The business environment that knowledge-intense businesses operate in is
anything but static – it’s changing faster and faster, and in new ways.
It’s becoming more and more unpredictable. This means that businesses
can’t do long-term planning the way they used to. Instead they have to
be prepared for change, becoming agile enough to quickly adapt to new
conditions and situations.
At the same time knowledge work and the contributions of knowledge workers are becoming increasingly important for businesses. There is also a big potential in improving the productivity of knowledge work that they have to address. Yet there is a tension, and often conflict, between agility and productivity. How do we as knowledge workers remain productive, or even increase productivity, when we need to adapt to new conditions all the time? We often find ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Workload and complexity at work is increasing, while we at the same time are expected to be more productive. Add to this that we need to adapt to new conditions. Not only that, we are expected to be creative and innovative as well.
The greatest enemy here spells c-o-m-p-l-e-x-i-t-y. Not only does it hamper knowledge worker productivity, but it is also causing exceptions to happen more frequently; exceptions that are both costly and hard to deal with. No manual or procedure can help us deal with these as each exception is different from the other and needs to be treated in its own special way. To deal with it we have to improvise. Collaborate. Think outside of the box. The problem is that our organizations haven’t been designed for this reality. Most organizations have been designed for efficiency and economies of scale, not for enabling collaboration, creativity and personal responsibility. Too often, we are just cogs in a big machinery. Even if we know what is wrong, and what can be done about it, there simply isn’t any support from the organization to help us act.
Many knowledge workers even lack such basic things as a complete set of good quality tools to do their jobs. Too often, IT decision makers find it convenient to silence their cries for new and better tools by buying a feature-rich product from a big vendor. Then they just to drop it on the users out-of-the-box, without any guidance or support, and without customizing it to fit their needs. The problem is that they already have this huge pile of complex products to deal with. It suddenly becomes up to each and every individuals to figure out how to use all the tools, and how they should fit together. It doesn’t take long before they have become painfully aware of the glitches that exist and all the friction that imposes on their work. This technology-centric approach adds complexity instead of reducing it, instead of making things simpler for knowledge workers.
It is clear that we need a new and better approach for boosting knowledge worker productivity, and that this approach must, by necessity, take a holistic grip on our digital work environment so that unnecessary complexity can be reduced or eliminated and knowledge workers can be empowered to be more productive, innovative and agile. The Digital Workplace is an emerging concept that provides a holistic view of the knowledge worker’s digital work environment, and in this post I will briefly outline what I see as the six pillars of the Digital Workplace.
To empower knowledge workers to be more productive, agile and innovative, it is essential to apply a people-centric approach, as opposed to a technology-centric approach. We need an approach that helps us simplify how we interact with each other, and other things our environment. Any new tool needs to be introduced in a way that it fits with the users, their tasks and the situations they find themselves in. Ultimately it should be invisible, helping us achieve our goals without any friction at all.
The idea of working from anywhere, using different devices and as the situation requires, isn’t new. What is new today, is that we finally have a way to implement this idea in a way that actually works. Today we don't need to bring a dishwasher-sized phone to the golf course. Instead we can actually hold our entire digital workplace in one of our hands. What this essentially means is that the digital workplace revolves around individuals and follows them wherever they go. It’s not tied to a building that we go to, or a certain place. It’s not available only during office hours
What the digital workplace should do is to help us to get our jobs done, in different situations, by providing the services that we need. And these services are all tied together in a coherent user experience, with ubiquitous access to all information we might need, allowing us to work seamlessly together from anywhere.
Since we have gotten used to using great software as consumers, we no longer accept crappy software at work. Commercial services need to be our benchmark when designing the digital workplace and its services. Most importantly, the services need to be attractive and easy to use, since this is what drives adoption and therefore also change in how we work. The Digital Workplace must simplify all kinds of interaction for knowledge workers, and simplicity is the key design principle for achieving this. We need to remove anything that doesn’t add value, and make sure to enhance anything that does. Ultimately, the services should be more or less invisible, helping us achieve our goals without any friction at all.
Social is not simply a technology – it is a way to design technology so that it fits with human nature and leverages collaborative human behavior. Thus it should influence all service design and will be an integral part, a characteristic, of most services. Not only individual services but the entire digital workplace must, as the rest of our work environment, be designed according to social principles such as openness, transparency, participation, dialog, and recognition:
- We need openness to get access to information that we might have use for.
- We need transparency to be able to discover it.
- It needs to be possible for anyone to participate, because that’s how we can deal with any kind of problem or opportunity,
- We need dialog to ensure that communication is effective, that we quickly can reach mutual understanding and take action.
- We need recognition, to reward and motivate people to contribute and keep the wheels of collaboration and sharing spinning.
The only feasible way to realize the Digital Workplace is to start with a vision and some guiding principles and then explore potential paths to get there, taking one step at the time. Instead of betting everything on one card, and perhaps failing miserably, we should make many frequent and small bets. Then we get the opportunity to learn from every mistake we make. We evaluate, learn and adjust things as we proceed.
A key reason for introducing change in a step-by-step approach is to make it easier for people to adopt these changes. That way they can also change their ways of working to something better. This is the essence what we are trying to do – to improve ways of working, and thereby increasing knowledge worker productivity. If we don’t achieve this, we have achieved nothing. We have just valuable wasted time and resources.
Therefore, we must make change our number one priority, from the vision and onwards. Nothing else is as important, and we need to find answers to questions like these ready from the start. If we do, our chances of succeeding are pretty good.