What’s Coming Next in Digital and Social in the Enterprise?

I’ve been taking a close look at what’s over the enterprise horizon for much of the year as the pace of technology change continues to accelerate, as most experts have long predicted and which will only continue. New platforms, technologies, product, services, and models are appearing at a constant pace these days. Many topics that are hot today were barely on anyone’s radar a short while ago, from the blockchain and holacracy, to social performance management and trimodal IT, to name four of a great many important topics that have been significant recently.

The result is, if you’re not currently dedicating a significant amount of time in some part of your organization researching what’s happening, the digital world is almost certainly leaving you behind. In fact, as I’ve been making the point recently, our traditional methods for adapting to and absorbing new technology are breaking down in the face of the torrent of digital innovation our organizations are currently experiencing. In short, we need new models and effective strategies for technology adaptation, and the good news is that some workable approaches are now emerging, discovered and proven in recent years new through bold experiments by IT and business leaders in the field. Even though culture and practices are likely to be the biggest obstacle, as Isaac Sackolick recently observed, we still need new processes that span IT and business that can greatly accelerate our ability to adapt to the marketplace.

Tracking Digital/Social Innovations with Business Impact

But, as we’re sorting out how we should strategically manage our technology portfolios today, we still need to keep a close eye on the stream of what’s happening in digital and social, making sure key developments are on our evaluation and adoption plans as appropriate. To that end, I’ll be taking my latest survey of high impact new digital technologies likely to offer significant advantage to the enterprise in the very near future for my upcoming session at Dreamforce 2015 next week in San Francisco.

What is next in the enterprise for digital and social

One thing is sure however: Digital transformation must take place hand-in hand with human transformation. So I’ve broken the list down into those two swimlanes, as we have to both change our technology landscape and ourselves into order to more successfully adapt. I’ve also included three verticals that I believe are experiencing particular disruption/renewal due to recent digital advances.

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Technology Dimension Human Dimension
Digital
Wearables Future Skilling
Digital Assistants Citizen Developer
Robotic Process Automation Work Hacking
Mind/Machine Interfaces Networks of Excellence + Change Agents
Virtual Reality Platforms Trimodal+ IT
Microframeworks InnovationDevSecOps
Low Code Platforms Digital Management Models
Applied Machine Learning New Digital Career Tracks
Blockchain
Social
AI-Based Social Analytics SocBizOps
Community Management-as-a-Service Social HR and Sales
Social Aggregation 2.0 (Apps/SNS Silos) Swarm Intelligence, Working
Social Payments Social Performance Management

Note: I’ve included links to some of these advances above, but will explore them individually in more detail on ZDNet soon.

I also believe there are some major developments in healthcare (wellness tracking, social electronic medical records, healthcare communities), financial services (cryptocurrency, partner networks, digital advisors), and higher education (adaptive learning communities, student/alumni communities, and new digital learning spaces) that represent major opportunities for the majority of organizations in these sectors.

To get a deeper exploration of each of these topics, please attend my Dreamforce 2015 session, titled “Vital Trends in Digital/Social Impacting Your Business in 2015 & Beyond” at the Hilton Union Square, Continental Parlor 5 on Tuesday, September 15th at 2:30PM PT.

Update: My deck for this session has now been posted on Slideshare.

Additional Reading:

The Enterprise Technologies to Watch in 2015

How Digital Collaboration Will Evolve in 2015

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How Organizations Can Address the Challenges of Modern Digital Collaboration

It’s now clear to me that we must take bold new steps if we are to truly improve the state of workforce collaboration in most organizations. As the majority of us are doing it today, digital collaboration is largely stuck in the doldrums.

The known issues are numerous: The tools themselves are either too complex, specialized, or advanced, or worse, not a good fit for our organizations but are appealing due to unrelated reasons like vendor stability or wide adoption elsewhere. Often, our workforces are too entrenched in older ways of working (or, just as likely, woefully untrained in the new.)

Collaboration itself is now appearing everywhere, as a digital capability embedded in many of our technology products. This fundamentally human group activity — which is absolutely vital to produce results in today’s knowledge-driven organizations — has either been added as a secondary ‘feature’ in many of our existing applications, or is literally raining down upon us from the cloud as hundreds of startups continually try to improve what’s possible and get into our organizations to better meet our users’ needs than we are today, often as I pointed out yesterday, by appealing to them directly.

