we are ready to deliver valuable personalization and start to tackle the advanced stuff.

Future digital workplaces: Learning and adapting based on our content and behaviour

To go beyond basic demographic-based personalization, digital workplaces will also have to get better at analysing content and activity patterns.

Today’s intranets and digital workplaces struggle mightily in the realm of delivering relevant, personalized information based on user-generated content.

It’s easy enough to show me my personal balance of paid time off, because that’s highly structured data. But what about showing me which colleagues around the world are experts on a topic I need to bone up on? Or showing me the local cafeteria menu on my phone when I visit a different office? Or delivering up-to-the-minute client insights from conversations in employee social networking (ESN) tools?

At best, a company will probably have a tool like Jive that delivers some content recommendations based on the page or file I’m looking at. But those recommendations are likely limited to content within that application and the recommendations may be based on basic content analysis rather than sophisticated, AI-level data mining.

To get to the point where it can surface intelligent, real-time content and insights, the digital workplace needs to mine content from lots of applications.

The innovative digital workplace future relies on a mundane present

AI is about mining massive, disparate data sets and tracking mundane personal information.

Delivering the rich future of work we imagine isn’t a magical endeavour. It actually relies on our doing the routine work we’ve been trying to nail for a long time now.

Related research and resources

Personalization Report

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About the author

Ephraim FreedEphraim Freed is an employee experience strategist and leader who has spent the last decade working on the cutting edge of internal communications and intranets. He has developed digital platforms and communications programs within innovative global organizations including Riot Games and Oxfam America. As a marketing manager and consultant he has helped industry-leading firms such as the Digital Workplace Group and ThoughtFarmer drive change at client organizations.

Ephraim combines user experience design and strategic change management to deliver purposeful technology, communications channels and content. In his spare time Ephraim is an empowering father to his two young daughters, goes trail running and barbeques over charcoal every Saturday night.

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