Making the Digital Workplace Work

Armless Black Knight kicking King ArthurI recently wrote an article at CMS Wire about how Intranets have been eclipsed by the advent of new tools like enterprise social networks (ESNs). Like the old web, Intranets, and the portals that were often created in their name, didn’t really serve much of a purpose outside a large bulletin board. Efforts were made to make them more useful but without addressing a real need, those efforts often came to naught.

The concept of an ESN works better because it is a place where people can come together and work. I’m not talking Facebook in the office. That is crazy. I am talking something more akin to Yammer. I am talking about taking the break room and moving it online for organizations that are collaborative in nature but may not be co-located.

My good friend Jed Cawthorne took exception to my article. He said Forget ESN’s, Give me a Digital Workplace.

ESN, More than the Sum

Jed rips into me for using the term ESN. I agree, it is a cruddy term but the industry seems  to like their three letter acronyms (TLAs). Part of the reason is that a TLA is more than the sum of its parts. It is multiplicative in nature, not additive.

  • Enterprise: Jed restricts this to being within the organization. It is bigger than that. The scope is everything in and related to the organization. Enterprise can scale to include partners and systems.
  • Social: Jed and I agree, people. People need to work together. Without them we can just go home. This qualifier is more about the approach to putting the system together. It has to support how people work together.
  • Network: The connections between people and information. This is pulling everything in the enterprise scope into one place.

Just as Jed took me to task for being restrictive on the definition of an Intranet, I think Jed should ease up on the definition of an ESN. Semantics do matter but to focus on the the term more than the concept can lead to a lot of tangents.

The Digital Workplace is Good

I’m happy with Jed’s vision. It is the vision I had, just different labels. As an industry we have evolved so far past the original Intranet that I feel we need a new term to describe what we do. Digital Workplace is a solid term. It describes what we are trying to accomplish in the same manner that ESN focuses on the how.

My proposal to Jed, let’s kill the terms Intranet and ESN. Digital Workplace is solid. The tools that make up the Digital Workplace will depend upon the mission, structure, and culture of an organization. Map those out and a useful Digital Workplace can be created for any organization.

10 thoughts on “Making the Digital Workplace Work

  1. Semantics aside, I have a more generic question on Digital Workplace (or ESN, or KM++, or Social Business, or whatever the term du jour is): The current gaggle of software tools (what’s the correct collective noun?) that lead to “Digital Workplace” seem to have converged from ECM, Collaboration, Social Networks and corporate directories.

    However, if you look at the average poor office worker spending their day in front of a computer desktop (or laptop, or tablet, or smartphone), they are swapping between email, social/collaboration tools, Office suites, filesystems, corporate intranet, internet browsing and LoB applications (HR, ERP, CRM, whatever their primary job happens to be). Surely, “Digital Workplace” is the sum of ALL the parts that make up a digital working life, and we should be focusing on the usability and coherent user experience – across ALL and ANY of them – rather than trying to worry about which technologies are included and what we should call them?


  2. Haven’t thought as deeply about all this as you, George, and Jed have, but I’m going to spout off anyway. ESN/portal/intranet/bulletin board/digital workplace — who cares. Depending on who’s using what word, everyone’s looking for a single phrase or term to describe a collaborative environment where folks can Get Work Done (GWD)*. I’ve grown to dislike “digital workplace” because it makes as much sense as calling it the “paper workspace” 80 years ago, or the “learn by doing” workspace of 200 years ago. So work is done in an office with tools run on electricity and connected to a network, oooooh, let’s call that the digital workspace and give presentations and write whitepapers because it sounds good. Next up: the “vulcan mind meld” workspace.

    With this ESN phraseology, ya’ll are on the cusp of getting into the same pointless arguments as ECM. And seems to be a similar problem, too much focus on the tools without enough focus on ensuring the tools are useful.

    I thnk George hit it spot on with the poor office worker who doesn’t give a flying (my favorite word) what any of these things are called. Figure out how to make this shyte work.