Resolving the Digital Collaboration Paradox

Enterprise Collaboration: A Highly Varied Strategic Capability We Must Enable

We’ve also seen that collaboration is often held up as a virtue in relative isolation, but not well-connected to how work actually gets done, or poorly understood as a human skillset so applied even more poorly with the technology, and certainly not last, applied as a one-size-fits-all technology solution, when collaboration-critical domains like STEM, creative disciplines, innovation, sales, and marketing, could not possibly have more diverse scenarios and styles of collaboration.

The result is that our organizations are filled with rather disjointed collaborative technology. We find ourselves generally limping along and reporting rather limited (albeit actual) results as all of these pieces and trends of today’s digital collaboration puzzle fit together relatively poorly.

In recent years, I’ve been working with many organizations on many of these collaboration challenges. But it’s been the last couple of years that these issues have come to a head in many companies. I’ve previously highlighted some key trends that are making it very hard to improve the status quo in most large organizations.

But perhaps most pernicious of all of these issues is the traditional view that collaboration is a monolithic thing we must all do the same way. It’s not. It’s a highly varied, innately human process that has unique needs and requires unique capabilities to optimally support different kinds of work, and it’s time we recognized this. That most organizations look at document-centric tools like SharePoint as a universal collaboration solution, or social business platforms like enterprise social networks as the ultimate end-goal for how we work together is now evident as both a failure of imagination, and failure as a strategy. It’s not working well in most organizations, and most of us now realize it. I speak to organizations almost weekly that are trying to ‘rationalize’ their collaboration strategies in this complex, fast-changing, and difficult new operating environment, but unsure what to do about it.

Fundamentally Changing How We Manage Digital Collaboration as Organizations

While there is probably more than one answer to this set of problems, it’s obvious that what most of are doing — while actually producing some useful results — is falling far short of what’s possible. What’s worse (or terrific, depending on how you look at it), is that we’re now being dragged wholesale into confronting the issue by the business-side of our organizations, who are simply not waiting for IT departments for leadership any longer. They want collaboration solutions that fit them instead of the abstract needs of the organization as a whole, understand the work they do locally, and that employ new technologies to dramatically improve what they do. As a result of inaction in most organizations, shadow IT is off the charts this year, and the majority of it is related to tools that support some form of collaboration or data sharing.

Fortunately, our options are simple: We can do one of two things. A) Ignore these issues and attempt to lock out any unofficial collaboration tools, a process that I can now assure you will do more harm that good, and won’t stop the trend, as users in aggregate now own and wield more and better IT than most of our organizations, and aren’t listening to us.

Or B) we can find better ways to tap into demand and unleash innovation — in particular, by employing business/user change agents and other proactive/transformational capabilities — when it comes to one of the most important work activities in our businesses, and establish a sustainable rate of change, all the while spending our scarce centralized tech resources on keeping new collaborative tech secure, broken out of silos, well-integrated, universally searchable, as part of a rational yet far more diverse and fluid collaboration architecture.

In this model, salespeople, operations staff, project teams, R&D, customer care, and many others will benefit by helping bring in new collaborative technology optimized for their needs, and to which they are increasingly reaching out and adapting to anyway.

This whole conversation is all part of the future of work and the future of IT that I’ve been exploring over the last year. In case you’re wondering, a newly inclusive, open, and decentralized model of digital transformation appears to be an broad and significant new trend. I’ve been documenting compelling examples in large organizations, including companies like Liberty Mutual, whose CIO Mojgan Lefebvre considers shadow IT, rightly, as a vital proof-of-concept led from outside the IT organization. I believe there is a fairly short path to changing our posture to take advantage of these combined trends to our tremendous benefit, tapping into new collaborative capabilities, distributed change capacity at scale, all while still meeting our obligations as technology professionals and keeping new diverse IT solutions secure, archived, governed, managed, and protected.

In my opinion, most organizations no longer have a choice, as the the traditional legacy methods we’ve long used to manage the IT lifecycle have become inappropriate for how technology is used to meet business needs in many cases today. Perhaps the most challenging: Success will require business and IT to come together like never before.

