The Digital workplace : both fragmented and integrated

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At the end of the latest Enterprise Digital Summit in spring 2016, I left you with some thoughts about the digital workplace.

In short :

1°) The monolithic and hypercentralized environment that meets every need does not work

Everybody – me included – believed in it because it was the best approach from a rational standpoint but we’re force to admit that the vision of an intranet as a single entry point that aggregates every communication, collaboration and business solutions and creates bridges between them does not work.

Technically speaking there is no issue and we knows enough significant cases to prove it. But from an adoption standpoint il failed most of times.

Why such a gap ? Employees are looking for the more direct and simple way to do things and offering them a real labyrinth – even very very integrated ) – adds clicks to any actions and even makes things more complicated. The best is often the enemy of the good.

2°) Employees chose their tools

The second problem with the “one size fits all” portal is that it forces employees to use ethe enterprise tools. That’s the best solution from a rational standpoint but, once again, facts show it’s not that simple.

Employees developed some habits in their personal lives and want to keep the same habits at work. And even keep the same tools. Some may argue that it is exactly what was intended with, for instance, enterprise social networks : bring tools from the consumer world into the enterprise world with functionalities and governance options that meet enterprise requirements.

Vendors are often blamed for the lack of ergonomics of their products, their complexity of use. Generally speaking they’re criticised because they took tools that are easy to use in the consumer world and turned them into complex and poorly usable enterprise solutions. It’s a too easy way for enterprises to explain things and shirk the real issue.

Since I’ve been highly involved in the enterprise social software from its early days, let me explain how things actually happened.

• First, vendors did copycats of consumer solutions and sold them to enterprise buyers.

• Then enterprises asked for more functionalities, to widen the functional scope, to improve the governance (right management, workflows).

• What used to be a simple and easy to use conversational tool got ECM functionalities, right management “à la Sharepoint”, voting, project management….

• The easy to use social network eventually became an enterprise suite that had lost all its native qualities.

When a solution carrying a new philosophy is forced to comply with an old approach, we get not the best but the worse all all worlds. The result is not the consequence of the lack of vision and understanding of the vendors but of their clients.

That’s actually what I warned Facebook about in my feedback about my experience with Workplace (formerly Facebook at work). What makes this tool powerful is that it’s very easy to use and, even if things can be improved and enriched, the biggest mistake Facebook can make is to take into account any client requirement and turn workplace into an heavy, complicated and unusable solution. Workplace is very good in “à la Facebook” uses cases. A sentence, a link, a sharing. When 3 clicks will be needed to reach the publication interface, that 9 publication formats are available, each one with tons of publication options one has to check, Workplace will have become yet another labyrinthine system.

 If, for a given use case, the enterprise solution is more complex than the consumer one, the employee will use the second. Even if prohibited.

 

3°) A simple use case = a simple solution

What do all of our usages as consumers have in common. We’re using a lot of tools, each one doing only one thing but doing it well. Sometimes we even have quite similar and competing solutions for a single use case, and we decide the one we use based on the context, on the people we interact with.

In the enterprise world we started with simple solutions to build complex ones. (cf my explanation above). The result is : complicated use, poor user experience and a lot of functional overlap. By asking every solution to do the same as another solution that supports another use case in the same field, we ended with lots of solutions doing nearly the same thing. It results in businesses having, for example, 3 or 4 competing file sharing systems but without one where all the files can be found.

4°) Less is better

The result of all the previous points is that, over the 10 last years, the solutions digital workplaces are made of have become bigger and bigger, richer, more complex. My opinion is that the future belongs to smaller ones that do only one thing but do it well. It’s all about getting leaner.

If each solution that composes the digital workplace focuses on a very simple use case we’re going to have more tools and, paradoxically, to meet users’ expectations we’ll emphasis something they hate : application profusion.

Actually not. Application piling already exists. The problem is not the number of applications but the functional overlap and lack of interoperability capabilities. In fact having many applications at our disposal is not a problem in our personal lives while in the enterprise it is.

At this point of my reflexion I had a look at the latest evolutions of Office 365 and at the overall approach behind the roadmap.

