Revisiting How to Cultivate Connected Organizations in an Age of Coronavirus

Looking back at it from the vantage point of the current coronavirus pandemic, it’s clear now that most organizations missed a golden opportunity about five to seven years ago. This was the height of industry discussion around and worldwide business implementation of enterprise social networks, a leading form of internal online community.

Known in shorthand as the ‘ESN’, this emerging class of communication and mass engagement platform was inspired by the runaway growth and success of the global social media revolution. The ESN focused on creating a living, breathing organization-wide digital fabric of open connections, conversations, knowledge sharing, and meaningful collaboration that was as egalitarian as it was eminently useful.

Optimism was rife back then and progress seemed tantalizingly close in resolving the many issues with the aging model of corporate organizational hierarchies. There’s no doubt about it: The vision for the enterprise social network was as utopian as it was grand. I know, because I can count myself as one of the leading proponents of people-connected technologies back in that age. I even wrote a popular book on the subject, when the management and design theory behind it was known as social business.

But the ESN revolution was also grounded in using technology to go well beyond the limiting constraints of the real world when it comes to distance, time, experience, or access to leaders or subject matter experts. The ESN flourished in many organizations, and they still do, though I notice a distinctly more subdued tone today when I talk to ESN owners, practitioners, and the specialized staff that help them run well, community managers.

Back in those days, we eventually accumulated enough experience to know what worked and what didn’t: It was easy to roll out the tools and hard to shift the culture and skills, but as an industry, we largely learned how to make them successful. For those that wanted it, a virtual organization of vibrant digital connections formed a network across the company that became a central conduit for learning, knowledge capture/management, operations at scale, vital peer-based support, and so much more.

Creating a Connected Organization with Enterprise Social Networks and Online Community

However, the ESN was different enough that it required strong stakeholders and passionate evangelists who would rarely leave its side or tire. Since the heady early days, I’ve noticed that ESNs tend to come and go if their sponsors and/or champions move on. That’s not to say there haven’t been and don’t continue to be many success stories. There are.

The Need for Resilient Digital Communities Has Come Roaring Back

Enter the coronavirus. The dasher of hope and changer of worlds in so many ways. There have been few times in history where the workplace has been so thoroughly disrupted as it has been today by COVID-19. The workforces of virtually every organization globally is either on a mandatory work at home policy or soon will be. My analysis of what to do in the early days of being suddenly remote is easily one of the most popular things I’ve written in recent years.

To say most organizations are not ready to become “suddenly remote”, as the phrase of art has become, is an understatement. In short, organizations around the world have essentially been physically disbanded until further notice. This is an incalculable shift. Our Internet connections are now our main lifeline by far to our work lives, to our colleagues, and to our careers. It’s as isolating for many, as it is freeing for others.

As it turns out, remote work is also a profoundly different way of functioning in our jobs that is inherently less social (unless we substantially augment it to be otherwise), more siloed, and disconnected than most of us are prepared for. Especially when we have to work remotely all the time, for days, weeks, or months on end, which is the reality at this time.

The Return of the Enterprise Social Network

In the current period of prolonged dislocation from our old work lives, wouldn’t it be incredibly useful if we already had a robust digital support structure in place? One that we’ve long since carefully crafted and built up from the connections of people that we’ve met either physically or virtually. While we actually have that in the form of our consumer social networks (or at least many of us do), it’s almost completely out of context for our workplace needs.

It’s a shortcoming of our own making. Our attempts to train workers to be digitally savvy has had long and sustained gaps because we’ve been able to lean on our legacy physical skills and environments. In the past, I’ve attempted to describe the necessary digital skills to help workers adapt to this new work more gradually. They are all predicated on building modern social capital, meaning have a broad, diverse, and strong network of connections to people in today’s modern operating environment: The global digital networks that infuse everything today.

Yet in the context of our work at least, most of us are now completely lacking this social capital, these connections, or a virtual community around us, just when we need it most.

Instead, for those organizations that didn’t make the determined and sustained efforts to do the hard work of creating an enterprise social network (or equivalent), the workers who have been tossed overnight into entirely remote working situations are finding it hard going. Their familiar communal work environment is gone. Their outdated tools don’t keep them plugged into the pulse of the organization.

In fact, most workers badly need the resilient and vibrant connective tissue of an ESN, with all its rich user profiles, relationships between far flung connections, countless groups of local experts, reams of searchable open knowledge, and the deep insight that all these can provide to step in for the shockingly rapid loss of our physical world of work.

ESN/Community Practitioners and Executive Leaders: It’s Time to Seize the Day

To practitioners, I’ve started making it clear that this is a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime and historic opportunity to make your enterprise social network save the day when it comes to grounding and delivering a healthy remote organization. An effective ESN can connecting the organization back to itself far better than older tools by focusing on returning and then improving both the cultural “dial tone” and daily bustle of the organization. The practical benefits are significant: Actual outcome-based business impact by improving operations, productivity, and employee engagement. So this is your time to shine, whether you now need to develop an ESN and the communities within it, or supercharge the one that you have.

For business leaders, now is the time to put your organization on a modern digital platform that is far more resilient to disruption and that will both modernize it and make it much more effective. I encourage you to look at the baseline results you’re likely to get, which was published in the MIT Sloan Management Review. Worst case is that you’ll achieve about a 25% productivity increase for your investment, which is fairly modest compared to CRM or ERP systems. You will however be required to invest in more staff than is typical for a traditional IT solution (the why and how many is here, but it’s not large compared to major productivity losses for remote workers without a strong supporting network.) Don’t wait. Support the ESN and online community champions trying to help you.