This is a vital industry conversation we need to continue having together, working through the issues that will surely crop up as we go down an exciting and rewarding but also no doubt very challenging near-future with new models for enabling our organizations with technology.

Additional Reading

How to Deliver on a Modern Collaboration Strategy

Online communities are now producing results, reporting ROI

IT Leaders Are a Critical Catalyst for Unifying and Leading Digital Transformation

How Digital Collaboration is Fragmenting, and Why It’s a Major Opportunity

A significant issue has been developing in digital collaboration for the last several years, and it’s now starting to become somewhat acute. I’m referring here to the pronounced trend towards app, environment, and channel fragmentation. Over the last few of years, I have been speaking with beleaguered IT managers who are struggling to cope with the sheer proliferation of software, systems, and applications that purport to help workers with collaboration. It’s not a new problem, and smart folks like Dave Winer have long worried about it, but it’s now becoming a vital strategic concern.

A variety of factors are contributing to fragmentation: Every department and function now seems to have existing vertical systems — such as their standard HR, sales, or customer care solutions — that have recently added social media, collaboration, sharing, messaging, shared content editing, document attachments, activity streams, rich user profiles, and so on to their feature sets. At the same time, many exciting new applications have emerged on the scene recently that seem nearly must-have to many of us: Dropbox, Box, Slack, even arguably IBM Verse. All of these in turn compete with the officially sanctioned collaboration applications already in the workplace currently, from e-mail and SharePoint to whatever enterprise social network and unified communications platforms have been selected under the CIO’s purview.

The Horizontal and Vertical Fragmentation of Digital Collaboration Tools

Some of these new collaboration applications are brought through the front door in by lines of business that feel they have special needs. Others are so-called “shadow IT” deployments by teams and departments who believe they require certain features or prefer the ease-of-use of alternative collaboration tools, but don’t want to go through the formal hassle of getting blessing. Finally, a good many come in via legacy adoption via mergers/acquisitions or through individual users using their own devices and app stores.

Note: User-driven IT itself isn’t the problem here, it’s actually a key source of opportunity if wielded properly in a network of enabled/supported change agents.

Related: What Does a Modern Collaboration Strategy Look Like?

Too Many Collaboration Tools, Not Enough Collaborative Reach

Whatever the source, this trend is creating dozens — and sometime hundreds, in large enterprises — of collaborative silos, where participants and their information are trapped, inaccessible and invisible to a broader range of potential actors. Worse, unlike the original communications tools in the industry — like e-mail — the walled garden trend that started with the great consumer social networks — largely to support business models and not to help users — has decisively shifted to enterprise collaboration software today. Thus, unless you have a license and are using the exact same app, chances are increasingly poor that you can collaborate with someone unless they are using the exact same toolkit and environment.

I’ve pointed this out in the past, the we have an urgent problem with our collaboration tools not talking to each other. I’d say it’s now a critical issue that threatens the very high-value, human-centric activity that we are supposed to be enabling: Better collaboration. In addition to the typical common issues, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that users have moved away from a collaboration tool because they can’t easy work with customers, or business partners, who are usually outside the company and don’t have access to the same tools or environment.

Now the issue is not just that we have barriers, but that we have so many new applications that we are employing, very few of which are interoperable. The result is that we are creating a growing array of inaccessible bubbles of insulated collaboration within our organizations. Much of this is done in the name of achieving worthwhile goals: Accessing powerful new capabilities, modernizing our workplace tools, improving security, and/or making sure we have vendor stability. However, we’re learning that we are often creating a solution that’s potentially much worse than the problem we’re trying to solve.

Commercial Silos of Social and Collaboration

In Social, We’ve Moved Once from Open Federation to Silos. Now We Must Move Back.

One of the challenges of adopting new digital solutions for collaboration has been that they’re often championed by those for whom technology isn’t their primary background. Consequently, federated architectures, open standards-based technology, and interoperability usually aren’t high on the list of sought after features for collaboration tools by most business users. Partially as a result, growing islands of collaboration have become a very real problem today, as lack of decent connection between our collaboration tools is — instead of creating a large and growing body of collective intelligence accessible to all — is actually resulting in parochial backwaters where too few people use the tools to make them worthwhile.