Office 365 : first example of a consumerized digital workplace

Following this great post he published on LinkedIn to explain the positioning of the new “Teams” product, I had a long discussion with Alexandre Cipriani, product manager for Office 365 in France.

Here’s my understanding

1°) Office is a collection of small bricks.

The era when Sharepoint was promising anything (and even more) and when we were wondering where social was supposed to be between Yammer and Sharepoint is over. Add to this apps like Teams (A Slack-like) and many others… Today each part makes only one promise but keeps it.

2°) The app follows the usage and not the other way around

It’s only the end of making employees adopt digital workplace solutions meant looking for problem they did not have. The application’s functionalities and philosophy were driving the use cases instead of having the needs driving the choice of the app.

Today the party line is clear : people may need several ways to collaborate, depending on their needs. Knowing that an application covering the entire scope would be too complex so wouldn’t be used, the Office 365 users has Outlook groups, Sharepoint sites, Yammer, Teams etc… and will choose the best means depending on the kind of interaction he needs.

Five years ago they would have tried to make everything fit in a single application. Lesson well learned.

3°) Fragmentation is not a problem if governance follows

Such an approach raises an issue : how do you want a team to work efficiently when they have 3 or 4 applications for the same purpose.

The answer is simple but smart : what is needed a  consistent governance.

In this case the main issue is often related to rights and groups : having to rebuilt the group in each app, with the right rights is to tedious that people often use only one app even if it’s not designed for what they want to do.

The promise of Office 364 is to make groups consistent across applications. In other words, I have my Outlook group, a document library is automatically linked, as well as a Sharepoint site, a Yammer group…with the right people and rights.

Before, the application used to be at the center of collaboration and groups were a variable. Today the group is at the center and the app becomes a variable. One creates a group and since it exists in one application, it exists in all the applications, so employees just have to pick the right one based on their need. Sharepoint for this, Yammer for that.. Groups are the cement of a fragmented application portfolio. It’s a real paradigm shift for users but we’ve seen in the past that imposing a single multi-usage application does not work.

4°) Consumerization without complexification

A lot have been said about the consumerization of enterprise applications in the past but, I as wrote above, businesses took consumer solutions to make them more complex in the workplace.

The best example, along with enterprise social networks, is file sharing. There’s no collaboration suite worth the name that does not have its “à la DropBox” or “à la Box” functionality. Bottom line :most vendors eventually offered a native integration of Box.com. It happened for a good reason : it will always be easier to use Box.com as a standalone solution but integrated with enterprise applications than to use the internal “Box-like”, no matter as good as it is, but lost in the middle of hundreds of other functionalities.

Rather than adding complexity, Microsoft chose to integrate.

Another interesting point, il allows Microsoft to offer a large application portfolio (and it’s growing) at a lower cost since it’s only about building copy cats of consumer products without changing their nature or functional scope.

Yammer (social network), Teams (Slack), Flow (do you remember when I wrote that businesses needed an enterprise IFTTT ? ), Stream (Youtube), Streams (Youtube)…

5°) Openness and APIs

Why can we life in a fragmented ecosystem as consumers and not as employees ? Openness to third part systems. On the web everything connects to nearly everything. It’s not the case at work.

The best example may be Flow, that helps to automate tasks not only inside the Microsoft World, but with tens of enterprise or consumer solutions. In terms of productivity that’s really something we were lacking.

 

 

The key to success : don’t focus on application adoption.

I’ve already heard that regarding to this new approach : “Making people adopt and app was already so hard, now it’s just too much”. In my opinion the issue is not the vendor’s vision but the prism through which businesses see their projects.

Remember what I said regarding to “solutions looking for a problem”. Until now most businesses used to measure the success based on adoption, so on the number of people using an application.

In the new Microsoft paradigm I think that this approach is not relevant because it does not match the user’s need.

Except Outlook, there is not a single enterprise where everyone will use every available app. That’s already the case today. Ok, Slack is trendy but in a “normal” business, it’s unusable by 3/4 of employees. The point is not to force them to use it but to give them what matches their needs. If there are many needs, so there will be many apps, even if no one will be used by everybody.

The challenge for businesses won’t be to make everybody use every application. It will be that no one uses an application for something it’s not been designed for. That’s not the easiest part of the job.