For both, this is the time to learn that advanced preparedness for going all digital is critical. We live in exponential times of change, and this also seems to mean large and more frequent disruptions. Those with the healthiest, best connected, and engaged digital networks of workers will experience the least disarray and breakdown when major events like coronavirus take place. Let’s learn from not making the most of these powerful tools the first time around. It’s now time to fully commit to building the best possible connected organization for next time around.

Final Note: Before you ask me about why ESNs and not team chat apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams, it’s because the ESN scales conversations and engagement up to the size of the enterprise. Almost all orgs are already using Slack and Teams, and it gives them a much narrower and far more limited view of what’s happening. In an ESN, all contributions are visible by default across the whole organization, content types are more sophisticated, and as you can see below in additional reading, they can be used for advance change processes like enterprise-wide digital transformation. ESNs are strategic. Team chat is useful, but tactical.

Additional Reading

Using Online Community for Digital Transformation

More Evidence Online Community is Central to the Future of Work

My Future of Work Trends for 2020 (with Video)

A Checklist for a Modern Core Digital Workplace and/or Intranet

One of the most challenging questions to answer about digital employee experience today is where the center of gravity for it lies. As in, where does the worker, by default, spend most of their time using it. The answer used to be that the worker themselves determines it, often with specific guidance or training, by figuring out how to apply the devices, applications, tools, and platforms to which they are given access, to their daily job. This self-guidance generally defines the typical digital workplace journey even today, and constitutes the sort of benign neglect, throw-it-over-the-wall situation that we current find in many organizations.

Knowing where the center of gravity should actually be has become important lately for several strategic reasons. First, it’s very useful in identifying where digital workplace teams should spend the majority of their design and analytics time so they can ensure what they provide works well and is optimized for the purposes to which its currently being used. Second, because the digital employee experience has become so fragmented and siloed that just finding and navigating apps, data/docs, channels, and experiences has become its own significant overhead, it allows us to identify where we should be integrating said side journeys into a common hub.

Finally, it just gives us a better operating lens to the digital life of the employee and the business: We can see how to better situate IT within the broader worker journey to produce the best outcomes, onboarding and cross training becomes simplified through a more standardized user experience and thus faster/easier, which means satisfaction and retention becomes higher, adoption/effectiveness of digital workplace investments is greater, and so on. Why? Because this lens provides a more systematic and overarching view that aims at overall stakeholder needs better. It also avoids the traditional point solution myopia that makes it hard to see the big picture or understand properly how an IT system actually contributes to the business (a surprisingly thorny problem.)

An Integrated Holistic Employee Experience and Digital Workplace/Intranet

A number of virtual “places” have come and (largely) gone over the years that attempt to partially address the center of gravity issue. That’s because of the significant payoff in doing so compared to focusing on less traveled — off dramatically less, areas of the digital workplace (see: SharePoint team site graveyards, largely abandoned intranets, and almost useless search engines.) There’s also a lot of edge IT to sort through: The average large enterprise has, to the surprise of most I find, between 1,000 and 3,000 applications that run the business.

But in my experience over the last couple of decades, although the number of apps keeps growing substantially, most employees only use a small subset on a regular basis, usually a foundational set that almost every employees uses, then a different set of apps based on their work persona.

Currently, my rule of thumbs is that core employee experience can be addressed by putting the hundred or so core apps (give or take 50, depending on the enterprise), as well docs, comms channels, and systems of engagement, into a more centralized experience. Yes, the future of IT is distributed, but experiences are not. They are the vital new outcome-centered, cohesive journeys that take workers through their role-based processes, tasks, and helps them get to value-based outcomes as quickly as possible.

I would strongly suggest that if we are to see any dramatic improvements to the digital workplace, it will require moving beyond a largely accidental one to a more deliberately designed one, albeit a digital environment where the edges and even much of the center are shaped, personalized, and customized easily by IT, the worker, the local team, and managers as a collaborative effort.

While parts of this notion are now gaining broader acceptance, what’s even better is that we’re now seeing a generation of digital workplace tools emerge that actually enable it (I’ll explore these soon.) Thus, I am now being asked what does such a core experience look like? How does it manifest itself? Is it a Web desktop, smart intranet, a digital experience platform, or a converged mobile app? Is all of these or what? This is what we’re collectively trying to determine, and has been the crux of the issues and roadblocks for so many digital workplace teams of late.

Key Features of a Modern Digital Workplace

Having been on a number of such enterprise-wide digital workplace design efforts in recent years, I can attest to what such a core digital workplace should consist of. Borrowing from my projects with clients, industry research, and analysis, here is what — at an absolute minimum — I believe must be the capabilities and features of any modern digital workplace hub or center of gravity:

  • A central experience accessible from any digital environment the worker will use
  • A consistent usability model to the degree possible given a highly heterogeneous user experience within the hub
  • Foundational feature set (file/doc sharing, content management, task management, collaboration, comms, online community)
  • A straightforward and easy-to-learn information architecture, variable by persona
  • A way to define personas with easy matching to unique branches in the experience, IA, central experience
  • Global search and discovery that works
  • Administration and community management features
  • Robust 3rd party software integrations and app store
  • Online training and digital adoption features, native or add-on
  • Easy-to-add business software integrations (for custom built, internal LOB apps)
  • Customization options for branding, internal whitelabeling, etc.
  • Datacenter locations and choice (logic and data residency)
  • Deployment options (on-premises, cloud, hybrid)
  • Directory integration (people and groups) including multi-directory
  • A persona mapping tool and/or assessment process to take the employee directory and assign workers to personas
  • A rich ecosystem of customers, partners, ISVs
  • Extensibility and integrations via modern microservices/master graph, APIs and SDKs
  • Governance and compliance controls
  • Native-quality mobile access
  • Personalization features (manual or algorithmic, AI)
  • Low code/no code experience and workflow creation by IT or business users
  • A digital studio to design task specific end-to-end business processes across multiple apps
  • Smart assistive AI across ad hoc cross app usage and workflows
  • Reporting tools and workstream/outcome analytics, across integrated apps
  • Next gen interfaces including voice input, voice/video transcription, smart assistants, gesture control, VR/AR
  • Scalability and robustness
  • Security and privacy features
  • No restrictions on who the worker can collaborate with (any audience, inside or outside the org)
  • Data migration/import from older/previous platforms

The details of what some of these features actually consist of is an exercise for broader industry discussion, which I plan to continue collaboratively online. But it’s safe to say that I think most practitioners would support the majority of what’s listed here. However, I would go a step forther further and underscore that each and every feature is the absolute minimum acceptable set today to achieve an effective digital workplace and employee experience.

