Is the “Digital Workplace” just a fancy social intranet?


(Updated 23 Feb 2012 with additional references.)

Our friend and intrepidly practical intranet expert James Robertson has written a paper defining a concrete vision for the “digital workplace.” This is important because there has been much discussion and debate around what “digital workplace” means and how it’s relevant to the intranet.

Many well known intranet experts have weighed in on the topic, including Paul Miller, CEO of the Intranet Benchmarking Forum (IBF), who has actually written a book about the Digital Workplace.

While many folks have explored the topic, what we like about James’ new paper is that in his classic style he has cut through much of the blather and wonky speak to present the concept of “digital workplace” in plain English. His clear and straightforward paper (a quick read, with good graphics) presents a week-in-the-life story of an employee who joins a new company that has a well designed digital workplace.

James has skipped the hyperbole found in discussions around new terms such as “digital workplace,” “enterprise 2.0” and “social business” and crafted a relatable vision that many of us in the intranet world, and even average intranet users, can connect with.

We found the paper inspiring and comforting, though less aspirational than expected.

Bottom line: The intranet will be important for a long time, social media and human-centered design play a critical role in improving the experience of digital work, and social intranets are an important path forward.

The future called: Intranets are still important

A key aspect of James’ vision, which we find heartening as social intranet builders, is the centrality of the intranet to his story.

Over the past couple of years folks have suggested that the intranet is dead and questioned the value of the term. For those of us working on the ground in real companies, intranets are very much alive (though not all of them are well). We recently crafted a simple definition of “intranet” as well as a clear explanation of the term “social intranet” and spend our time working with clients and contacts who deal with both on a daily basis.

In his paper, James describes the digital workplace as the online hub for accessing company information and connecting with colleagues. While his vision sets forth a deeply social, human-centered experience of the company’s digital landscape, the core is really just an intranet that is social and well-integrated with myriad other applications and data sources.

Social intranet: Gateway to digital Eden

Is that heading a bit extreme? Yes, but no.

James explains his vision thusly: “The digital workplace describes a compelling enterprise environment that is fundamentally social, putting people at the center of things.”

This is what a social intranet is – an intranet that doesn’t just have a “people layer” as we sometimes explain it, but that is actually built around people, around profiles, identity, and employees’ activity.

Traditional intranets are built around content. Social networks are built around profiles and discussions. A social intranet marries those two into a harmonic environment of communication, collaboration and community. Every piece of content, big and small, from a comment posted in a forum to an HR policy document, belongs to a person. It is linked to a profile page with a picture, a history, and links to other people and content.

This already exists and is called a social intranet. James’ vision goes beyond what most social intranets can do today, but is predicated upon the concept of the digital workplace exposing, strengthening and expanding people’s connections to each other, their work groups and their content.

The central role of mobile

It’s no surprise that the story describes seamless access to company information via smart phones. What did surprise us, though, is how much James’ vision of the social, mobile digital workplace sounds like ThoughtFarmer mobile.

A core part of it is the corporate staff directory, with tight integration to her on-phone address book. She adds her boss’ details to her phone with a single click, along with the details of her team members.

Have you seen the video of ThoughtFarmer mobile? It has a search-type-ahead people directory that allows you to call a colleague with one touch from the search results or pull up navigation to her office location on your smart phone.

The future James outlines is neither distant nor unattainable, which is perhaps what struck us most in our first reading. However, the challenges to getting there are clear and well known.

The 2nd greatest challenge: Integration

Perhaps the most striking and day-dreamy aspect of the paper is how well integrated all the data is that James’ fictitious worker encounters. Data from HRIS systems, business intelligence engines, external social media sources, personal calendars, project management tools and the intranet all mash up perfectly and flow to the right digital places at the right time for the right people.

Integration of systems and data has proven a beast for enterprise architects for many years now and the social media boom has further complicated the challenge. Most daunting, though perhaps most important, in James’ vision is the seamless, elegant integration of myriad data sources into clean, just-in-time interfaces.

It’s just this type of integration that prompted us to beef up our API and create the ThoughtFarmer Integration Kit (TIK), which allows half a bajillion ways of connecting your social intranet with other applications and data sources. We’re proud of the TIK, but still have plenty of work as it doesn’t quite achieve the level of integration James outlined in the paper.

While our mouths were watering when we read the parts of the paper describing deep and useful integrations, at the same time our backs bristled at just how great a challenge this vision is.

The greatest challenge: People

However, there is one challenge greater than integration: People.

When we say “people” it means several things.

First, it means that a company’s entire operational staff, and even the company itself, needs to harbor an obsessive, almost maniacal focus on employee needs and user-centered design in order to achieve this vision.

In most companies, the designers, perhaps information architects, maybe a few developers and perhaps a few HR staff carry this end-user focus. Some great companies truly value and invest in their people. But James’ vision cannot come about without a wholesale commitment to an employee-centered way of thinking and feeling.