Certainly, some of the latest additions to the industry pool of collaboration options — and yes, I’m talking about Slack here — are designed specifically to address this issue, as it becomes one of the largest — and most ironic — new obstacles to effective collaboration: Too many apps and channels for working, none of which share well with each other. Solutions like Slack make all the knowledge and content flowing through our many individual business applications, visible from one collaboration platform. And that’s certainly one major way to solve the problem. Certainly, approaches like OpenSocial have tried to tackle it in other ways, and now the W3C Social Web Working Group is looking at the issue as well. So perhaps we’ll still end up with an SMTP for collaboration, but we don’t have it yet.

In the past, I’ve exhorted our industry — especially the most strategic and important aspect of it, social collaboration — to stop the fragmentation and create interoperability standards. But vendors — who can only exist when there are enough customers — have little incentive to help others, nor do their users insist on it. In fact, I’ve steadily come to believe that the problem with not be solved by vendors, customers, or even standards bodies, each of which has a) corporate goals contrary to a real solution to making collaboration tools work together, b) don’t fully understand the details of collaborative systems and their management well enough, or c) can’t gain traction because of the first two issues, respectively.

A Quick Back-of-the-Envelope Proof

As a cross-check, especially since I’m seeing the flow of new collaboration applications increase rather than decrease, I took a look (results in first diagram above) at some of the top types of collaboration tools (content/document management, intranets, social collaboration tools, ESNs, unified communication platforms, e-mail, and mobile collaboration tools) and put them on another dimension against various leading corporate functions (marketing, sales, operations, customer care/support, research & development, HR, legal, IT, and supply chain), and I was able to quickly find many apps — often some just newly emerged — that could fit in each and every intersection between the two axes. This would not have been possible 2-3 years ago. In other words, everything we do is quickly becoming collaborative.

And as a result, the risk is that soon little will be, as collaboration is divided across hundreds of isolated systems that we mostly can’t see and don’t have access to internally, sharply limiting the rich results from collaboration that only open technology can uniquely provide: Working out loud, open and transparency business practices, a corporate body of knowledge, and reuse and learning from everything that the company knows, all lying searchable on the corporate network.

Related: A CIO’s Guide to the Future of Work

The Issue of Collaborative Silos Must Be Solved. And Because They Must, They Will. But When?

Instead, as the issue becomes a top one for many corporations, I now believe it’s more likely that we’ll see inclusive approaches (again like Slack and a few others like Xendo have done) that ensure these barriers don’t form, that are based on market drivers and ultimate customer value. In fact, I now see that some customers are increasingly frustrated that they can’t use their shiny new tools to work with everyone they want, or are cut-off from the communities, channels, and knowledge that they need to do their job. Fortunately, these stakeholders are the ones likely to drive the changes we need to see.

This may perhaps, at least for the smart software companies and open source projects that understand this increasingly urgent issue, be the next big opportunity for them: They must be the integrating force, the unifying center of collaboration for the enterprise, bringing all the major applications, systems, and data pools together — and make it easy for IT or others to bring in their own local apps — so that we no longer have such highly ironic digital isolation.

I fully realize this issue is not one that people can get as passionate about as the main topic of contemporary collaboration. But unless we fully understand what kind of results we are really creating, we’re going to be building as many walls and barriers as we are new modes and venues of digital collaboration. If we want, we can greatly accelerate a new and better way, a more unified way, and push for interoperability that’s as good or better than e-mail has, then truly create the collaborative worlds of our dreams.

Finally, it’s not up to someone else to make sure this takes place. It’s up to us.

Additional Reading:

The digital collaboration industry continues to flourish

Watching digital collaboration evolve: Key events in the last year

How to improve global workforce collaboration

The Rise of the 4th Platform: Pervasive Community, Data, Devices, and Intelligence

These days it’s still pretty common to talk about social business, mobility, analytics (especially when it’s called big data), cloud, and the Internet of Things — SMACT is the current acronym for all this — as on the agenda of key digital improvements underway in the typical enterprise. While many organizations have executed solid starts against these fronts, and are usually just at the end of the beginning overall in incorporating these technologies into their business, the majority still have a good way to go for reasons I’ve explored recently on ZDNet and elsewhere.