The Next Digital Workplace Will Not Resemble Today’s

I also believe large forces and missed opportunities are at work, given the rapid growth we’re seeing in shadow IT for digital workplace, the relatively dire state of the overarching tech-enabled employee experience (workers are generally just clamoring for the rudiments to actually work well, and only 22% think they have a good employee experience at all reports Deloitte). The implication is that most enterprises are not even delivering the fundamentals well, much less zeroing in on the right feature sets that will move them into the future. Instead we are focusing on isolated, over-centralized, one-size-fits-all content-based experiences, and neglect the overall condition of the journey. Instead, we must shift focus to more holistic and connected app-based experiences explicitly designed to deliver the meaningful and effective user experiences that we so deeply wish for and desire.

For the better, the approach of rolling out a largely disconnected grab bag of apps from a checklist is no longer a viable strategy for tech-enabled employee experience. Instead, the modern digital workplace is becoming much more of a common fabric upon which we can design, contextualize, analyze, and optimize the worker experience. It is also highly malleable, 1:1 personalized, and hyperintegrated. Finally, this new smarter digital workplace is anticipatory, predictive, journey-based, data-driven, user-obsessed, and design-informed, including, perhaps most importantly, explicit design for loss of control.

Additional Reading

The Challenging State of Employee Experience and Digital Workplace Today

A Comprehensive Overview of Modern Digital Workplace Trends and Emerging Practices

My Predictions for the Future of Work in 2020

The Challenging State of Employee Experience and Digital Workplace Today

It’s a very difficult time to be in the business of providing a digital employee experience today. By digital employee experience, I mean the totality of the end-to-end digital touchpoints that a worker uses to get their job done. This view is also sometimes called the digital workplace, and it includes all the devices, apps, and data that a worker employs in their day-to-day work, whether it’s company provided or not (as we’ll see, an increasingly fraught topic.)

But digital workplace is now seen by many, including by myself, as an inadequate and incomplete construct. Certainly, it consists of the local intranet, computer desktop, productivity tools, enterprise search engine(s), collaboration apps, and line of business systems, most of which was acquired and deployed with almost no thought to how they should fit together as an overall digital journey.

In other words, though I now see more and more digital workplace groups within organizations who are actually in charge of it, the reality is that we’re a long way from a consistent, seamless, effective, widely adopted, and well-designed digital workplace.

The Complex Digital Workplace Landscape of Apps, Data, and People We Must Design Into an Employee Experience

The Issues in Realizing an Effective Digital Journey for Workers

There are a complex and interrelated set of factors on why digital workplace is in reality very much on the ropes in many, if not most, organizations. In my view, the critical factors are:

  • Employee experience is proving to be a more complete and effective view of digital enablement, but comes in at a harder-to-address and rather disruptive angle. The employee experience takes into account a much more complete view (physical, cultural, and technological) of what employees should have addressed in their digitally-enabled work lives. Yet this view, while likely to produce substantially better outcomes if it’s realized through this lens, is highly problematic in that it clearly straddles at least two major organizational silos: HR (the people component) and IT (the digital side) in order to achieve, plus some other groups as well, including everyone from facilities to compliance and regulatory. Getting all of these groups to work together at the same time — and with the same vision — is very challenging.
  • Apps have proliferated by the millions and become hyperspecialized. Every function in the business (marketing, sales, operations, legal, HR, etc) are getting highly targeted apps that they can use to address their work much better than the general purpose, one-size-fits-all that IT much prefers (for cost, manageability, governance, etc.) Consumer and enterprise app stores are filled with countless solutions that will do exactly what you need for an individual task. The supply side of IT has become so vast and large that it’s almost impossible to be a departmental conduit for it (like IT is supposed to be) or design up-to-date experiences around this galaxy-sized pool of choices.
  • The cloud (especially SaaS) and mobile app stores have definitively disrupted IT, creating vast and rapidly shifting Shadow IT dominions on the edges of organizations. While ERP, HR benefits systems, e-mail, and the proverbial cafeteria menu/corporate HQ driving directions pages on the intranet don’t seem to be affected, everything else, starting with CRM and going deep into every corporate function, satisfying near every user requirement, whatever it is, for cheap (often for free), available right now at a button click, has upended the game. Marketing departments are almost certainly the leading example of this: The excellent Scott Brinker has been tracking the vast explosion of apps in this category, going from about 150 in 2011 to a staggering 7,000+ in 2019. What’s more, the churn in the category is astonishing, with 83% of marketers ripping and replacing key apps each year. Other functions are seeing similar proliferation of choice as I’ve shown in the past (and they’re often very good options indeed), though not quite to the degree that marketing groups are experiencing.
  • A strong desire and legitimate need to have a more integrated, centralized, simplified, and streamlined set of digital workplace tools. The above trends are driving a strong inclination — even an imperative in many organizations I speak with — to create a center of gravity for digital work. This is where apps, data, and people are brought together as much as it makes sense and where functionality can be more easily accessed and used (and searched), without switching between hundreds of apps or importing/export data all day or struggling to get co-workers to join and adopt yet another new app, service, channel, or collaboration tool. I’ve called this the digital workplace hub, and something like it is needed, though arguments have been made (by me as well) that mobile devices and their operating systems are ultimately heading in this direction. Enterprise apps such as Slack, Box, and others have increasingly managed to create large numbers of integrations to business systems that workers can use, though said workers are not actually trained for the most part how to benefit from or use these emerging hubs.
  • Design is absent from the overall digital employee experience. We simply haven’t used employee experience as the lens to consider what we should do, and moreover, we haven’t had the tools or composable apps to achieve a more designed experience. With the widespread rise of microservices and easy-to-integrate online apps via APIs, this is now all changing. We are now able to carve out and bring together the features, experiences, and journeys from most of our IT systems into a more comprehensible design that’s better designed (though, never finished and very much co-designed with individual workers, who already do most of their employee experience design day-to-day.
  • The need for digital workplace, and consequently now employee experience, to reflect a wider range of an employee needs, to drive overall engagement, which digital tools are actually very capable of delivering. I often say that nothing is worse that hiring smart people and then giving them poor tools to do their job, or just as bad, a terrible overall employee experience. We simply have to do much better with design of our employee experiences.
  • Limited tools, platforms, models, or prior experience to dealing with all of this in our industry. To be clear, we are in uncharted waters here. Never has the digital workplace or employee experience landscape ever been anything close to as large or complex as it is now, and it will only get worse for most. While I am tracking some early lessons learned, new tooling, and initial planning/design frameworks, we are in early days. As with most of digital, we will all have to get very good at complexity management at high scale.
  • High levels of technical debt and insufficient willpower or support to comprehensively address the core issues. I’ve talked about issues of ever-faster accumulating technical debt before, and it can’t be forgotten how much this hold positive change back. Cloud will help for a while, but new architectures are going to be required.

