So what is the digital workplace anyway?
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…
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?
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?