What is the Digital Workplace?

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Following the SharePoint Saturday Redmond event last weekend, I was able to spend the week in the Seattle area, crashing at my sister’s house and enjoying some time with the nieces and nephews. Of course, I also found my way over to the Microsoft campus a couple times, and caught up with a few folks in the wake of Microsoft’s most recent announcement around Teams.

There will be forthcoming content via the Beezy blog around the impact of Teams, and how they will co-exist with Office Groups, Yammer, and the host of other 3rd party messaging and social collaboration solutions. However, there is a more basic question that needs to be answered: What is the Digital Workplace? I’ve heard plenty of empty platitudes and marketing-speak about transformation and collaboration, but what is it, really?

I’m not going to attempt to answer that in full right now….as I am about to pack up and head down to Bellevue to check in for this year’s Microsoft MVP Summit, but I wanted to at least get the ball rolling with four ideas that play into the broader topic:

  1. The traditional Intranet has failed.
    Static environments take more effort to upkeep than the value they generate. In the modern workplace, information workers need real-time collaboration and communication tools, and business intelligence built in to the platforms they use. It’s more than just a working search capability, but in automating work and finding ways to add value.
  2. The standalone ESN is dead.
    Social collaboration is a key aspect of the digital workplace, but it is not THE answer. When done well, social becomes ubiquitous and serendipitous, adding value as you do your work by allowing you to quickly share and comment and interact, all of which adds value to your work. It is essential, but if it is not an integrated part of your other business systems, it can actually distract from your work. The net-net here is that if you have to go to a separate URL or click into another tab to be “social,” you’re losing productivity.
  3. Real work happens between workloads.
    Think about how your organization reacts to the news that someone is retiring, and how they go about capturing years of experience. It’s usually a process document of some sort, and a massive archive of email and data. And then they leave, and you find that taking action around that document and data is next to impossible. However, if your system is able to capture all of the social interactions, tie together via the Microsoft Graph all of that email and data, through this vast web of interconnected artifacts and conversations, you will find the narrative behind the process document. I’ll be honest – this can be incredibly hard and complex to accomplish, but it’s exactly where digital workplace technology is heading, and companies need to be thinking about it.
  4. Culture directs communication.
    You cannot deploy any technology out of the box and expect that it be a 100% fit for the unique needs and culture of your organization. We all understand this on a very basic level, and then we purchase something like SharePoint and ignore this truth. Even the most perfectly architected, carefully deployed, and precisely planned technologies will flat out fail if end users do not adopt. And a key to adoption is to find the right technology fit for your organization’s culture. If your culture is one where people are very social and use messaging and consumer-based networking tools, enforcing process-centric tools without social components will likely fail. And likewise, forcing an email-centric org to “turn off” email and move entirely to  social may not be a successful path for your org. You need to identify the right cultural “fit” for your technology plans.

One key message that definitely carries over from the SharePoint world into the modern era of the Digital Workplace, when people ask what it is: It Depends. There is no single system, tool, or platform that is “the” answer, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something. Unfortunately, figuring out the answer is really, really hard. It requires you to get a handle on what is available, what your organization needs, and what your culture requires to be successful. Unfortunately, you won’t find these answers on a vendor’s product datasheet. 

More thoughts on this as the week progresses, and as I move between Redmond and Vienna, where I’ll take the main stage at the European SharePoint Conference with Benjamin Niaulin (@bniaulin) for the Day 2 keynote on “Finding the Right Cultural Fit for Collaboration” which will touch on some of these main points.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of revealit.io, a blockchain-based video technology company.