How Will We Overcome These Challenges?

What is IT, and indeed, HR and the whole organizations due to address these very considerable obstacles and headwinds? That is the question. I’ve argued that the methods that we ar led to by the concept of Design for Loss of Control will be key. I believe in this more now, than ever before.

People will also be key to this. While cultural change will be the hardest and take the most time, we don’t have to wait for it. Harnessing and enabling change agents who are hungry to improve their local digital workplaces and employee experience will provide a lot of the scale and local change that we need. Other techniques are emerging, such as digital adoption platforms. I am actually very hopeful that we’ll get to a much better place, but not until we’ve learned a lot of those hard lessons. I’ll be surveying our BT150 digital leaders en masse early this year to see what they’re doing to improve this state of affairs. I’ll release the data when I have it.

Until then, we have to take what we’ve already learned to heart and apply it: Use employee experience as the master lens over it all, and use exponential methods to realize it. Collaborate with everyone in our organizations that we’ll need to make it a reality. Measure and improve it often. Be inclusive, and don’t overcontrol. Good luck.

Additional Reading

Creating the Modern Digital Workplace and Employee Experience

How to Develop the Minimum Viable Employee Experience

Tech Foundation for Employee Experience: An Integrated Stack

Designing the Digital Workplace for the End-to-End Employee Experience

As digital becomes instrumental to virtually every aspect of how we do our work in organizations today, two parallel and closely related concerns have joined the industry discussion. These two concerns, workforce engagement (which technology can very much help with) and the employee journey, have risen as urgent topics and joined the overall conversation about the needed capabilities of our work environments. This is because the designs of our future digital workplaces will so deeply inform and define these issues.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that most enterprises are still not adequately addressing how to effectively develop and maintain a straightforward and effective approach to technology enablement of the most important activities in the workplace. The proximate cause is sheer complexity as well as experiential noise, mostly of too much information with too little filter. Yet ironically, our businesses actually need to incorporate more technology and data into work procsses, not less, to do our jobs better and evolve the organization.

Thus, the way workplace technology is selected, provided, situated, and supported as a whole has proven generally insufficient to the task of addressing the trio of concerns I’d outlined above. We also have some significant new headwinds that aren’t helping and must be addressed constructively: Pronounced channel proliferation and fragmentation as well as an explosion of apps that run or better enable the business, especially in the mobile space. We generally need these applications, but not when their isolation (most don’t connect well to other systems) and fragmented data creates cognitive overload or involves too much effort for us to effectively use.

The Digital Transformation of the Workplace for End-to-End Employee Experience

Thus I still see many too many workers that in their day-to-day jobs still have to focus on spending much of their time feeding their work systems manually, via import/export and numerous other means, cobbling together an ad hoc experience across dozens of apps, just to prepare to begin their jobs for the day, instead of focusing on the more strategic higher-order knowledge work at hand.

The bottom line: Most practitioners I speak with believe there is plenty of room to improve this situation considerably, but aren’t generally sure how yet. Because of this unclear path forward, most of workplaces are still not expending any real effort in developing a more workable and usable overall employee digital experience. This is a major lost opportunity and it ultimately fails to serve our workers, our organizations, and our customers in vital ways. What’s more, it’s only going to become more of a challenge in the near future as IT continues to proliferate in every part of our enterprises.

Yet I do find that some of the solution(s) to this situation — and which will take real vision, commitment, and sustained change to realize — do exist in early form and are increasingly at hand.

Reconciling digital workplace with employee experience

To address all this, a while back I suggested that we were going to have to develop multi-layered strategies based on one or two experience hubs to cope with the increasingly dense and rich landscape of digital workplace tech. Sooner, rather than later, that we’re going to have to make the user experience, data experience, and community experiences more connected, holistic, and integrated, into some form of better integrated whole that probably looks like a) an enterprise social network, b) an intranet platform, or c) other experience platform where the employee digital experience can be better designed, orchestrated, simplified, aggregated, and connected to the apps and data needed to get work done.

