10 The digital workplace

In this chapter

It is time to bring together business processes that are managing data and procedures that are invariably based on documents and content into a ‘digital workplace’. The concept of a digital workplace dates back to the late 1990s but remains a concept and a vision rather than a ‘product’. In an ideal world the digital workplace should be the integration platform for all enterprise applications but this is a very challenging IT architecture especially when there are legacy applications to take into consideration. Because of this complexity it is probable that workarounds and shadow IT may proliferate in order for employees to engage with, and contribute to, the organisation. In particular employees with neurodiverse conditions (such as dyslexia) may need to depend heavily on workarounds to be able to take advantage of a digital workplace.

In the beginning

The concept of the digital workplace is usually attributed to Jeffrey Bier, who founded Instinctive Technologies in 1996 to provide collaboration applications based on the knowledge that Bier and his co-founders had gained at Lotus Corporation. However some important research was published in the early 1980s about workflow challenges in an office environment which were very prescient. Examples include Gerson and Star (1986), Suchman (1983) and of course Gasser (1986).

In the introduction to their paper Gerson and Star observe

“As any office manager can tell you, even apparently simple pieces of information such as entries on fixed forms are the result of many negotiations and struggles…..In order to create adequate representations then, office workers must somehow reconcile multiple viewpoints with inconsistent and evolving knowledge bases. Since no centralized authority can possibly anticipate all the contingencies that might arise locally, office workers always have some discretion in deciding how this reconciliation is to be accomplished.”

However, the authors do not use the concept of ‘working around’ but instead promote the concept of ‘articulation’ for the tasks needed to coordinate a particular task, including scheduling sub-tasks, recovering from errors and assembling resources.

They go on to suggest:

“It will always be the case that in any local situation actors ‘fiddle’ or shift requirements in order to get their work done in the face of local contingencies.”

In effect this paper is a charter for workarounds!

Defining the digital workplace

Bier set out five criteria for a digital workplace (White 2012) which still hold good today. There is no published record of the criteria, which he presented at many conferences in the period from 1996 to the mid-2000s.

  1. It must be comprehensible and have a minimal learning curve. If people have to learn a new tool, they will not use it, especially those people outside the firewall. The digital workplace needs to be as simple and obvious as email or instant messaging.
  2. It has to be contagious. The digital workplace must have clear benefits to all parties involved, to both distributed workers and the different enterprises interacting in these new workplaces. The workplace also has to be a trusted place, thus secure, both for the individual and the companies involved. People have to want to use it.
  3. It must be cross-enterprise. The digital workplace must span company boundaries and geographic boundaries. It also must operate outside the corporate firewall with an organisation’s customers, suppliers and other partners, and require very little IT involvement, or it will not gain acceptance.
  4. The workplace has to be complete. All communication, document-sharing, issues-tracking, and decision making needs to be captured and stored in one place.
  5. The digital workplace must be connected. If not, it will not gain acceptance.

In my view there are some additional criteria (White 2012)

  1. It must be adaptive, because companies are constantly restructuring, acquiring new businesses and selling off or closing businesses that no longer fit with corporate strategy. The digital work platform has to be able to be re-configured on an almost overnight basis.
  2. It has to provide solutions that are compliant with applicable laws and regulations.
  3. It should be imaginative and attract employees to use it because it provides a transformational integration of business, information, knowledge and technology.
  4. The speed of change in business and the multiple roles and responsibilities held by each employee mean that the digital work platform has to be predictive so that it is able to anticipate the requirements of the user for data, information and knowledge and anticipate the requirements of the business for links with suppliers and customers.
  5. The nature of the connected world we live and work in means that the digital work platform has to provide ubiquitous location-independent access to services at the point of requirement.

With the benefit of a decade of experience I would have added a further criterion about the importance of providing accessible access for employees.

Tasks, processes and decisions

Until this point the focus of the discussion on workarounds has been related to the context of processes. Over the last few years there has been a focus on tasks, in particular on the way in which tasks could define how employees search. Comparatively little research has been undertaken into the way in which information is used to support decisions, which is what is happening every hour of every day in organisations.

The notable exception is a study by Citroen (2011) in which he explored the way in which senior executives in the banking and pharmaceutical sectors of the Netherlands. One of the outcomes of the research is that there were constant loops back along the chain of information research to revalidate and revise information for decisions which needed to be taken in fast-moving business environments. This loop backwards is important because it means that any end-to-end timing of the process has little value as a metric of performance and success.