In recent months, I’ve started to be asked what’s coming next in digital and the enterprise. While I examined the more strategic up-and-coming technologies for the last year, this doesn’t really begin to paint the strategic picture that organizations must manage to now. After all, a laundry list of technologies is just that, and won’t create results by itself. But carefully situating emerging technologies within a business in a way that truly takes advantage of their innate and unique abilities to realize value creation does, and is the essential description of the hot topic today among CIOs and others in the C-Suite, digital transformation.

After all, the whole point of digital transformation is realizing that technology fundamentally changes how you do business in just about every way. It therefore poses very difficult questions to business and technology leaders: Who best should do our work today? Where does the value come from? What do these new ways of working actually look like? How can we best organize to achieve them? To answer these questions, we must understand the overall narrative of our modern digital journey: Where is technology actually taking us? What is it making possible that wasn’t before? How can these possibilities give rise to uniquely valuable new types of assets that would allow us to sustain our businesses?

The Rise of the 4th Platform: Digital Community, Devices, Data, and Intelligence

These are a lot of open questions, but we do have a sense of some of the answers now. For example, in terms of who does the work and where value comes from, we’ve learned that the network can and will (and should) do most of it, if we only enable the possibilities through platforms and digital communities. The answers to other questions are more complex, though their broad outlines are becoming clear as well, such as how can we best organize this year to achieve digital change. Why are they tough quetions? Because while digital devices and networks enable broad and reasonably well-understood realms of possibility, how precisely they apply to our industry, our business, and our corporate culture is often very different between organizations.

So when we talk about framing up the overall digital journey we are all on, the discussion is often about “computing eras”, or the emerging of new types of platforms (the cloud, for instance.) while these views are often gross simplifications, these are also useful conceptual frame-ups. Probably one of the most widely referenced view these days is IDC’s articulation of a vision they’ve dubbed the 3rd platform. In the large, this view does indeed describe what’s happening, though it leaves out some of the unique flavor of what’s special about what’s happening in digital today. I’ve previously described some of the more detailed possibilities in a view I called Web OS, but this really never became a popular way of thinking about it, though it did provide the extra layer of detail many need to understand what’s happening and has held up well in my opinion.

What’s Missing, and What’s Coming for Today’s Strategic Digital Perspectives?

Probably the most important concept that’s almost always missing from these views is the unique power of networks, especially ones made of people. One of the more remarkable is the sheer number of connections between nodes on the network that are potentially possible. Old ways of thinking about digital created largely point-to-point connections. The advent of social media made potent many-to-many network effects possible. The key word here is possible. Just because we’re connected to just about everyone in the developed world 24 hours today, doesn’t mean we actually realize that possibility. But today’s global networked platforms gives rise to the potential. In fact, for many reasons, having the ability to tap live into one’s social network is often better than having data on-hand, which is likely to be out-of-date.

So, for example, my view of what’s coming next, I don’t track the amount of data that is accumulating today. That is a great deal and growing rapidly by every account. But data isn’t useful until it’s needed, instead the ability to produce whatever is needed, when it is in fact needed, has far more ultimate value. So in my view, it’s key to understanding the strategic business nature of digital networks. This is a key point that John Hagel wisely made in a recent entry in his excellent Power of Platforms series:

But in a world of mounting performance pressure, we should also expect a fourth form of platform to become prominent. Dynamic and demanding environments favor those who are able to learn best and fastest. Business leaders who understand this will likely increasingly seek out platforms that not only make work lighter for their participants, but also grow their knowledge, accelerate performance improvement, and hone their capabilities in the process.

The core concept here is that whoever learns fastest, wins, and those with the best platform and ecosystem around it, will have value that can be tapped into more rapidly for sustained strategic benefit. Plus, it will ensure coverage of virtually all of the top level types of collaboration in business today.

What’s Next: Networks/Sensors In Everything, Machine Learning, and Us

I’ve been speaking at conferences for the last year saying that just about every non-trivial object will be connected to our networks within 10 years, as part of the rapidly emerging Internet of Things revolution. With the introduction of low power protocols like Bluetooth 4 and ultra long-lived batteries in devices like the tiny — and terrific in my experience — Tile locator, I now believe it’s going to be more like five years.