I still believe this, but I also now realize that even with this we’re still neglecting the overall picture of employee experience, something that human resources (HR) has long focused on but that IT generally has not, even though our workplaces have inexorably become more and more digitized.

The opportunity is clear: By apply coherent purpose and design to the full end-to-end employee experience (pre-hire, employment, and post employment) — yet also proactively allowing ‘eccentric activity’ all around the margins that will drive needed the digital competition for new ways of working (and therefore rapid forward progress) — we can simplify, streamline, and direct the design of our workplaces (digital and physical) as it relates to technology to realize a far better employee experience.

To be clear, we won’t — and can’t — design or control the entire employee experience. That’s simply not possible, nor desirable, in today’s highly complex, fast changing, and sophisticated operating environments. Instead, we’ll use a design for loss of control mindset to transform the employee experience while focusing on the major use cases and employee journeys that matter most, while letting local change agents pioneer new ideas around the edge.

Using Design Thinking and Digital Workplace Strategy to Design and Develop a Better Employee Experience

To realize this change we’ll need to make digital workplace a higher order design journey with close partnership between HR and IT (really, in my projects, it’s mostly had to be the CIO and CHRO, who almost exclusively have the purview to mandate bringing together employee experience of every kind under a single umbrella.) Organizations that go from an accidental digital workplace to a more designed one will have much better results with their overall employee experience as well as targeted use cases (typically sales, project management, operations, product development) that have both high impact and strategic significance to the organization.

I’ll be exploring this confluence of the three main organizational experiences (worker, customers, and supplier) increasingly as part of my work in understanding the digital leadership issues in the enterprise. I believe these must be the primary focus of our organizations going forward, and addressing one helps address the others.

Catch me in person: You also can join me in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on May 21st, 2018 to further this discussion as I explore how to apply design thinking and digital workplace strategy to end-to-end employee experience from my latest digital workplace project efforts.
Engage Workshop, Rotterdam, Netherlands with Dion Hinchcliffe and Ellen Feaheny on Digital Workplace and End-to-End Employee Experience

What We Know About Making Enterprise Social Networks Successful Today

It’s a little hard to believe that it’s been over ten years now since the first early enterprise social networks (ESN) emerged on the market to make their initial forays into our organizations. They showed us then — and I believe even more now today — the bright new possibilities for how we might work together in more innovative and effective ways by becoming fundamentally better connected organizations.

We’ve certainly learned a great deal along the way through thousands of ESN deployments around the world since that time. I have tracked or been involved in a good many of these types of efforts over the years, and so I thought I’d revisit what I believe that we’ve learned so far from the more successful efforts. Sharing this knowledge is vital now, as I still see many practitioners starting almost from scratch. That’s because there is still no single source of knowledge on what works best when it comes to being successful in crafting a next-generation digital workplace with an ESN.

Note: We do have a useful body of industry knowledge now, but it’s currently spread out and must be put together to create a fully integrated picture. The three sources I that think are the most valuable currently are a) the Community Roundtable‘s annual State of the Community Management report, the latest edition of which I explored on ZDNet a little while back, b) Jane McConnell’s excellent Organization in the Digital Age report, and lastly, c) Vanessa Dimauro’s various work at Leader Networks, such as her new Business Impact of Communities report.

Making an Enterprise Social Network Thrive

Looking in the ESN Mirror: Far Too Much Attention on the Tools

Early makers of enterprise social networks such as Jive, Newsgator, and Socialtext blazed the trail initially, making it possible for workers to engage in truly open and self-organizing collaboration by adapting the social networking model that had worked so well in the consumer world to the enterprise. In particular, these early offerings were based on the early successes of consumer social media and social networking, namely services like Facebook and MySpace, as well highly successful online communities for business like the SAP Community Network. While wikis and blogs were the first genuine contemporary social software used in businesses (groupware, and arguably e-mail were actually the very first social tools), it was the social networking model that ultimately became the leading one.

Eventually, the hard knocks of marketplace competition ultimately led to the domination of the top part of the industry by a few players that executed well: IBM (with Connections and a host of associated platforms), Microsoft (with Yammer, Sharepoint, and now Groups, and probably Teams as well), Salesforce (with Chatter/Community Cloud), and finally Jive as the only truly dedicated enterprise player still standing from the inception of the industry.

But as useful as these platforms were and are in helping enable the right changes in digital workplace mindset and behavior, it was never the technology that was the hardest part. In fact, one of the clearest lessons from the first decade of the rise of the ESN was that virtually all of the major challenges with ESN success are about people, not technology. Making enterprise social networks thrive by fostering stronger, richer connections across organization silos while spurring widespread knowledge sharing and co-creation is an activity that is almost entirely made successful by how you situate the tools among the people involved, what skills you develop amongst them, and the type of goals, encouragement, support, and leadership you establish.

Thus, in the realm of digital collaboration, people come first and technology is second. In fact, I’ve often argued that organizations can actually become effective social businesses without any additional technology at all, like W.L. Gore (10,000 employees, $3.2B revenue) with its famously flat, open and self-organizing culture which was a social businesses long before the technology arrived. (They have since adopted the ESNs as one of their core tools.)

A Signature Lesson: People Must Change with the Tech, So Guide Them

I’d even go as far as to say this (to borrow a concept from the Internet of Things): The enterprise social network actually creates a side-by-side virtual “twin” of your organization, one that is more natural, organic, collaborative, scalable, and self-organizing. The digital twin represented by your ESN must therefore be nurtured in the same way as your business is (because it is the business too.)

Just like you’d never let your organization operate without a well-articulated vision, a relentless focus on growth and development, regular investment in better performance, careful strategic oversight, and passionate involvement by leadership as well as the rank and file, your ESN can’t lack for these elements either.

