November 14, 2016

The Digital Workplace: Collaboration Is Only the Beginning

8 minute read

"Digital Workplace” is a hot buzzword right now, and leading analysts are working to define what the term means. Practitioners and real-world implementations, however, will ultimately define best practices, the success and limitations of digital workplaces that manage unstructured content, information, and data. With 80% or more of the average organization’s information managed as unstructured content, this area has been a critically important but somewhat unmanaged part of the equation for a successful digital workplace. 

In the past, content management or enterprise content management (ECM) was thought of as the path forward for managing all unstructured content in most organizations. Information and content could be categorized, tagged, and stored so it could be accessed for collaboration and business processes could be automated. But as innovation becomes more time-sensitive and collaboration becomes more vital to business performance, it is time we reevaluate how we digitally engage our employees, vendors, and customers. We need to ask ourselves how we manage the information and content so that we are sure to empower the right people with the information they need when they need it.


Digital Workplaces: bringing work to people

The term “digital workplace” has evolved to describe the sort of collection of IT assets that serves the purpose of enhancing 21st century business processes. Much has been written on what a digital workplace is, what it should be, and how to create one (Googling the term yields over 450,000 results, including the inevitable websites for companies whose monikers include the term).

In one such article on CMSWire, “What a Digital Workplace Is and What It Isn’t,” UK intranet consultant Sam Marshall proffers a definition of sorts that we particularly like:

The digital workplace is meant to be a virtual equivalent to the physical workplace, which requires strong planning and management due to its fundamental role in people’s productivity, engagement and working health.

The core philosophy driving the digital workplace, Marshall goes on to suggest, is “putting people first.” This has implications for how we approach the technologies that enable the digital workplace; it calls for “thinking about how they come together from an employee’s point of view.”

On the topic of technology, Marshall says: “The visible parts of the digital workplace are technologies and ways of working that allow people to connect, collaborate, communicate, and cooperate without necessarily being face to face.”

Strategy& management consultants Ramez Shehadi and Danny Karam get a bit more prescriptive, proposing the following as “Five Essential Elements of the Digital Workplace” that organizations should take into account in order to “capitalize on the new ways that employees work” in a business world that “is moving faster and becoming more global, more mobile, and more digitized.”

  1. Access devices
  2. Communications infrastructure
  3. Business applications
  4. Workplace telecommunication tools
  5. Digital security


How does this relate to ECM?

Now what does the idea of a digital workplace, designed with the principle of putting people first, and considering key technologies, mean for information management?

First, information is only useful to employees (and by extension, to the organization) if they can easily access it when they need it, understand it, and trust its validity. This calls for a unified approach to information management, employing a consistent hierarchy, and breaking down silos by enabling sharing of information across the organization, regardless where the information originates.


For information to be meaningful, timely, and reliable demands solid governance: ensuring that context is provided for all content and associated retention/disposition schedules are in place. For information to be truly accessible, it must be available where people work – whether in an office or in the field – using their preferred devices. As the Strategy& consultants note, “smartphones and tablets are increasingly becoming a necessity, so companies need to rethink their device strategies based on business needs.”

Moving to the cloud is only a part of it

A cloud strategy is becoming increasingly important, however making information accessible to people when and where they need it is about more than moving content to the cloud. The quality of the experience of getting to the information is also critical. A satisfying and productive user experience depends on responsive design and attention to compatibility to present applications and information in formats that work well across all a variety of devices.

With needed information potentially coming from a variety of sources, a positive user experience also requires consistency – in the navigation to and within content areas, in the mechanisms available to search for content, and in how search results are displayed. Employees should not need to know, or care, where information originates; how they go about finding information should be simple, devoid of surprises, and entail minimal training.

At the same time, personal productivity can be enhanced by acknowledging the impact of individual preferences and providing options for personalization of what and how information is displayed. Putting people at the center of design considerations also plays a vital role in successful information lifecycle management.


Compliance and usability can go hand-in-hand

As noted earlier, information governance directly impacts the usefulness, and therefore value, of information. It also facilitates regulatory compliance and enhances security – it’s like locking the doors at night (and it should be that easy). Good governance depends upon establishing reasonable policies and on users maintaining compliance with those policies. Compliance rests in the hands of those 


creating and storing content. The likelihood of compliance increases significantly when users/content generators don’t have to think about it. We need to apply ergonomic principles to content generation and application of governance rules and make it easier for users to “do the right thing.”

Business applications are the primary source for much of the vital information of any organization. Shehadi and Karam caution that, “Many organizations invest in productivity technology but do not sufficiently integrate it with their business applications.” Marshall also points out that “traditional business systems like SAP, PeopleSoft, databases, and CRM … perhaps get overlooked because they are an accepted part of the fabric of most businesses, however, they are part of what should be considered with a digital workplace strategy, at least from an alignment point of view.” These legacy systems continue to be relied on by employees: how well they are integrated with technologies more commonly associated with the digital workplace will have an impact on the effectiveness of information management.

Collaboration is only the beginning, but it’s a great place to start

The motivation for designing a digital workplace may begin with a desire to foster greater collaboration. All the things we’ve highlighted with regard to information management play to that objective: increasing the usefulness of information, breaking down silos, making information more accessible, improving the user experience, ensuring good governance, integrating critical legacy systems. And much of what we’ve discussed is rooted in familiar principles of ECM. The important difference from traditional ECM is the focus on putting people at the center when implementing those principles.

A digital workplace does allow for greater collaboration. At its best though, it goes well beyond: it creates a virtual counterpart to the brick and mortar office that reinforces corporate identity, and by protecting and maximizing the value of an organization’s information assets, improves performance and reduces risk.

For more about digital workplaces, view the other posts in this series:
The Digital Workplace: Collaboration is only the beginning
Digital Workplace Checklist: Improve the value of your information
Digital Workplace Checklist: Create a one-stop shop

Receive News Updates As Soon As They Happen