Decoding Avanade’s digital workplace approach and language

September 21, 2015 by
Decoding Avanade digital workplace approach DWG

Avanade, the joint venture between Accenture and Microsoft, has done some solid thinking around digital workplace management. This article articulates the strengths behind their approach and highlights a few quirks that digital workplace leaders need to understand.

Okay. I’m not gonna pull any punches here. I’m gonna be totally honest and tell you that Avanade’s digital workplace thinking is… very good.

We at the Digital Workplace Group (DWG), as a driving force behind the popularization and definition of the phrase “digital workplace” over the last five years, care tremendously about how senior leaders at large organizations understand this concept.

We recently analysed Gartner’s 8 building blocks of the digital workplace within that context. For the next assessment we’ve turned our attention to Avanade, which has actively produced material on the digital workplace concept for about two years now.

And honestly, in looking at Avanade’s core digital workplace service offering, the ebook about Avanade’s digital workplace approach and a July 2015 article on 5 major digital workplace trends, it’s clear they’ve done their homework.

There are, however, a few quirks in their language and contextual idiosyncrasies that senior leaders at large enterprises should understand in order to fully capitalize on Avanade’s digital workplace thinking.

Avanade balances user experience and business benefits

For those who may not be familiar with it, Avanade is a joint venture between Accenture and Microsoft. It ties Accenture’s management consulting background with a Microsoft stack-specific expertise in enterprise technology implementation.

The result, which could have been a technology-blinded consulting machine, is instead a well-balanced digital change implementer.

Avanade front-loads most of its digital workplace material with business benefits, user experience concepts and the need for change management. Other technology implementers often see the digital workplace as a purely technological issue, a trap that Avanade avoids.

6 strengths of Avanade’s approach:

Avanade’s thinking can play a helpful role in the global discourse about the digital workplace concept. Here are several strengths of their thinking and approach:

  1. Business benefits: Avanade is quick to begin any digital workplace conversation with reference to the target business benefits, which suggests it is putting business problems and needs first, not technology. For a free and in-depth look at the business benefits of digital workplace investments, see DWG’s Digital Workplace Business Case report. The full range of benefits listed in Avanade’s materials include:
    1. employee productivity
    2. revenue growth
    3. employee satisfaction
    4. innovation
    5. more effective teamwork.
  2. User experience design (UXD): Avanade puts user experience near the forefront of its approach, recognizing the link between the digital experience of work and employee satisfaction and productivity. I haven’t seen any in-depth thinking from Avanade on this, so DWG’s report on the topic may be a helpful deepdive: Digital Workplace User Experience: Designing for a flexible workforce.
  3. Frontline focus: As part of its focus on UXD, Avanade recommends breaking workers out into related groups and targeting solutions at frontline roles, such as sales staff and field operations. DWG has noted time and again that a focus on frontline workers drives the greatest value from enterprise mobile. DWG Senior Digital Workplace Strategy Consultant, Chris Tubb, wrote a useful article on user segmentation for digital workplace projects, which provides more explanation of this topic.
  4. Multi-vendor perspective: Avanade’s material consistently references Microsoft technology, but also explicitly recognizes that no single vendor can provide the full range of tools needed for a robust digital workplace. The importance of technology standards and integration is also highlighted.
  5. Change management: Avanade’s favourite term is “change enablement”, and its material consistently returns to this useful refrain. DWG’s research has shown that strong change management is a key success factor for digital workplace projects.
  6. Aspirational, future-facing: Avanade describes an inspiring digital world of work that is also very ambitious. That ambition creates a strong tension between the present and the near future’s potential.

As you can see, Avanade has a rich perspective on digital workplace projects that eschews common technocentric limitations.

However, Avanade’s material uses a few strange references and has some slightly hidden meanings that need clarification.

3 key points for understanding Avanade’s digital workplace approach

1: Actually, everyone already has a digital workplace

The way Avanade positions the phrase “digital workplace” in sentences proves a little jarring. The language suggests that some organizations don’t yet have a digital workplace and that only some digital technology is actually “digital workplace” technology:

  • “Ninety-nine percent of organizations that have adopted digital workplace tools have experienced business benefits.”
  • “The advantages of a truly digital workplace are clear and compelling.”
  • “We define a digital workplace as one that empowers employees – regardless of their location – to drive business advantage by using digital tools and intelligent context.”

