Ahead of next month’s Digital Workplace 24 event, Digital Workplace Group’s CEO Paul Miller explains what the term “digital workplace” means and the story behind its use.
In 2001 the Digital Workplace Group (DWG) piloted a new methodology we had developed to measure the performance of large-scale intranets. The model developed by IBF was tested at the Bank of England and on 20 June 2002 IBF was founded.
Intranet benchmarking was just the start
For me the real subject IBF was focused on was not intranets but technology-based services used in the workplace. In fact, in 2000 we trademarked the term “digital engagement” because what interested me was the relationship between people and technology in work.
But major organizations were then purely concerned with their intranets so we focused on resolving the early stage chaos of intranet environments.
Lessons from defining “intranets”
The term “intranet” has been in use now for close to two decades but even as recently as 2011 people were still debating what “intranet” really means.
For me one of the beauties of intranets is that the term itself has remained flexible enough to adapt to intranet evolution. The high-grade collaboration and mobile intranets of today bear little relation to the static, poorly designed web pages of 2002 – but each are examples of intranets.
Most people regard intranets as the web services inside the firewall. This means that schools, universities, 30-person stationery distributors, through to Deutsche Post DHL with 500,000 staff, all have an intranet in one form or another. The lesson for me is that if you define too narrowly, you become extinct – but equally, if you define too broadly, you become meaningless.
Intranets are essential today
Today CIOs and CTOs describe their intranets as “hygiene” – essential to the business but “hygiene”. To which I say, yes and hygiene is critical in life isn’t it? But there is truth in what they say.
What we now have in the intranet field (whether social or mobile or collaborative) is a mature industry providing an essential range of digital services to the staff, contractors and third parties (in some cases). It is essential to daily organizational operations but it is not transformational. That is not to devalue intranets: “essential” is an impressive place to occupy for any corporate service.
That brings me to the digital workplace.
Exploring the nascent digital workplace
In four weeks we go live on air with Digital Workplace 24 (#DW24), our 24-hour online gathering for thousands of intranet and digital workplace practitioners in hundreds of organizations in close to 80 countries (so far).
Together we will travel on a 24-hour journey through the world’s digital workplaces using live tours and thought-leader interviews.
As we prepare for lift-off, it is worth describing how I and my 60 colleagues in the Digital Workplace Group, where I am CEO, see the digital workplace now. It is also important to look at how the experience with intranets can best inform the evolution of this new digital world of work.
Origins of the term “digital workplace”
I began using the term digital workplace in 2009. It was gathering dust in a drawer, having been coined by Hewlett Packard in 1998 as the name for a new type of printer.
For me it represented a re-awakening of the term “digital engagement” but in a more tangible and compelling form.
Explaining “digital workplace” to your mother
As I said my book The Digital Workplace – How Technology is Liberating Work (2012), and have repeated at many conferences and in the media, there is a clear and powerful reason I felt drawn to this new terminology:
We all know and understand the physical workplaces as they have developed since the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s – and the digital workplace is the “digital counterpart” – the technology-enabled environments where work increasingly happens.
For some strange reason this rather simple descriptor makes sense to my mother who is 91 as well as to my nephew who is four, to my dry cleaner in his 60s as well as virtually anyone I meet. Somehow we all “get” there is a digital sphere where we more and more find ourselves living and working.
The danger of technical definitions
For me one description of the digital workplace is just that – the digital environment of work that is not physical.
My follow-on definition is that this digital workplace is the aggregated set of technology services where we work: intranets, unified communications, microblogging, HR systems, email, mobile applications, collaborative spaces, supply chain, CRMs etc.
What is important, based on the experience of intranets, is to operate with a description or definition that can be easily understood but has the capacity to evolve as technology and its relationship with work grows.
Ongoing industry effort to bring clarity
In the Digital Workplace Group we have produced research and mapping and measurement processes, as well as begun to build a community to lead in the digital workplace field (as we have achieved with intranets in the past decade).
We have also seen an industry begin to form around the digital workplace with organizations creating digital workplace programmes, steering groups, roles and titles and a consulting industry focus to service the marketplace.
We’ve seen several helpful efforts to define the digital workplace in some form or other, such as:
- Jane McConnell has a good definition in her annual digital workplace trends report (which started life as intranet-based research), based on extending from the intranet to include a broader range of common applications
- Mark Morrell offers an indirect definition which is attractive more for its implications than as an explicit description: “Work is what you do, not where you go.”
- James Robertson wrote a story about a week in the life of a digital workplace that explained the experience of the digital workplace from an end-user perspective
- Stephen Schillerwein wrote a booklet about the digital workplace from a knowledge-management perspective.
All of these efforts have served to bring further illuminate the scope of the digital workplace and its impacts.
5 leading examples of the digital workplace
As we prepare for Digital Workplace 24 here are five surprising places to find the digital workplace having an impact (and all will be featured on #DW24):
- Mobile retail frontline – shop assistants in clothing chain Zara use smart mobile devices to generate market research into rapid manufacturing in Northern Spain
- Re-imagined physical workplaces – how Accenture uses enhanced physical spaces with advanced technology to change the nature of work for its 200,000 staff
- Gaming the company – SAP is using gamification to change the digital experience of work
- Telepresence robots – yes they are here: the new version of telepresence as robots enter the office
- Collaboration at turbo-speed – IBM yet again changing the face of collaboration in the enterprise.
See the #DW24 schedule for the full line-up and to reserve a seat for the show.
The digital workplace is transformational
But the digital workplace is far more than the intranet plus a range of other technology services.
The analogy for me is a transportation system. If the intranet is the “train”, then other technologies are other forms of transport – buses, water, cars, planes. Yet together the integration and flows between the forms provides not only an integrated way of moving people and things but also transforms the lives of the people involved.
Seen in this light, the digital workplace can’t be defined in such simple and narrow terms as the component parts can be described.
The digital workplace is adapting, innovating at a relentless speed and power:
- We now carry our digital workplace in our pockets.
- Our work is where we are.
- Physical offices are under threat.
- Robotics are replacing many jobs, even of knowledge workers.
- Where we live and where we work can be the same place if we choose.
- We can empower postal delivery workers with as much data and information as the CEO if we wish to.
- Assumptions on how trust is built in companies are being challenged.
Work historically has been defined by its location – in agricultural times, it was the village, fields and towns; in industrial times it was factories, cities and offices – and now in the post-technological revolution work is mobile, portable; not a physical location but a digital one. This means that the digital workplace is transforming work itself and how organizations create value.
Intranets are essential and the digital workplace is transformational.
As I look forward (or quake with anxiety) to hosting large chunks of Digital Workplace 24, it is clear to me and colleagues in DWG that we are now embarking on the next generation of the digital workplace. The term is becoming an industry and a focus of effort and intelligence and competitive advantage. Across 24 hours we will all gain an experience of the scope and scale of the digital workplace today and we will move this industry that is crucial to our work and lives forward through powerful practical examples, conversation and insights.
Fasten your seat belts – the next generation digital workplace has arrived!