It’s also clear that mobility is going to transform and essentially disappear, into us. Wearables and smartphones will very quickly quaint when everything we need can be beamed into our heads or embedded as needed. Computing devices will almost completely disappear into our personal and work objects, and even ourselves. While this is certainly as scary a topic as the loss of privacy on the Internet was to many of us a decade ago, it’s clear that our computing devices are going to vanish and meld into the backdrop, like any sufficient mature technology. In fact, thinkers like Koert van Mensvoort have suggested that almost every technology eventually becomes naturalized. This will be the case with the end-state of digital experiences as direct man/machine interfaces, which have long been in the lab and is becoming increasingly sophisticated en route to the market.

Thus it won’t be long from now — as strange as it may seem today — that we can turn on the lights in our office just by thinking about it or order a product from Amazon after having an algorithm sift through the reviews for us simply by conceiving of doing so. We will reach a state of shared perception through all of our mutually connected devices and having knowledge networks consisting of our social graph, all devices, and the machine learning capabilities we trust most. In other words, collaboration with people and our machines will soon be truly frictionless.

The Fourth Platform: Ambient, Pervasive, AI-Boosted Digital Networks

All of this together: Networks of people in digital communities, pervasive sensors/controllers in nearly everything, and new types of truly frictionless interfaces will give rise to new types of ecosystems, including on-demand app creation services such as the now-famous IFTTT service. The 3rd platforms enabled enormous commercial ecosystems such as those created by Google (especially their decentralized AdWords network), Facebook, Amazon’s Cloud, Apple’s phones, iTunes and App Stores, and the list goes on. In the 4th platform, these platforms will become even more important — rightly or wrongly — and the most useful ones to us will literally become part of our mental furniture. The fourth platform is ambient computing, which strong components that turn network potential from our favorite ecosystems into data, and then data into knowledge, and make it as easy as just thinking about it. The next generation commercial ecosystems will even augment time and thought for us, even predicting what we’ll need before we figure it out ourselves.

If all of this sounds a little futuristic, it is also now all just within the realm of possibility, and so it will almost certainly happen, it’s just matter of exactly when. It also gives our organizations a clearer target to shoot for, at least if your organization considers moon shots. Because most organizations are struggling with being a digital contemporary in basic terms, much less getting ahead of the game. But there are ways of getting there, if organizations are prepared, it just takes a vision of the future to aim for.

I’ll explore more about the fourth platform soon, but would love to hear your thoughts on how networks, people, and devices are coming together to create all new possibilities for the enterprises.

Additional Reading:

The Community-based Ecosystem View of the Next-Generation Enterprise

What Most Digital Strategy Underestimates: Scale and Interconnected Change

A CIO’s Guide to the Future of Work

What Are the Required Skills for Today’s Digital Workforce?

As I spend a great deal of time every year looking at the latest technological advances for the enterprise, I’ve noticed a trend in recent years that’s long been true but is clearly markedly accelerating. That trend is that technology has officially pulled well ahead of the workplace skills of even the most proactive manager or line worker. It’s not that the digital possibilities are getting ahead of our businesses, it’s that high technology itself is proliferating so rapidly in terms of potent and truly transformative new products and services (social software, collaborative economy, wearables, 3D printing, and the whole hype cycle) that it is now very difficult today even for experts working on the subject full time to keep up.

I posited today on Twitter that we need to figure out a way to catch up or, as Andrew McAfee seriously suggests, perhaps the robots will just end up doing everything for us as they might be the only ones that can manage.

Or is there a way forward for our organizations? Are there new ways to think about our digital workplace skills that allows us to take our thinking up to a new plane, the next meta-level of thinking and working where we have much higher leverage, can manage change that is an order of magnitude or greater in volume than today, work in fundamentally better and smarter new ways — and perhaps even work a bit less — yet produce much more value?

Internal and External Digital Chang Factors Impacting the Enterprise Today

We generally recognize that have to do something to improve our digital metabolism, as I see organizations struggle mightily these days with digital change and transformation, and often not getting very far.

Thus it’s become pretty clear that one of two things is going to happen: The world will continue to pull ahead of the average workplace, as our internal rates of change are greatly exceeded by the marketplace. We will steadily become irrelevant and ineffective, eventually replaced by digital startups and better-adjusted competitors. Or we’ll find entirely new ways of improving our capabilities in a way that allows us to maintain some kind of parity with progress in the world. (Whether technology change always represents progress is a discussion for another post.)