    *Trademarking this one, because, why not 🙂


  3. Laurence I would never “rip into you” old chap ! 🙂

    So yes, I hate “ESN” as much as I hate “social” being appended to everything. I used to like Enterprise 2.0 not because it was any better as a label, but because Prof. MacAfee had the SLATES model that went with it, and then Dion Hinchcliffe expanded that to the FLATNESSES model. Actual models of what features and functionality can provide what business benefits are much more helpful than mere labels.

    So, where do we begin. Intranets are not dead, and never were they all quite as lame as you suggest. For sure some where, but certainly not all. For some organisations a “traditional intranet” still trumps an “ESN” or a social collboration platform due their business requirements and their corporate culture.

    George – you make a good point, another reason why “portals” are not dead either. That “poor worker” jumping from app to app, interface to interface could have a better user experience if everything was pulled together in one place to help them…. oooh does this sound familar ? I have never focused on the technology but the People, Process, Technology (and Content) vectors leading to a good user experience, should be as you say, the key focus. Which leads too…

    Bryant – seriously ? Thats the best you can do ? You let the entire industry off the hook for using lame language and terminology so you can “rip into” me and Pie for debating language ? LOL, more effort requred…. 🙂 So your OK with ESN but not with Digital Workplace, OK its a free country (allegedly).

    The poor user does not indeed give a flying fig about the terminology that is used, but we are not “poor users” we are supposed (?) to be IM / KM professionals, industry insiders and our debates can be lower level and more technical, in order that the poor old mere mortal. My personal belief is that there is no such thing as an ECM system, or a KM system, but you can have ECM and KM strategies, oh and they might include social collaboration system, which might also include a single purpose enterprise social “network” tool (but probably not, because most of them are really “social collaboration suites”).

    Ref: “too much focus on the tools without enough focus on ensuring the tools are useful.” I disagree, generally I think we are passed that point, I will link to Dion as an example:

    I rest my case and fall back on my argument, that as IM / KM professionals WE are the ones who absolutely should be arguing about labels, concepts, theories and use of language, so that “average Joe / Jo” does not end up being even more confused. (And by the way ECM stands for Electronic Counter Measures, cause that is what my Petty Officer told me when I joined the Navy).


    • Hey, if I were going to rip into ya’ll, I would’ve spent more time and effort and done some actual research because you both know more than I do on this stuff.

      Nope, not really OK with ESN or, what’ the other new E one, EFF or something?. My point, which I didn’t make well, is that “intranet” and “portal” describe essentially the same thing as ESN. Setting aside the new tools and capabilities (and devices used to access) — the poor worker (that’d be me, though I did have a foot or maybe an entire leg in the industry insider camp at one point) wants a place to access, work on and share documents and one place to go to find out what’s going on in the office. Many of the new “concepts” and descriptions of technology just seem pointless to me. KM, portal, intranet, ESN — they’re all perfectly adequate descriptions of a central place to access all my stuff. I guarantee that in 5 more years,there will be another “digital workplace” tool that upends the apple cart, but essentially attempts to solve the same problem and that Gartner/Forrester/IDC will slap another TLA onto it.

      Like you, I liked, and still do, both of what McAfee and Dion outlined around social — but social and E20 are just too damned squishy and started to collapse under the weight of the revolutionary expectations of all the no hierarchy BS that got larded into it. Community management has emerged out of the e20 swamp to help enable some of the internal and external customer aspirations of the social and e20 concepts.

      And there is a lot of focus on the tools rather than what the tools can accomplish because most users interact directly with the vendors — not the smart folks like yourself and Laurence who actually do care about getting it right. Maybe this changes if content and inbound marketing become the norm for marketing, but vendor marketing generally sucks. Let me clarify what I mean by vendor — people who sell information management products and services. So long as lazy marketing folks employed by vendors can hide behind the next new buzzword, there will be a lot of confusion and failure.

      I’d challenge you to a duel, but that wouldn’t really be fair because you ARE Inigo Montoya.