Thus, here’s the short list of the top factors I now believe drive success with enterprise social networks today. By and large, these factors are not technological in nature, though they often are highly reflective of — and can be directly aided by — the technology environment in which they operate. Instead these success factors represent the foundational types of human activities and skills that helps organizations more readily tap into the increasingly well understood benefits of operating as a social business. Lack more than a couple of these factors, and your ESN isn’t likely to be much of an improvement over say, an e-mail or unified communications system, in terms of the truly differentiated impact it can have.

The Hard Won Lessons of Thriving ESNs

  • Purposeful use case design. Unlike generic communications systems, enterprise social networks perform at their best when they’re designed around specific business activities. While having user profiles, activity streams, groups, and posts at a basic level is useful in itself — and that’s what ESN platforms offer out of the box — it’s designing for specific use cases like budgeting, recruiting, supply chain exception management, and dozens of other key activities where the real business value and impact comes in. For example, I am seeing a strong push in many ESN efforts this year to help teams collaborate more effectively in the field, particularly with sales teams, as that function matters a great deal to most businesses and is one of the best ways to demonstrate value early on. But the user experience of the ESN must be extended to natively support these use cases and make them better. This generally means bespoke experiences that extend and expand the ESN to realize the highest value use cases in an optimized way, instead of hoping that generic, out-of-the-box ESN functions will somehow enable them. While most ESN platforms have tools and APIs that make this relatively straightforward, I find that most practitioners expect that their ESN will do most of what is needed out of the box.

    This is simply not the case today. In fact, some of the most compelling examples of ESN solutions are found when specific high impact use cases are enabled through purposeful design, such as with custom-designed Plus Relocation’s Elo community, which lies at the very core of how they run their business, or the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Bridge platform, which greatly accelerates the admission process via a carefully designed and gameified experience. All of this began to be understood back in 2011 when a widely discussed post by Laurie Buczek noted from her efforts at Intel were far too disconnected from the actual work of the business to matter very much. Well-known analysts in the ESN space such as Constellation’s Alan Lepofsky identified purposeful collaboration as a key success factor back in 2013. Attached below are a sample of the some of the functional use cases that enterprise social networks can be dramatically improved through open collaboration, which I’ll be exploring in more detail soon:
    enterprise_social_networks_business_use_cases_for_social_business

  • Professional community management. I am sometimes surprised how often I still encounter a poor appreciation of the vital importance of capable community management — see TheCR’s skill wheel to understand how involved a job it is — in ensuring the long-term growth and success of an ESN. Last year I even wrote an open letter, aimed at the IT department which often does the technology implementation for an ESN (and gets charged about half the time with actually operating it), about the criticality of developing this strategic social business capability. Short version: Digital communities are a new type of entity requiring a new form of support and enablement. Do not use interns for this, don’t use the inexperienced, don’t add it to someone’s already busy day job. Instead, use experienced professionals, like you would with any other important business function. Outsource if you have to (what I call Community Management as a Service.) Invest early and plan for the long hual as the Community Roundtable has correlated it directly with the maturity level of an ESN effort.
  • Working out loud. Of all the digital skills that workers should be developing now, perhaps the one that most naturally is an onramp to most of the others and leads to both positive outcomes and compelling emergent results is the act of working out loud (WOL) in digital channels. John Stepper’s Working Out Loud book and his push for organizations to create WOL circles to build skills around the technique is probably the best place to start. My industry colleague Michelle Ockers recently posted some fascinating insights into how WOL can work with actual results from a large organization. In short, working out loud will develop vital network leadership skills, cultivate social capital, and produce higher level of knowledge sharing, collaboration, and institutional knowledge, to name just a few of the benefits by virtue of simple and straightforward daily activities in the ESN.
    Working Out Loud Fundamentals for an Enterprise Social Network
  • Network leadership. As organizations become more virtual, decentralized, and digitally-enabled, it will be in social tools that leadership will soon be wielded most effectively. Managing our organizations through digital networks has become an essential skill, just not one that we’re training for in most organizations yet, and now we must. The majority of ESN deployments spend very little time developing these skills or educating team leaders, managers, and executives in the basic skills of network leadership, yet are often surprised when highly meaningful and impactful activity to the organization doesn’t take place there.
  • Digital collaboration skill development. In general, organizations are not developing the human skills as much as they are developing their digital workplace technologies. Almost every ESN effort I have encountered is under-delivering in some way on building the new skills required to get the most from social collaboration, as it depends on very different thinking such as letting the network do the work and designing your work processes for loss of control. These needn’t be — and shouldn’t be — complex digital skill education programs. Collaborate with your learning and development team and build some lightweight digital collaboration skill development content (videos, quick starts), add ESN education to new hire onboarding, cultivate WOL circles, and then evangelize and educate at every opportunity across the organization.
  • Supportive and engaged senior stakeholders. Perhaps the fastest and most effective way to get traction and sustain success with an ESN is to have active and fully participative leadership. This means both support and sponsorship as well as active presence in the enterprise social network itself. One of the first thing ESN practitioners should focus on is landing at least two senior executives willing to lend their reputation and standing in the organization to the effort. How important is this really? In the Community Roundtable’s survey data, year-after-year, it generally comes in as a top two factor, so it’s high on the importance scale.
  • Guardrails on activities that impede being a connected company. There are some easy ways that organizations can inadvertently reduce the benefits of social collaboration. One of the top ones is making it too easy to create private groups in the ESN. This is easy to remedy, if you’re aware of it: Leading social business exemplars like Bosch require users to submit a business case for private groups as a “tax” to place friction on keeping information hidden. Not retiring aging digital channels that are less open and participative can also be factor, as workers will initially tend to gravitate back to the tools and channels they know. In general, be diligent in not breaking FLATNESSES, which is a more detailed mnemonic I adapted from Andrew McAfee’s initial SLATES mnemonic describing what makes social tools different and more powerful than what came before.

