Analysis of Gartner’s “8 building blocks for the digital workplace”

September 2, 2015 by
Analysis of Gartner 8 elements of a digital workplace

Gartner’s “Eight Building Blocks for the Digital Workplace” offers a thoughtful analysis and includes many important strategic topics. This first major foray by Gartner into digital workplace strategy, however, somewhat resembles a list of trends and has a few important gaps.

As pioneers of the digital workplace industry and best practices, our team at the Digital Workplace Group (DWG) feels compelled to guide digital workplace leaders through new concepts and frameworks.

In 2012, DWG CEO Paul Miller’s book The Digital Workplace: How technology is liberating work helped to kick off global awareness of the term “digital workplace”. Prior to that, in late 2010, DWG had released an early version of a digital workplace maturity model. Then, DWG’s 2013 release of a more comprehensive digital workplace maturity benchmark introduced a tool that cuts more deeply into issues of strategy and governance, technology management and user experience as well as consumer journey, helping to set the scope of the digital workplace even more clearly.

Now, in 2015, it’s exciting to see very large firms like Gartner joining in the global conversation around the digital workplace with thoughtful analyses and ideas.

So, within this article you will find an assessment of Gartner’s eight building blocks for a digital workplace, based on DWG’s extensive digital workplace research programme and evaluation experience.

IN SUMMARY: Gartner gets it right, with just a few missing pieces

In May of 2015, Gartner published an excellent article on the Eight Building Blocks for the Digital Workplace. Those eight building blocks comprise:

  1. Digital workplace vision: why, what and how
  2. Digital workplace strategy: write a comprehensive road map
  3. Workplace employee engagement: encourage a corporate culture of autonomy, accountability and empowerment
  4. Digital workplace organizational change: this changes everything
  5. Digital workplace processes: how to be the right kind of enabler
  6. Digital workplace information: on demand and on target
  7. Digital workplace metrics: measurement as a tool for change and evaluation
  8. Digital workplace technology: get smart

Basically, Gartner has escaped the trap many technology-focused firms fall into of seeing the digital workplace purely through a technological lens. We’ve seen some “digital workplace evaluation” services offered that focus only on cataloguing and optimizing enterprises’ technology.

Gartner’s “eight building blocks”, thankfully, offer a much more sophisticated analysis that looks at strategy, organizational culture, change management and technology use.

Below we’ve assessed the areas in which Gartner’s “Eight building blocks for the digital workplace” excels, as well as the areas where it is lacking, which include:

  • user experience design (UXD) and employee experience
  • governance and ownership
  • cross-functional management and delivery.

Excellent attention to purpose and strategy

Every organization has a digital workplace. It’s a common misconception that you don’t have one and that you will need to go out and build one. Your digital workplace is already there, but it’s likely a mess. Organizations have not, to date, managed their digital workplaces in a holistic or coherent way.

In order to move from a siloed and disjointed collection of systems to a more integrated employee experience, setting an aspirational vision and a strategic roadmap, is absolutely critical.

Fortunately, the first two of Gartner’s eight building blocks for the digital workplace focus on setting this vision and strategy. Having a clear purpose is helpful in so many domains of life; it can catalyze commitment, align efforts and inspire. In our view, Gartner absolutely nailed this first piece.

If you’re interested in a simple guide to jumpstarting your own digital workplace strategy efforts, download our free Checklist for setting up a digital workplace programme to get started. Data from our 2014 member survey showed a sharp uptick in large organizations that were prioritising a digital workplace strategy, up from just 9% in 2013 to 52% in 2014. This indicates that digital workplace management is a very real and growing issue.

Good focus on change management and organizational culture

If you haven’t heard the quote by famous management professor Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, this can now be your new go-to smart thing to say in important meetings.

Gartner has usefully included a focus on organizational culture within their digital workplace building blocks framework, with attention on employee engagement and management practices or “leadership culture”.

Building block #3 about employee engagement is a soft nod to Dan Pink’s book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, Dave Gray’s book The Connected Company and concepts like ROWE – the Results Oriented Workplace Environment. These concepts basically support a growing movement to see employees as intelligent, creative knowledge workers, who should be treated like grown-ups and supported rather than supervised like undisciplined children.

Building block #4 on change management speaks to the changes in leadership styles and philosophies needed to drive this new perspective on employees, motivation and innovation. DWG’s own data shows that strong change management is a key success factor for intranet and digital workplace projects.