Avanade appears to see the digital workplace as a specific set of digital tools that organizations either have or don’t have. This is simply factually inaccurate.

Every organization today has a digital workplace. It might be ugly. It might be old. It might be messy. But every organization already has one. And every digital tool an organization uses is part of its digital workplace. There aren’t some tools that are part of the digital workplace and others that are not.

The question is really about the quality of a digital workplace and where it needs to improve.

DWG’s digital workplace maturity model recognizes that digital workplaces already exist. Our model looks at digital workplaces from three perspectives:

  1. How well they serve key purposes.
  2. How well tied together they are.
  3. How well they are managed.

Of the seven dimensions of DWG’s digital workplace maturity model, the two that measure cohesiveness are:

  • 4: Structure and Coherence
  • 5: Mobility and Flexibility.

So, if you’re a senior leader at a large organization and you’re building your mental model of the digital workplace, we recommend that your definition of “digital workplace” isn’t limited to just certain types of digital tools. Recognize that you already have a digital workplace and that the digital workplace is really the digital experience of work.

Be extra cognizant of the trend to equate “digital workplace” with “social business” or “enterprise social software”. This reductionist approach to defining the term is very limiting and I see it as industry hyperbole (IMHO).

2: A Microsoft-oriented vision

Savvy digital workplace leaders walk the fine line between futuristic visions that are impossible to implement and limiting their thinking to the technology immediately available from current vendors.

Those with an intranet background know that for more than a decade many in the industry have based their understanding of intranet possibilities on the language and architecture of SharePoint. Other intranet and digital workplace tools have also shaped (and limited) our understanding of what the digital workplace can offer.

But software vendors should not dictate our mental frameworks, needs and visions. In fact, customers need to think independently and inspiringly about what the digital workplace should look like, what it should do, and how workers experience it. Large enterprises are perfectly positioned to push vendors forward.

Avanade is a Microsoft implementer, and a good one. There is no argument about that. I raise the point about its Microsoft focus because, underlying much of what Avanade says, there may be a certain adherence to what Microsoft products can do today and are promised to do in the near future.

Microsoft’s latest iteration of tools looks stronger, more modern, and better tied together than ever before. But that’s not saying a lot.

Office 365, Skype for Business, Office Graph, Delve and SharePoint 2013 can now offer a more streamlined and integrated user experience than Microsoft has ever been able to deliver before (through proper architecture and implementation). Under the leadership of Satya Nadella since early 2014, Microsoft seems to have quickly shifted its focus and thinking to adapt to the modern digital workplace landscape.

But there are still plenty of holes, limitations and confusing elements in the Microsoft architecture. And the picture is especially challenging for organizations trying to migrate from a previous iteration of the Microsoft stack.

Senior leaders at large organizations need to know when they’re being tied to the Microsoft product roadmap, what the limitations and dependencies of this might be, and recognize when certain language is really code for specific technology.

And as a responsible partner to clients and Microsoft, Avanade needs to keep one eye on the digital workplace future separate from the roadmap coming out of Redmond.

3: “Intelligent context” means Office Graph and Delve

Related to the point above, Avanade materials consistently reference “intelligent context” when describing digital workplace projects.

While in some contexts Avanade’s “intelligent context” may refer to analytics dashboards and other forms of business intelligence, often it really means Microsoft’s recent offerings, Office Graph and Delve.

Office Graph and Delve are actually quite strong entries into the world of machine learning and social network analysis within organizations.

Office Graph is a system that ties together all the cloud/web-based Microsoft tools and analyses users’ social network activity across those tools. On an ongoing basis Office Graph collects information on each employee’s activity within the Microsoft cloud ecosystem (specific to one organization) and learns what is relevant to each person.

Delve is a Microsoft application that uses Office Graph data to deliver better search results that are highly personalized to each user. Because Office Graph looks at activity across Microsoft’s online tools, it allows Delve to see, for example, that you have a meeting in an hour (Outlook) and show you relevant documents (OneDrive or SharePoint 2013), no matter what repository they are in (as long as it’s an online Microsoft repository).

