Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why the Digital Workplace is both relevant and necessary


I have previously written about the need to ask the right questions when trying to find out how information technology can help us work smarter. Technology-centric thinking often make us go astray. Perhaps that is why I couldn't resist answering the following question posted in the Worldwide Intranet Challenge (WIC) group on LinkedIn:
Are Social Collaboration tools going to replace traditional Intranets, or become part of the Intranet?
This question generated an interesting and constructive discussion with folks like Sam Marshall and Martyn Green, and ultimately it highlighted why a term like 'digital workplace' is both relevant and necessary. Below follows my two answers merged into one.

As information workers we need to have access to certain capabilities (a combination of processes, information, resources, and technology) that help us get our jobs done. Traditionally, capabilities such as information access have been provided to us via a web-based Intranet, and before that on paper organized in binders. As work is becoming increasingly digitized and virtual, the number of capabilities we need to have access to increase, as well as our expectations and requirements on how those can be accessed, and what characteristics they have. For example, many of us see a need for capabilities such as team collaboration, document management, virtual meetings, and social networking/collaboration, and we want them to be easy to use, social, attractive, and integrated. We also need to access those in any situation; using the device we have at hand.

In the light of this, I believe the question whether social collaboration tools are going to replace intranets or not is irrelevant – although I can see that it is relevant for someone who is an Intranet manager, or a software vendor.

If we are to focus on how to enable organizations and their employees to achieve their goals, the real questions we should ask are such as the following:
  1. What capabilities do employees need, and why?
  2. How are we to provide those to employees so that they can get their job done in the best way possible, whatever situation they might find themselves in?

Sam Marshall brought the notion of the digital workplace into the discussion:
To me the appeal of talking about digital workplace rather than intranet is to acknowledge that there are significant changes happening, many of which are outside of intranets but which impact employee experience. They all matter and they all benefit from joined up thinking.
I agree 100% with Sam. As I have previously argued, talking about and conceptualizing a ‘digital workplace’ can help us think more holistically, and with less technology-focus, about how to serve the needs of organizations and information workers. In contrast to terms like 'intranet', ‘social collaboration tools’, or 'enterprise social networking platform' that directly make us think about specific technologies and solutions, the digital workplace can help us think more about the places where people work, and what they need from their workplace to get their work done. In a digital world, that place could (and will) be anywhere, so we will have to think more about what situations employees find themselves in.

In this respect the digital workplace also highlights a paradigm shift in how organizations are using IT to support information work. Previously it was primarily administrative personnel that used IT for information worker tasks, and they performed them at their desks at the office during office hours. Now, virtually all employees need to perform some information worker tasks on a daily basis, and they need to be able to perform them wherever and whenever the job needs to get done. There simply is no time for them to go to the office to get the information work done. Perhaps they don't have an office to go to. They need to do it in the situations where they actually work.

Mobile technologies, cloud computing, and social technologies are some of the key technological enablers in this paradigm shift. Another - and even more important - enabler is that we design IT solutions to fit the needs of individuals in different situations, instead of implementing standardized one-size-fits-all (people and situations) enterprise software primarily designed for process efficiency, but with little thought about the productivity of individuals. I believe the digital workplace can help us focus more on how to design IT solutions that fit the needs of individuals in different situations, and finding the right mix of technologies to deliver the required capabilities. To start with, it can help us avoid getting trapped in technology stove-pipes.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Will the real expert please stand up?

At a job interview some time back, the managing director of the company I was interviewed by named two different WCM systems. Then he asked me which one of two I believed was the best. He obviously wanted to test my expertise in WCM, which he had heard of before the interview.

Although I was quite familiar with both products, I answered him that I couldn't possibly pick one or the other. Not without first understanding the needs of the organization that was to choose between the two products. Using my expertise in web content management, I could help them identify and describe their needs, state them as requirements, map those to the technical capabilities of each product, and then recommend the product that best fits their requirements (needs). Doing so requires you to ask the right questions, and knowing how to find the answers.

I believe it wasn't the answer he had expected, but I do hope he learned something about what it means to be an expert from my answer.

Being an expert is not about knowing everything within a certain domain. It is about being able to ask the right questions, and having the skills and network to find the answers.

In fact, if I hadn't been connected to so many smart people myself, I would have missed adding network part of being an expert (thank you @KluwerLearning).

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Tasks, networks, and transaction costs


The following tweet by the always excellent thinker Esko Kilpi got me thinking (and writing) this morning:


Here is the train of thought it set in motion.

We are all, as employees of organizations, hired to perform certain tasks. We perform these tasks to create value for someone. The work we are to do is not a role, or a function. Those are just conceptual containers, making it easier to define tasks that we are responsible for, and what tasks other people are responsible for.