A question still remains, though, on the data linking organizational culture and successful digital workplace programmes. In a recent article for DWG, Shimrit Janes asked: What is the relationship between organizational culture and the digital workplace? while Jane McConnell’s latest post on The company cultures that help (or hinder) digital transformation starts to provide data-based evidence of what works and what doesn’t. But the industry needs to do more work in quantifying the specific causal links to digital workplace success.

At DWG we are excited for the imminent release of our benchmarking meta-analysis research, which compares extensive data from 30 recent evaluations of intranets at major organizations. In a nutshell the analysis shows that organisational culture is the ‘lynchpin’ for success in an array of intranet management (and related digital workplace management) practices including employee digital experience, connectivity and collaboration. It correlates strongly to 10 other areas as well.

+1 for the mention of “benchmarking” & metrics

Once again, Gartner nailed an important concept with building block #7, which focuses on metrics.

They took it one step further in explaining the importance of business-value metrics, rather than the much less strategic usage statistics (we call them “vanity stats”) that are much more common.

Interestingly, identifying business-value metrics depends heavily on having a clear strategy with specific goals. Thus, Gartner’s building blocks #2 and #7 are highly interdependent.

And, of course, I smiled at the reference to digital workplace benchmarking in the “metrics” building block. With 13 years of experience benchmarking Fortune 500 companies’ intranets and digital workplaces, we at DWG don’t need any convincing about the importance of sophisticated, apples-to-apples comparisons against industry best practices.

Inspiring focus on “smart” machines and tools

Building block #8 from Gartner shines the spotlight on what they call “smart” technology. This means transforming machines and other tools by embedding sensing and reporting tech, and integrating internet connectedness.

Often referred to as the “internet of things”, this concept offers more potential than we can really imagine. This sort of functionality, along with advances in artificial intelligence (AI) – not mentioned by Gartner – can suggest a scary future where machines replace human beings.

But the much more positive perspective sees machines and AI enhancing human productivity and elevating the roles of human beings to the creative, knowledge-intensive work that the human brain excels at.

If you want to go on a real mind trip, read Paul Miller’s post on What 5-Year Olds Today Will Expect from the Workplace of 2029. And if you’re up for a book-length mind-bender, read The Second Machine Age by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson.

Attention on better information targeting and filtering

On a more mundane – but very important – note, Gartner’s building block #6 “Digital workplace information” highlights the importance of: 1) making human–computer interfaces much more human, à la Apple’s Siri and Google Now; and 2) making search functions much better at surfacing the right content and tools.

My recent article on the changing nature of enterprise search explains in much more detail how consumer technology trends are raising the bar. And DWG’s recent research report by Chris Tubb, Intranet Search: A holistic approach to management, provides a look at the full breadth of activities required within enterprises to deliver a strong search experience to employees.

Light on process improvement and productivity

While Gartner’s building block #5, “Digital workplace processes”, touches on business process re-engineering, it takes a very cursory view.

It’s good that Gartner included the mention of process improvement. But this building block doesn’t touch on how digital workplace improvements can increase productivity around common daily tasks and, in so doing, improve the employee experience of work and drive business value.

There is huge potential for driving business value by improving how the digital workplace supports highly specific tasks and activities. This specificity in turn supports the collection of business-value metrics as mentioned above.

To Gartner’s credit, though, building block #5 does reference “careful analysis of how employees currently work and engage each other”. This focus on real-world analysis is key.

No mention of user experience design or employee experience

I was disappointed at Gartner’s lack of mention of user experience design (UXD).

The Harvard Business Review’s September 2015 issue put the evolution of design thinking centre stage. The issue’s theme explains how businesses are using design approaches to actually craft business strategy, taking design thinking far beyond the usual domain of graphics and product design.

DWG’s most popular intranet benchmarking area has always been usability benchmarking and we’ve noticed a strong correlation between UXD and successful intranets. Annual intranet awards from Step Two Designs and the Nielsen Norman Group consistently highlight intranets built with a strong user focus. And if UXD has been important to intranets, it’s even more important for the digital workplace. That’s why in 2013 we authored a paper to introduce the topic of UXD for the digital workplace – Digital Workplace User Experience: Designing for a flexible workforce.