A core idea behind Office Graph is that people can build custom apps that leverage the data from Office Graph for myriad purposes. Delve is just one application that does this, but in the near future we could see many more.

Office Graph and Delve can deliver a social filter for information, making search results more relevant and surfacing related information before users even have to search. In a recent article on 7 ways the goal posts on enterprise search have moved, I highlighted the need for a “persistent social filter” to help cut through information overload and deliver personal relevance. Microsoft’s new tools are an important step forward in improving search, information filtering and personalization as parts of the digital experience of work.

However, a core limitation of Office Graph is that right now it only connects with cloud-based tools – and only those from the Microsoft stack. For the most part however, I’ve been told that, if configured properly, Office Graph can connect with on-premises Microsoft Apps.

Why is this relevant to digital workplace leaders?

You need to know the potential power and limitations of the phrase “intelligent context”. Know that it may mean “Microsoft’s social network analysis and machine learning tools”. Know that it may mean “only cloud-based Microsoft products.” Know that it likely starts with Delve and could extend to include custom-developed apps that work with the current iteration of Office Graph.

And when you read a sentence like the following, know that it might be referring to Office Graph and Delve: “A digital workplace integrates applications with information and collaboration in an intelligent context that is tailored to the employee’s industry, role, location and tasks to create competitive advantage, increase productivity, reduce costs and speed up innovation.”

None of this is bad. Avanade is doing excellent work with Microsoft’s new tools. But there may be a little bit of coded language that digital workplace leaders should be able to decipher on-the-fly.

Bonus: Beware “consumerization”

Avanade’s materials, along with those from basically everybody in the industry, refer to the “consumerization of enterprise technology”, usually as an unfettered positive influence.

I’m here to buck the trend and suggest that we in the digital workplace industry need to carefully assess what is actually good about consumer trends in technology, and what may not be.

Positive aspects of modern consumer technology include:

  • A strong focus on user experience
  • Task-based tools that solve very specific problems
  • Creativity and innovation in developing new and novel solutions
  • Access to tools and data from any device
  • Contextual information and smart notifications
  • New types of tools that use the smart sensors on mobile devices
  • Social filters that help users connect with the right information
  • Geographically contextualized tools and information
  • User ratings and reviews that drive transparency and accountability.

But there are also some negative trends within consumer tech:

  • Pervasive advertising-driven experiences
  • Inconsistent user experiences across a huge number of apps
  • Poor app design due to low barriers of entry
  • A heavy burden on the user to find and customize apps
  • Notification overload
  • Content for the sake of site visits and advertising sales, not usefulness
  • Privacy and data security issues
  • Technology and content as distractions.

Digital workplace leaders can’t afford to blindly inherit industry jargon and buzzword-heavy concepts.

In an increasingly competitive talent marketplace, large organizations need to focus on designing rich and engaging digital experiences of work. We can’t assume that all consumer tech trends will be good for enterprises, but instead must carefully apply the good practices where they fit well within the workplace context.

The “appification” of intranets is somewhat popular right now, but may not offer any substantial improvements over traditional information architecture (aka “site navigation”) approaches. The most compelling enterprise mobile examples we’ve seen at DWG offer consistent design, a plain English navigation structure and many of the characteristics traditionally associated with strong intranets.

Appification often suits software vendors, who want to provide the most generic possible solutions in order to minimize customization and implementation efforts, and to maximize profits. Large enterprises can’t let vendor concerns like that drive their digital workplace strategies.
As nerdy as the final sentence of this article is, I think it sums up the analysis fairly well. For senior leaders at large organizations, the need is not so much about “embracing a digital workplace” (as Avanade states) as it is about “embracing cohesive digital workplace management and employee digital experience design” (my words).

Categorised in: Collaboration, Digital workplace, ROI & Business Case, Search & findability, Strategy & governance, Usability & design

Ephraim Freed

Ephraim is a communicator, community builder, digital strategist and employee experience leader. He helps innovative, growing organizations provide meaningful experiences of work that enrich employees' lives, grow strong, positive organizational cultures, build community, drive productivity and performance, and bring employer brands to life.

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