To our help, as we perform our tasks, we have our own knowledge and experiences, information, various resources such as IT tools and systems, and – we have our own networks. Those networks connect us to even more knowledge and experiences, information, and resources that might be needed if we are to be able to perform our tasks. This is especially true when we encounter situations we have no previous experience from, when we lack information to make decisions, when we are faced with exceptions and problems that we cannot handle on our own – or where we would perform much better if we made use of the intellectual capital and resources we are connected to though our networks.

In reality, we never work in isolation. Any enterprise involves at least two persons; the provider of a service or product and the customer, and most of us work in much larger and more complex enterprises than that, involving hundreds or even hundreds of thousands of people - if we don't count the customers. The things we do as individuals are inter-connected with the things other people do. At the very least, our work is connected by a shared purpose, commonly expressed as vision and mission statements. To achieve that purpose, each and one of us don’t just need to do the right things (tasks) in the right way, but we must also coordinate our work. The work we do is connected on different levels, and these networks must be coordinated.

As organizations are becoming more knowledge-intense, and need to adapt the enterprise to an ever-changing business environment, work (tasks) is also becoming more and more inter-dependent. It needs to be even more connected. We are now starting to realize that the formal structures and systems that we have created to make our work easier to control, measure, and improve inhibit rapid coordination and change instead enabling it. The paradox is that the network, the basic architecture of work upon which we have put the formal structures, is much faster at adapting to a changing environment. What it excels at is access and dissemination of new information. Many of the existing formal structures and systems are associated with transaction costs that simply makes it impossible to create, manage and distribute the amount of information with speed and precision they way we need to.

So, suddenly we need to adapt our formal structures and systems to support the network instead of constraining and suppressing it. We need to create a better balance between our capability to optimize our enterprise and our capability to adapt it to new situations. This is the challenge that more or less all organizations are facing today. To find the solutions for this problem, we cannot simply look in the rear-view mirror. We must try to envision the future we are heading into, and innovate how organizations and enterprises are designed, making smart use of new technologies that make the transaction costs for communication and coordination drop dramatically.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Email is the biggest productivity drain for knowledge workers

Although email has many good sides, we shouldn't be blind to the many problems that come with using email for work-related communication: information is hidden in the participants’ inboxes and cannot be accessed by those outside of a conversation, the information in an email duplicates like a virus for each recipient it is sent to, redundant attachments consume disk space, and having conversations and coordinating activities becomes messy as soon as two or more people are involved. But the one thing that has made email the biggest productivity drain for knowledge workers is the burden this style of communication puts on the recipient. It is up to the receiver, not the sender, to add structure to the communication and deal with the chaos in her inbox that this lack of communication structure leads to. All sorts of emails end up in our inboxes with no good way to easily filter out what is relevant and what context the email belongs to. It is entirely up to us as receivers to create filters and apply structure to the communication - and this has to be done by every individual who is participating in an email conversation, for all email coversations we participate in! If we combine this with the phenomena of occupational spam, where there is no way for the recipient to opt out of some conversations she has been added to by the sender, the situation easily becomes unmanageable to many people and creates enormous amounts of waste in organizations.

I have illustrated the differences between what I call an "occupational spam culture" and an "opt-in culture" below.



In an opt-in culture, each and everyone can choose which conversations they want to participate in and contribute to – which most likely will be the ones where they can add most value and which they enjoy participating in. It implies that conversations are open by default and hosted on open platforms. If this is combined with ways of communicating where the sender applies the structure to the communication so that the recipients don’t have to, huge amounts of waste can be eliminated and people can use the time and energy that is freed for value-adding activities and seeking out situations where they can add value with their expertise.

The good news is that there are many proven solutions out there that are just waiting to be adopted. For example, instead of communicating with your project team using email, you can communicate using a team blog. What you will do is to impose structure on the communication by sending the information to a specific context where it gets associated to previously communicated information and becomes available to anyone who has access to the blog. The information will not be buried in people's inboxes, it does not need to be pushed to their inboxes if they don't want it. From an organizational point of view, information and knowledge that can be of use by other people within the organization is captured and made available. Not as a separate activity, but as a biproduct of a communication process.

Even people who are using email by habit can be "lured in" to this kind of communication. Just don't tell them they should start blogging. They can still write their messages in their email clients and send them as emails, but by sending the messages to blogs instead of to lists of email addresses they will put the information in the context where it belongs. Even if the other team members choose to subscribe to the blog via email (as an alternative to visiting the blog or subscribing to an RSS feed), the information will stay on the blog and be available to those who might need it. Once the receivers have read the information, they could delete their emails and still be confident that they can find the information on the blog. In other words, there is no need to spend time organizing those emails in folders in their email client to simplify re-finding the information. They could just visit the blog to browse or search it, or even find it using the enterprise search. Should they choose to comment on the information that was posted on the blog, why not do it on the blog instead where everybody can see who has commented and what, instead of creating numerous messy email threads using reply all?

If it is this simple, and it really is, then what are you waiting for? (ok, there's on part that is hard, and that is making people change their habits)