ESNs are about people + digital technology: Focus in that order

Are there other success factors? Sure, and they vary widely depending on the organization, its culture, inclinations, and level of digital competency. If you want a deeper drive, I previously explored in detail, by pulling from several dozen client studies and industry case examples, what early adoption success patterns for ESNs were, since that phase was what most organizations were focused on then. We’ve learned some additional lessons since then — most of which are summarized above — but it’s still a useful breakdown if you need more techniques to drive success.

Does all of this sound overly complex? Not really. Social technologies themselves are getting very good at making the fundamentals easier, while there is a growing body of knowledge that can be used as a template for the structures and processes one needs to put into place. I’ve previous explored the structure side several times, both in terms of specific roles and organizational capability, while the process side is well-depicted in aforementioned community manager skill wheel.

In short, never before has it been easier to adopt enterprise social networks and achieve significant impact. It just takes a focus on what matters most, which is a steady choreography that consists of shifting human skills and supporting collaboration technologies together towards business goals. I now believe that most organization can get to ESN success quickly and repeatably, but only if they assess and adequately address the full dimension of people and technology concerns required.

Additional Reading

How Social Technology has Emerged as an Enterprise Management Model

Can we achieve a better, more effective digital workplace?

Vital Trends in Digital Experience and Transformation in 2016

This year I was invited again to come to Dreamforce in San Francisco and present on the latest developments in digital experience and digital transformation for the conference’s Emerging Tech Trends track. Surprisingly well-attended given the satellite location of the track at the Hilton Union Square, having to prepare this session is always a good opportunity for me to go over my research in the last year and map out what’s likely going to happen next.

For myself at least, it’s clear that human change has become closely linked to and as important as digital change, so I have divided up the trends list in the last two years into a tech dimension and a human dimension.

The bottom line: How we think, work, and react as people has tremendous impact on the usefulness and effectiveness of emerging technology. It’s what separates the digital native from those who are just beginning the journey. For example, those not inclined to share information won’t get much use from the technologies and techniques of social business, nor will those who are uncomfortable and unused to spending time in virtual worlds be able to take advantage of the rich opportunities of virtual reality. And if we’re not changing our leadership skills to be more network-centric as opposed to hierarchy-centric, then much of the business value of digital experience and engagement is wasted on us. The list goes on.

What’s more, not only are we co-evolving with our tech, but we need to understand how we need to change just as much as the technology is changing. This is required in order to a) understand the art of the possible and b) to be able to access technology’s unique and historic new value propositions.

What's Next in Digital and Social Experience and Digital Transformation in 2016

Another point I make early in the presentation is the technology is changing exponentially right now and has climbed into a rather steep part of the curve, yet our organizations just don’t change on the same curve. Instead, we change far more linearly, at best logarithmically (see slide 8.) That’s not to say that that enterprises can’t organize themselves to change much faster, but in order to do so we must employ fundamentally new ways to transform organizations. Certainly, some organizations are adapting faster and digital transforming more sustainably (see data on slide 4.)

Sidebar: I’ve recently been exploring what these new models for sustainable yet highly scalable models for digital transformation, even proving them out on client projects I’ve been working on over the last few years. The key seems to be a more network-based, decentralized, and emergent approach I’ve called a Network of Excellence.

Emergent Tech Trends Inputs

For this year’s round-up of emerging tech trends, in addition to original research, I used as inputs several items:

Major new additions to the list include digital assistants/bots/chatbots, blockchain, omnichannel, workplace app integration, and collaborative EMRs, along with significant tweaks in a variety of the existing trends.

You can see the whole deck with an overview of each trend on Slideshare. I’ll post any video that is produced as well.

Also, in other Dreamforce news, you can review my live blog of the main Dreamforce keynote as well as my current assessment this week of the Salesforce platform and ecosystem.

Additional Reading

Digital priorities for the CIO in 2016 | ZDNet

The Building Blocks of Digital Transformation: Community, Tech, Business Models, and a Change Platform

Seeking a Modern Foundation for the Digital Workplace

Take a few minutes and try to imagine the workplace of the near future. What does it look like? Some of the likely items to consider are these:

  • Are mobile, cloud-based productivity and collaboration apps the center of the next-generation digital workplace?
  • Will we all switch over from e-mail to Slack-like lightweight messaging services supported by contextual apps and intelligent chatbots?
  • Will the workplace of the future be contained almost entirely inside virtual reality experiences that provide ultra-realistic online workplaces, complete with engaging avatars of our co-workers and AI-based assistants?
  • Will social networks and online communities become the leading way that we manage our organizations and conduct our work?
  • Will we soon control everything with our voices, gestures, and even our thoughts?

Almost certainly the answer is yes to all of these questions, and many similar ones. It’s just a matter of when. The reason it’s important to ask them, however, is that we learn very much about what we should do today by looking at where we will be tomorrow with digital work.

What’s the Organizing Principle of Digital Work?

As part of asking these questions, recently I’ve been trying to seek the answer to what the organizing principle of the digital workplace should be. The top models have shifted many times over the years, and we even had a sort of crisis in the early 2010s when we had so many competing choices, rapidly shifting technologies, and important discoveries of new digital workplace skills like mass collaboration, crowdsourcing, and Working Out Loud, to name a few. Uncertainly reined and the path forward was unclear for many. It didn’t help that far too many of us still thought about the digital workplace in primarily tech terms, instead of emphasizing that it is only by enabling people with new workplace concepts, skills, tools and techniques that we can become successful in working in new ways.

In fact, as a primary symptom of this issue, I still find that most IT departments use pure technology adoption as the primary measure of success, rather than the business metrics or KPI improvements that actually matter. With a tech-first mindset, it’s as if merely using a digital tool is somehow equivalent to effectiveness or creating measurable value. An important subject for another time, however.