But it’s not terribly surprising that this is missing from Gartner’s eight building blocks for the digital workplace. Gartner’s core service is strategic trends analysis for IT leaders. The IT industry historically has had very little focus on user experience design techniques. Technologists are rarely usability experts or trained in UXD.

The Gartner article does include the phrase “careful analysis of how employees currently work and engage each other”, which points somewhat in the direction of UXD. But there is still a large shortfall.

Building block #3 about “employee engagement” does put employees first. But Gartner’s building blocks could go one step further and shift to the perspective of “employee experience”. My recent article Do you have a Chief Employee Experience Officer (CEEO) leading your digital workplace? explains this strategic shift in thinking and structure.

Lack of focus on governance and ownership

Time and again at DWG we see that strong governance is critical to successful digital workplace programmes.

In our benchmarking meta-analysis research (report forthcoming for DWG members) we found that how organisations perform in intranet and digital workplace governance directly impacts the performance of their intranet, the business value achieved from it, and its effectiveness as a communication medium.

While Gartner’s digital workplace building blocks gently allude to governance issues, they don’t put the topic squarely front and centre. The building blocks also say nothing about ownership of the digital workplace vision, roadmap and resources.

The above linked article about the “CEEO” explains that many large organizations have unclear ownership of intranet, enterprise mobile, digital collaboration and digital workplace programmes. This often stems from the fact that these programmes do not fit well in traditional operational divisions, such as HR, IT, Internal Communications, etc.

Shifting to a digital workplace lens of “employee experience” throws this issue into stark relief. Some organizations assume that the IT function should own the digital workplace programme. But, as with intranets, this can lead to a technology-first approach that pays little attention to employee experience.

IT functions are not well known for having strong stakeholder engagement skills. This, or the issue of unclear ownership, can lead to weak governance beyond the purely technical realm. And weak governance is a recipe for failure.

As long as ownership issues and poor governance persist, digital workplace programmes will likely stutter, falter and fail.

Not enough attention to cross-functional coordination

Closely related to the issues of ownership and governance is that of cross-functional coordination.

One key finding from DWG digital workplace research is that strong cross-functional digital workplace management is a key to success. It’s very important for digital workplace steering groups and implementation teams to involve stakeholders from IT, HR, Internal Communications, Real Estate and Facilities, Knowledge Management, and the business side.

As with governance, the Gartner building blocks say nothing about this directly. The line from the article “HR will play a major role in ensuring employee engagement is owned by all stakeholders” is one small indication in the direction of cross-functional collaboration. But mostly Gartner doesn’t touch on the topic.

Why digital workplace programmes must learn from intranets more than other enterprise tech

Throughout this analysis I’ve referenced intranets a few times. This is partly due to my own and DWG’s intranet pedigree. It is also because we are seeing the rise of the “intranet-led digital workplace” among our members and clients.

However, the main reason is that intranets and digital workplaces share many key parallels.

Intranets are not just pieces of software. They’re highly fluid and emerging information and engagement systems. You can’t manage an intranet like email servers, directory protocols or productivity tools such as Microsoft Excel.

Intranets can deliver an array of purposes to end-users, purposes that span many different organizational functions and even go places where there is no organizational support. Intranets impact the productivity of daily administrative tasks as well as knowledge-intensive work. They influence employee engagement and channel organizational communication. They can support knowledge sharing, team collaboration and employee community. And they can show up on screens of all different sizes.

Similarly, managing the digital workplace is about so much more than just technology. And, to date, DWG has noted that many intranet best practices apply to digital workplace management as well, including:

  • clear strategy
  • strong governance
  • clear ownership
  • consistent stakeholder engagement
  • focused change management
  • cross-functional collaboration
  • user experience design approaches.

A good start for Gartner

Overall, Gartner’s eight building blocks for the digital workplace are balanced and impactful. They’ve hit many targets right on the bullseye and have included a rich array of non-technological best practices.

Some of the language seems focused on popular trends rather than proven success factors. But this isn’t surprising as trend analysis is a huge area of strength for Gartner.

I suspect that as Gartner gets deeper into the digital workplace realm and collects more case studies, they’ll broaden their stable of digital workplace best practices.

In the meantime, the Gartner digital workplace building blocks can help IT professionals take a more strategic view of the digital workplace.

Categorised in: Digital workplace, Metrics & measurement, 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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