The quest for productivity

The quest to be able to increase organisational output with either the same number of (or ideally fewer) employees underpinned the adoption of mechanisation in industry and commerce in the 19th century. It has continued to do so to the present day at both an organisational and national economy level.

According to a report from Microsoft (2022) 85% of leaders say that the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive. And as some organisations use technology to track activity rather than impact, employees lack context on how and why they’re being tracked, which can undermine trust and lead to “productivity theater.” This paradox has led to productivity paranoia: where leaders fear that lost productivity is due to employees not working, even though hours worked, number of meetings, and other activity metrics have increased.

The report also highlights that many leaders and managers are missing the old visual cues of what it means to be productive because they can’t “see” who is hard at work by walking down the hall or past the conference room. This results in the paradox that 87% of employees feel that they are being productive at work and yet only 12% of leaders are confident that they have a productive workforce.

This concern about worker productivity translates into two business requirements

  • “We need to improve the productivity of our processes through further investment in technology”
  • “We need to monitor the extent to which our employees are making effective use of technology”

The first of these requirements is being used to justify continued investment in process-based applications such as expanding further the scope and functionality of ERP applications, and the second of the requirements is being used to justify investment in business process management applications and process logging.

The money machine

It is important to appreciate that IT vendors are driven by the need to make profits for their investors and not directly by meeting the requirements of their users. Once the base license is sold the vendor adds in additional functionality that enables them to justify to the systems purchasers (invariably in IT) an increase in the license fee. Once installed it is very difficult for an IT manager to accept that they made a mistake, and the application should be replaced by a competitor product. It does happen but very rarely!

An important and invariably overlooked factor in application implementation success is the requirement for training employees on how to get the best out of an application. This is not a one-off action at the time of implementation because

  • New functionality is being released perhaps every three months which may only affect a particular group of employees.
  • In the course of a year perhaps 10-15% of the employees of an organisation will leave and need to be replaced.
  • Another cohort will move to new positions that may require a different set of functional components.
  • Incoming employees used to a particular application may find the transition to another vendor especially challenging because they need to ‘un-learn’ previous ways of completing a task.

These training costs are usually accommodated in department budgets and may have a significant impact on departmental financial performance.

In the healthcare sector the productivity issues are similar but the focus on the extent to which they are being used shifts from monitoring the use to achieving required levels of patient care and patient safety. This output element is largely missing from ERP implementation.

Even with an expansion of ERP functionality there are still many applications in an organisation where the content of the process, rather than process completion, are of significant importance and this is one of the catalysts for creating a digital workplace.

Digital workplace technologies

At one time it seemed likely that the office of the future would be managed through Enterprise Information Portals (EIP), announced with some fervour by Merrill Lynch in a market report in 1998.  The marketing pitch was that Enterprise Information Portals were applications that enabled companies to unlock internally and externally stored information and provide users a single gateway to personalised information needed to make informed business decisions. There was an initial avalanche of vendors offering these applications but they failed to gain any momentum. The reasons for this include:

  • No attention was paid to how work was being performed
  • Very limited search capabilities
  • Cluttered and complex user interfaces
  • Limited integration between applications and repositories
  • Invariably no linkage between IT and business operations.

The late 1990s also saw the emergence of intranets, which at that time, and since, are often an example of shadow IT.  Over the last two decades there has been an on-going discussion about the extent to which an intranet can offer digital workplace capabilities, a discussion accelerated by the advent of remote and hybrid working.

There is a general recognition that intranets need to support work tasks but there is a substantial challenge in identifying these tasks, especially when they take place outside of the office environment. The intranet may only be providing some of the information needed to undertake the task which may in fact be carried out using an application (such as product data management) that is rarely integrated into the intranet.

Although intranets offer access to enterprise applications this may well be on a read-only basis and the management of security permissions for these applications can be challenging.

The Covid pandemic has caused organisations to move rapidly to support remote work to an extent that Bier could not have foreseen. Employees expect the same level of support and information access independent of location, and this also holds true for support. The expectation of employees is that a digital workplace should be intuitive, but this is very difficult to achieve when organisations of any size are making use of a wide range of business applications, often from a range of both global and local suppliers and with content in an equally wide range of languages.

A digital workplace has to offer not only task support and integration with at least some enterprise applications but also has to support both asynchronous and synchronous communication and collaboration. This is the business opportunity that Microsoft in particular has targeted with great success over the last few years, though perhaps ‘success’ is probably best defined in terms of market share than in user satisfaction.

Another factor in the development of the digital workplace is the focus on data sharing. The options are well presented in an analysis by the Boston Consulting Group, which illustrates well the increasing complexity which comes with the business requirement to share data as widely as possible across the organisation.