The Evolution of Foundational Technology of the Digital Workplace: file servers, chat, team messaging, unified communications, enterprise social networks, portals, intranets, file sync and sharing

It’s clear to me, after being in the space for two decades, is that we generally have poor ability to balance the tech and the people in our digital workplace strategies. Admittedly, it’s a tough balancing act: If we focus too much outside the technology, we lose the insight required to see how emerging new types of digital tools directly guide us towards powerful new models of working (such as “Let the Network Do the Work“.) If we focus too much on the technology, we lose the insight required to see best how to bring the people in the workforce along with us.

However, if we can identify the right organizing principle — which gives us an effective way to think and reason about the digital workplace that provides the right mental guardrails to ensure we keep a good balance — then we are more likely to succeed. However, it’s evident that we’ve not yet hit upon the right mental framework that allows the average organization to reach the next level of the digital workplace, and its attendant benefits.

Social Business Was A Breakthrough, But Not Complete

To be sure, we’re getting closer. The idea of social business as an umbrella set of ideas for the future of work is probably got as far as any concept has managed to get in the broader marketplace. As my co-author of Social Business By Design, Peter Kim, defined it, social business is about enabling people through the nearly unlimited possibilities given to us through relentless global innovation of the network technologies that have essentially remade the entire world in the last twenty-five years:

“A social business harnesses fundamental tendencies in human behavior via emerging technology to improve strategic and tactical outcomes.”

Thus any digital workplace that doesn’t tap into the innate tendencies of both people and digital networks will be at a disadvantage over time, often profoundly. We can already see this if we look at the performance data for workplace technologies like enterprise social networks — a key foundational technology of social business — that has been captured over the years by McKinsey and numerous others.

But as I’ve observed recently by contrasting it with the emerging model of digital experience management, social business is not a complete (nor was it intended to be) view of the digital world of work. It’s just a very important way of looking at better ways to conduct our work through collaboration and engagement. But it still doesn’t encompass all the ways that digital is transforming both the workplace and the people in it.

Yet for the foreseeable future, it is in fact technology that is largely leading the discussion when it comes to new ways of working, given that is has been more successful than anything else in raising productivity and producing growth in the last few decades. But as those that have spent their life studying it, as famed economist Robert Gordon noted recently, it often takes us a long time to figure out how to achieve the benefits. Certainly there are important non-tech big concept trends today (corporate social, sustainable business, and lean enterprise come mind) but even most of the key business trends today have tech involved in them in some way.

The digital age is one reason why The Economist last year noted the profound decline in recent years of notable management gurus, who had great expertise in business and could spot important work trends, but did not as a group have the requisite digital knowledge, context, and mindset to see past the inflection point when technology began to change virtually everything we do in our organizations.

Yet Tech Now Sets the Future Of Work Agenda

Thus the evolution of key digital workplace technologies, which I’ve depicted above, is almost depressingly devoid of the people equation, largely because the industry has mostly focused on specific point tools themselves. File, documents, records, and transactions are still at the core of most on-the-ground thinking about the digital workplace, though at least conversation, collaboration, and engagement are now about as important. Now team messaging along virtual and augmented reality are on the upswing but still in early days.

Things are changing again in general in the digital workplace for a variety of reasons. This include old legacy digital workplaces aging out and younger workers having higher expectations. But the digital workplace is shifting mostly because of fast-paced innovation, tech change, and acute proliferation. As a result, we’re now seeing a more nuanced and complex conception for the digital workplace emerging; a way of thinking about connecting the pieces into a multilayered and contextual digital habitat, as opposed to a mass jumble of largely disconnected apps.

We can also see that the digital workplace wilderness that we encountered during the collaboration and app proliferation of the early 2010s was just a gentle breeze of disruption. A large raft of disruptive technology is coming to the enterprise at this very moment, and it will change the workplace more in the next 10 years than in the last 50. While we see new digital management theories such as Holacracy emerging to try to create a better defined and detailed digital organizing model for us, the reality is that any approach is subject to the same forces that dethroned the traditional gurus of management: We just can’t see how work will shift until new tech is actually upon us, forcing us to revise and rethink much of what we know in a reactive mode, rather than with forethought and strategic planning.

For this reason and others, I now believe any effective organizing principle for the digital workplace must be profoundly designed for loss of control and take into account highly emergent behavior and outcomes. I believe we’re seeing the model for information technology (IT) finally shifting in realization of this, though it will take time.

You’re Invited to Two Open Events on the New Digital Workplace

So what then should be the foundational model for work today? To help discuss this question I will be participating in two industry online events this week in which we’ll explore these topics to the fullest possible. I would like to invite you to join me in the discussion.

The first is a Town Hall Debate this Wednesday, September 14th, 2016 at 9am PT/noon ET — which I’ve humorously likened more to a cage match — with my friend, industry colleague, and content management uber guru Tony Byrne, of the Real Story Group. We’ll be grappling with all of the above and more in a live video broadcast and I hope you’ll join us and ask hard questions.

You can register for the Town Hall Debate on Enterprise Social Collaboration here.

Town Hall Debate on Enterprise Social Collaboration and Networks with Dion Hinchcliffe and Tony Byrne

The second event is a Webcast of my latest research with Jive Software’s Gili Guri-Mill where I’ll explore why the enterprise social network is emerging at the leading candidate for the foundation of the digital workplace. This will be broadcast on September 15th, 2016 at 10am PT/1pm ET, and I’ll be taking questions towards the end.

Please register for my the Webcast, titled Enterprise Social Networks: The Foundation of the Digital Workplace here.

Webcast: Enterprise Social Networks as the Foundation of the Digital Workplace by Dion Hinchcliffe

Additional Reading

What is the Future of Work?

Digital Business Ecologies: How Social Networks and Communities Are Upending Our Organizations