  4. LOL, firstly I wish I was as good as the legendary Spaniard, but he had been practicing to take on the six fingered man since childhood, I only picked up a Rapier in my forties….. wow, I said that out loud.

    OK, stop picking on Bryant time – we will let you join the group hug !! 🙂

    I guess the only place we are not aligned is on: “KM, portal, intranet, ESN — they’re all perfectly adequate descriptions of a central place to access all my stuff.”

    They are not adquate descriptions of anything, and they are not all central places to access all your stuff, and there in lies the propblem you so adequately and eloquently ascribe to lazy product marketeers who jump on band wagons more frequently than I pick up that Rapier for practice…..

    However we dont need group think, so it is absolutely fine for us to disagree, a litle bit, over the finer points. That does not require us to meet on a designated field at dawn.


    • Ah, crap. I shouldn’t have lumped KM in there. I have a fondness and soft spot for KM.

      And, true, I should’ve picked a Viking name for you, instead “Jed Snowson the White”


  5. Bryant – I am rediscovering my soft spot for KM, but not quite convinced myself 100% that it will catch on again:

    Jed – With you on the point that the POW (Poor Office Worker) couldn’t care less about the terminology, and its our job not to confuse them. But for me that’s where the “Digital Workplace” label is msleading: It implies a lot more than it delivers.

    And yes, I was very conscious about my comment having strong parallels with Portals. I don’t think the concept was wrong there, until the “lazy product marketeers” got their mittens on it. Now, somewhere between collaboration, social, Case management and ECM, we are re-constructing portals these days, but we just don’t try the “one-UI-for-everything” anymore.

    and… Laurence – Thanks for the discussion 🙂


  6. Wow – you guys are giving this a lot of deep though. I’m just going to weigh in with one shallow one – who cares?

    You see, it strikes me that the only people who ever care what this stuff is called are the practitioners and the vendors. The users, at least my users tend to refer to everything I’ve ever built by the function it’s allegedly supporting. Over the past 20 years, we’ve moved payables/check requests from an off-the-shelf accounting package to an in-house developed system to SharePoint but people still refer to it as Payables. We emphasize the platform, ultimately at our own expense.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The most useful sentence in this post is, “The tools that make up the Digital Workplace will depend upon the mission, structure, and culture of an organization.” However, in agreement with others who commented on the debate over semantics, I’m not sure how useful the term “Digital Workplace” is. What changed from previous eras? What will change if/when digital is replaced with something else? Nothing. As long as people are doing the work, the essence of that statement will remain the same.

    Mixing, matching and integrating tools and information to give people who do the work, and who consume the output of that work, personalized toolsets would go a long way to help them better get their work done. Portals, intranets, collaboration tools, etc. can be very effective in providing information that is relevant and important to different audiences and individuals when they need it.

    We should be providing toolsets that facilitate and simplify work, automate tasks and systematize processes to give people what they need in the places “where they live,” whether that’s a computer, tablet or smartphone, to effectively get their work done and seamlessly communicate with others and share results.

    Whatever the mix of technology, philosophy and terminology, I just call that work.


  8. Love the debate.

    Here is the thing, I think we’ve been striving for a digital workplace for decades. First we just tried to digitize the paper. Then came the Internet w/ the WWW. Just like the rush for people to create FB for the enterprise orgs wanted to create their own Intranet.

    Thing is, they created a Web 1.0 version. Portals came along and upped the game but it was still a challenge to get people to the sites. Like many social efforts they were thrown up without much thought as to why.

    When I hear Intranet, I think of old static websites that most people just ignore in today’s world. That isn’t to say they haven’t evolved, only that it conjures up a tech and not what we are trying to accomplish.

    Collaboration is part of it. Getting a complete picture of the business from across systems without moving around is another. People want their needed information presented in the proper context in a place that allows them to take action and work with others as needed.

    That is the digital workplace. Intranet and ESN are tech terms that don’t really address what we are trying to acheive. They may be part of the solution but they aren’t the goal.


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