Digital systems complexity

The purpose of setting these issues out at this point in the book is to highlight the digital complexity of the business (and clinical) environment. In an ideal world these systems should be intuitive to use but that vision is not achievable. Little account is taken of the impacts of employees changing jobs (and therefore screen layouts) and joining an organisation with no knowledge of the way the organisation works.

The pressure on each employee to deliver is immense and immediate, as evidenced by the rapid adoption of business process management applications, the scope of which is to monitor the extent to which an individual process is being carried out by an individual employee.

A factor that is rarely taken into account is the importance of supporting employees with a range of physical and cognitive disabilities. By far the most common of these is dyslexia, which is a spectrum condition with an incidence of perhaps one in ten of employees. The concept of workarounds is at the core of employees being able to cope with an environment that often (to them) seems to be designed with no thought about accessibility despite there being an ISO standard (ISO 9241-11:2018) and the WAG accessibility guidelines.

Customisation and personalisation

In the context of a discussion about workarounds it is important to recognise the role of customisation and personalisation of enterprise systems. Definitions of these vary but for the purposes of this book

  • Customisation is the process of creating interfaces and routines which meet the specific requirements of a group of employees with either similar roles or undertaking similar processes.
  • Personalisation is enabling an individual employ to create an interface and routine which meets their specific requirements, perhaps taking advantage of their prior experience and expertise in both their role and in the technical applications they are using.

Both of these capabilities raise the issue about the extent to which a customisation, and in particular a personalisation, is the result of employee innovation at one end of the spectrum or employee frustration at the other end.

The way in which an individual employee will go about a specific task depends on (in no specific order)

  • Training on the current best practice on undertaking the task.
  • Experience gained directly from undertaking the task.
  • An appreciation of where the task sits in relation to both up-stream and down-stream tasks.
  • The objectives that they have been set and evaluated on, including the extent to which they have been involved in setting these objectives and rewards.
  • Feedback from colleagues and team members about the way a task has been undertaken and delivered.
  • Experience in the organisation and its culture.
  • Experience gained on similar tasks in a previous employment.

This brings workarounds into the centre of the discussion. To what extent is a perceived workaround actually an employee making use of the capabilities of the application to enhance their personal contribution to achieving both the objectives of the organisation and also their career aspirations?

The dark side of the digital workplace

The hype around the ‘digital workplace’ from vendors skates over the dark side of their impact on employee welfare, especially their mental health (Marsh 2022) and much work remains to be done to clarify the issues and the solutions. A particular issue is that of dyslexia, which is a spectrum condition which has an impact on readability, comprehension and memory (Spark-Smith 2022). In a physical environment employees with dyslexia often had colleagues sitting close to them who provided a workaround with the comprehension of documents. This workaround is now more difficult to call on in remote and hybrid working. Voice output can help to a degree but assumes that the underlying HTML code is well written.

Employees with dyslexia, and indeed with other conditions which render content items partially or totally inaccessible are highly likely to try to develop their own personal workarounds to the challenges posed by an all-encompassing digital workplace. (Beetham 2017, de Beer 2022).

The incidence of dyslexia in the general population is probably 10%. It may be less in an organisation as a result of the barriers to entry and career development that may unfortunately be present, but even at the 5% level the opportunity and encouragement to develop workarounds is quite substantial.

Who owns the digital workplace?

This is probably the most difficult question to answer in any organisation. The IT department will own the applications. Lines of business will specify process requirements and success factors. HR departments and training managers will be aware of the requirements to train employees. But there will be no owner responsible for bringing all the elements together and reporting to the Board even though the implications for productivity, performance and profit are all tightly linked to the way in which the employee can use and benefit from the digital workplace. (In passing, I would note that this is the identical problem with enterprise search applications.)

Without an owner there is no final arbiter of whether a workaround has a benefit to the organisation or is having a negative effect. Without that transparency there is no psychological safety and no innovation.

The bottom line

Despite the levels of investment into business process management and process mining these represent only a particular category of business processes. Identifying workarounds in a digital workplace environment is significantly more challenging as knowledge workers create content by working with other employees to gain knowledge and validation. Certainly process mining of text documents can be used to capture data for inclusion in a business process but it relies heavily on the structure of the fields and content of the document. In Chapter 11 some of the potential impacts of AI on workaround development are considered, though the true impact may not become apparent for some time!


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Workarounds: the benefits and the risks Copyright © 2023 by Martin White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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