This means we have to find a way to change our selves and our workplaces, or the market will do it for us the hard way. Disruption is what happens when something new comes along that changes the underlying rules of the game. If we are doing the disrupting, it can actually be very good for us. When it’s imposed on us, then the results usually tend to be unfortunate. So we must be doing the disrupting to ourselves, and that begins and ends with shifting our mindset and perspective, especially in deeply understanding the nature of the truly pervasive digital operating environment we now find ourselves in.

Looking at the state of the digital workplace today, which I’ve been mapping for years now, and we can see from sources of hard data about what’s happening such as Jane McConnell’s terrific surveys, that “most organizations are just starting their journey to an effective digital workplace.” That’s Jane’s quote, but my emphasis: 30 years into the personal computer and networking revolution, and most organizations are still very early in their journey and often losing ground.

What Skills will Self-Sustain Digital Workers?

To be fair to IT and HR departments around the world, the digital workplace target does move incredibly fast and is picking up speed. And there never was a finish line. Fortunately, I believe there are novel, effective and increasingly well-understood new ways for most organizations to address their current digital workplace gaps, and it’s not (just) by “giving up non-essential control”, deploying liberal BYOD/BYOT programs to cultivate employee-led change, figuring out how to do things like learn or change behavior faster, or any of the ten strategies I’ve previously recommended.

No, instead it is by giving our workers genuinely transformative new digital skills that gives them the ability to adapt, provides them with the most relevant digital tools and platforms, conveys new motivations, and fosters the know-how to re-imagine their knowledge work in brand new ways that are much more adaptable, rich, scalable, and resilient — even embracing of — the inevitable march of digital progress.

While no one can yet represent that we have a full understanding of what the key next-generation digital skills of successful organizations are — as they are largely still being discovered — there is a broad realization of the important skills we know of already. All of the skills listed below are ones I’ve either seen being used successfully by large organizations or actively piloted with some promise. These should be on your shortlist as you plan your updates to the digital workplace, as I believe each is essential for working in a much more sustainable and meaningful way in our digital age. The enlightened leaders of today will enable these skills to tap directly into the “New Power” that digital networks are conferring on organizations that are willing and able to adapt.

Related: Today’s Digital Priorities for the C-Suite

Today's Digital Workforce Skills

The Essential Next-Generation Digital Workplace Skills

Working Out Loud

Also known as Open Work or Observable Work, this is the act of lightly narrating your workstream, usually on an enterprise social network, but it can be done using any participative medium. Working out loud allows one to let the network do the work (see below) and breaks down the silos that have rebuilt up with virtual workplaces and today’s far-flung multinational teams. Perhaps most importantly however is that is the key to unleashing agility using digital networks as it automatically collects institutional knowledge and critical methods, makes onboarding new employees much easier, and frees up your knowledge to work for the organization continuously while still ensuring your contribution is recognized. Credit goes to Deutsche Bank’s John Stepper who has done much to make this key digital workplace skill so well known recently.

Digital Sense Making + Personal Knowledge Management

These skills are something we’ve seen CHROs and HR departments consider how to provide in recent years as cognitive overload has become a common workplace malady. We now have many tools, channels, apps, and devices we must use in the workplace, and they will only grow in number, probably extensively. The attention they demand is squeezing out the time to do the quality thinking and analysis that we so badly need knowledge workers to spend time on. Harold Jarche has done excellent work over the years in mapping how activities like Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) is a discipline and practice that digital workers must acquire to navigate today’s knowledge-dense workplaces. PKM provides the tools, techniques, and time for consistent yet meaningful sense making. Next-generation organizations will actively work to reduce needless activities like excessive meetings by creating required time for the strategic activities of acquisition, management, and sense-making of digital knowledge. These skills are foundational to adapting more swiftly and organically to rapidly changing operating environments.