Second, it means that the people responsible for the intranet or “digital workplace” need real authority. We find too many intranet managers who are far down in the organizational hierarchy and have responsibility without authority. They achieve much of their success through coercion, pleading, and repeating their messages over and over again. Even IT Directors are often treated as tactical operators, rather than strategic partners.

James’ vision of the digital workplace will rely on companies investing power and resources in their intranet managers or whoever is responsible for delivering this digital environment. Companies must see their landscape of digital tools as absolutely critical to doing good business.

Where the vision falls short

We think “digital workplace” means “the entirety of computers and software that employees use do to their work.” Screens, smart phones, intranets, calendars, social media sites, HR benefits dashboards – these are all digital elements of work.

In fact, company vehicles, cash registers, water sensors – virtually anything which uses electricity and captures information is part of the “digital workplace.”

James’ vision falls short in not fully covering what our friend William Amurgis calls the “embedded web” – web enabled electronic devices that can feed into our information systems for real-time data and analysis. “Digital workplace” is a neutral term that describes the digital landscape. A landscape can be barren, or lush, hard to navigate, or easy to drive through.

Similarly, digital workplaces can be well designed or poorly tied together and usually an intranet is a part of it (see IBF’s Digital Workplace Maturity Model, written by Sam Marshall, for an extensive explanation with visuals). James’ paper, while helpful and clearly written, seems to describe a highly advanced social intranet more than it describes this ultimate digital environment.

Success at making “digital workplace” concrete

James’ purpose for writing this paper was to make “digital workplace” a more concrete thing that people can clearly imagine and connect with. I suppose what we really like about the paper is that we can relate to it.

Those aspects of the vision that we don’t yet have today we can imagine building. We read a piece of the story and think “to achieve that would require a team of top notch developers and an enterprise-wide strategy for integrating information, but it could really be done.”

Whether or not a “digital workplace” is just a “fancy social intranet,” James has laid out an accessible vision that makes sense. We suggest you take a moment to read the paper and reflect on what it would take to get there, as well as why it might be worth it. You can also see a recent post from James that has triggered a vigorous online discussion about the topic.

Thanks for your ongoing efforts and contribution in furthering the dialogue, James.

Looking for a clear and simple path to a new intranet? Download our free Intranet Buyers Workbook to learn 10 key steps in evaluating intranet solutions.


Join The Discussion

  1. Mark Morrell

    I like this post. It is a pity you don’t refer to the many posts I have made from my experiences of working in and helping other organisations with their digital workplaces or the discussion James kicked off with his earlier post on the digital workplace which has caused some differences in views to be aired.


  2. luke

    I like the assertion that ‘Digital Workplace’ is a neutral term – this makes it concrete and understandable. But – how do we describe the DW James talks about in comparison to the DW of today (or yesterday)? Is it maturity? What do we call a mature DW?

    You’ll be glad to hear I have a solution – and one which I hope will gain a huge following. I propose, what we are really trying to achieve is, Digital Workplace 2.0 😉

  3. Ephraim Freed

    Luke! Quit causing trouble my friend! Just say no to “2.0!”

    Thanks for these comments guys. I’ve updated the post with links to IBF’s Digital Workplace Maturity Model, which reinforces the concept of “digital workplace” as a neutral term, and to James Robertson’s recent post which has generated a great online discussion about the topic.

  4. Sam Marshall

    Thanks for the discussion and extensive links Ephraim.

    I’m intrigued by the “embedded web” element – do you know of anything that describes how employees lives would be changed by this? I must admit I think James may have been wise to leave it out on the grounds that people are wary of active monitoring.

    “..Morris’s sensors detected that she had alcohol on her breath from the night before and added the company’s substance abuse policy to her actions list…” 😉


    @Luke – surely it should be “Social Digital Workplace” then we’ll all be happy!

  5. Ephraim Freed

    That’s a great point Sam.

    William Amurgis uses examples such as: If a power meter on a building experiences problems or breaks, that power meter can automatically send a message via the web to technicians who will know immediately that it needs to be repaired/replaced.

    There is the potential to greatly improve service and make work easier for employees by removing a lot of time-consuming manual efforts. However, the “big brother” concern will need to be dealt with carefully.

    Where this will likely become most controversial is on smart phones. If an employee’s smart phone is GPS enabled and the company can see where the employee is, privacy concerns will abound. I believe someone from Intranetizen ( blogged about this a while back.

    “Morris just notified your manager that you were at the Elephant & Castle Bar for 90 minutes during lunch.”

  6. luke

    Indeed ‘someone’ from Intranetizen did:

    I think, workers in the ‘gamified social digital workplace 2.0’ (c), will have to be measured and managed by their outputs. Going to the bar for a two hour lunch will be up to the individual and of no interest to the employer (as long as the work gets done).
    Features like environment based security trimming, automated note taking and action assignment sound like more useful and likely applications.

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