Open Digital Collaboration

As I’ve recently explored, collaboration is becoming the most important strategic activity in organizations, even becoming a vital top-level corporate strategy and major fast-growth new business model as well. Workers today must be experts in digital collaboration techniques, know all the relevant platforms, and maintain an understanding of the current collaborative “channel catalog” at all strategic levels. This includes the team and project levels, all the way up to the very business itself and its relationship with suppliers, partners, and customers. Becoming a connected, sharing knowledge organization using digital tools in global networks has, for example, become a top priority of large organizations like Bosch, BASF, Bayer, Michelen, and many others, some of whom even use techniques to ensure knowledge and observable work are kept out in the open. Open collaboration is a core capability of digital native organizations because it is how network effects and other power laws of networks are triggered, providing the scale and (literally) exponential ability to drive rapid change.

Related: How to Deliver On A Modern Enterprise Collaboration Strategy

Network Leadership

Today’s digital leaders — whether they are senior executives, managers, team leads, or line workers — must be able to wield influence and guide others over digital channels. Digital networks provide uniquely powerful platforms for self-expression that leaders can use to enlist others in common objectives, gain inputs from colleagues and especially weak ties, change minds, and drive collective action towards outcomes. In the industrial age, leadership was wielded through physical presence and (largely) one-way communication through traditional media. Today’s leaders must deal with networks that can and will engage back, and they must be effective at leadership through two-way dialogue, consensus building, and thought leadership. Showing the importance of this subject in leadership circles, the highly respected Executive Board has an excellent white paper on the Rise of Network Leadership that explores skills that must be developed in our workforce today.

Radical Transparency

In today’s digital world, rightly or wrongly, privacy is rapidly eroding and is now sometimes gone altogether. Forward-thinking organizations are going to take advantage of the change to build more scalable and sustaining trust, stronger relationships with their workforces, communities, and customers, and get the right information from where it is to where it needs to be. We’ve learned that any entity where people believe secrets that affect them are being kept is rightly regarded with considerable skepticism and growing cynicism. Edelman’s yearly Trust Barometer, whose results have been tracking the plummeting levels of trust worldwide in the last few years shows that the rules have changed. It’s often said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the proof in new ways of working has been the consistent positive results that more open and better networked organizations receive. Achieving this level of openness, however, will be one of the most challenging yet vital changes for most organizations to make: Creating a culture of sharing and near total transparency that drives much better decision making, faster feedback loops, stronger relationships, less searching for information, less customer and workforce frustration, and yes, especially more employee engagement.

Digital DIY Know-How

Maker culture, which can be quickly sampled in its current state by a quick browse through the thousands of active projects on Kickstarter, is an offshoot of the Do-It-Yourself movement, a trend towards finding ‘hacks’ that improve something by wielding simple but often unexpected solutions. While I believe this skill is not necessarily natural and amenable to every worker, hacking our workplace has become a common concept, often used to get around workplace barriers or antiquated ways of working without violating rules or policy. More recently, deliberately creating a hacker culture or business has been seen in the rise of hackathons and employee product startups/incubators, and other employee-led change processes. Encouraging digital DIY skills means tapping into a widespread but latent capability for change, improvement, and entrepreneurial spirit. Note: I’ll be exploring this topic more at my Ignite talk at IBM InterConnect next month in Las Vegas, on my session on digital leadership techniques. I’ll post the link to the slides here afterwards.

Letting the Network Do the Work

Perhaps the most truly disruptive of all the skills I’ve listed here, this refers to the technique for using the scale and asymmetric resources on the network (local, enterprise-wide, or preferably, global) to accomplish often otherwise impossible tasks. I’ve explored this strategic technique at length before as well as captured some amazing case studies in efforts like Fold.It. While some of the above techniques will naturally trigger this outcome (Working Out Loud most notably), the best results in my examinations of dozens of case studies comes when it is designed as an architecture of participation.

Are there other skills that should be here? Almost certainly. But as with all change today, so many parallel tracks often form that there simply must be a hierarchy, what’s most important, what’s next, and so on. I will collect and publish our updated view of all major digital workplace skills later this year, but I believe the ones above are at or near the top of the hierarchy and will genuinely enable rapid, transformative change in organizations. Visionary organizations that intend to survive and thrive in the near future will work on developing these skills and creating a workplace where they can be used to their fullest.

I would also like this to be the launching point for a more meaningful collective discussion of what we really need to do to modernize our workplaces for today’s operating environment. Please leave your comments below or better yet, write something that adds to this. Let’s work out loud and let the network do the work.

Additional Reading:

What is the Future of Work

Rethinking Work in the Collaborative Era