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Building the Next-Generation Workplace

Building the next-generation workplace is fundamental to success in the digital economy, where organisations appreciate the value of data and want to know how best to collaborate, communicate and connect to drive agility and productivity.

Digital workers are increasingly distributed across environments and able to work where they want and when they want, so they must be unencumbered by offices and the systems that previously pinned them to their desks.

A report by Forrester Research, “The Future of Work: Intelligent Machines Whispering to Your Employees,” stresses that this is a multi-decade technology journey and more possibilities will emerge.

“Bringing real-time, AI-driven insights to the edge promises to revolutionise employee productivity and improve employee experience,” says report author J.P. Gownder. However, there are potential hurdles to consider.

“From technology immaturity to legacy infrastructure to low organisational risk intelligence, such barriers keep most digital and technology leaders from constructing human-machine teams today,” he says.

But the benefits are considerable if the next-generation workplace can be built, says Tony Lock, director and analyst at Freeform Dynamics.

“It can change the way an organisation works,” he says. “Transformation is a big thing and can enable the organisation to expand.”

The collaboration catch-22
Many organisations have turned to first-generation collaboration tools to improve productivity, but the promised transformation and flexibility often fails due to staff disengagement. It’s a classic catch-22, where the value of the software comes from widespread adoption but nobody uses the tools unless their colleagues do.

A successful next-generation workplace enhances company culture. But this is possible only if new technologies such as machine learning, chatbots and social platforms are integrated successfully with existing systems and the productivity tools staff are familiar with. Any project must be rooted in integration and convergence or it risks failure and the new technologies become expensive toys that no one wants to play with.

A Gartner report, “The Future of Social Software in the Workplace,” suggests that while the future of social software remains dynamic and compelling, deployment for general use―without a focus on purposeful application―is unlikely to deliver the highest impact.

“The challenge is getting good support from the organisation, so the grass roots are willing to use the new technologies rather than having someone pontificate from high that ‘this is the one to use.’ It is difficult to crack,” says Ian Campbell, an experienced former CIO who advises a range of companies on digital transformation.

CIOs need to crack this challenge because they have to demonstrate value for money in any investment, especially with pressure on budgets. CIOs want to avoid an IT project that fails simply because of poor user take-up.

Integration and convergence
It is critical to focus on integration and convergence from the beginning, to encourage collaboration, enhance employee roles and add to the organisation’s bottom line. But there are many examples of expensive stand-alone systems that stand as a testament to how not to do it, and best practices are required to make it work and deliver the necessary return on investment.

Lock says several issues can derail building the next-generation workplace, not the least of which is that projects fail because the organisation hasn’t grasped the reason why it is doing it.

“A CIO needs to adopt a sideways view to ensure the project encompasses everyone, is the best choice and the biggest-picture choice,” says Lock.

“You have to make sure you have the appropriate technology for whatever business process or task you are running at the time. Other issues are control and visibility. If you create a new collaboration channel, it must be set up properly, with usability in mind. Also, control and governance are essential.”

He says the more people who use collaboration technologies, the more quickly an organisation reaches critical mass, which is why security and governance are so very important.

“The ability to deploy down to the individual relies on good processes as well as good technology. People need to know how to use the technology―they need to reach for it and it works―but they must also know what to do with it and what not to do with it,” says Lock.

Board-level and executive championing of the new generation of technologies is important to show leadership by example and achieve organic growth.

“If people don’t understand what you are doing and think it’s just another IT project, it won’t catch on,” says Lock. “Ironically, a successful collaboration or communication project relies on collaboration and communication.”

Lock also suggests that CIOs take care to include the legacy tools that new technologies need to integrate with.

“There are multiple new tools, and it is very important to link between them. And it is very important to link with legacy systems. That is why the governance piece is critical or else you will hit a roadblock,” he says.

Transforming the business
When CIOs get it right and their decision-making fosters high user adoption, it can transform the business, says Campbell.

“They can improve productivity, consistency and accuracy, as everyone in the organisation is kept up to speed and is well-informed,” he says. “This makes decision-making easier by targeting information to the right group.”

Functions such as document sharing, for example, are important, so employees can work on projects in an agile way.

“Everyone is on the same page, there are no variations in the information people are sharing, and collaboration can be enabled dynamically,” says Campbell.

Good project management is critical to success and should be in place from day one. Productivity and collaboration tools should drive activity and actions. It is also vital to assess upfront the ease of integration with other legacy systems.

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“Integration should be clean and simple,” says Campbell.

Gartner also points to evolving usage patterns for social software in the workplace and picks up on the key point of integration.

“For some time, Gartner has been tracking an important shift in the way social software is being bought,” the firm’s report states. “During the past two or three years, the most important factors in a buying decision have changed from being about product functionality and vendor viability to the product's compatibility with others in adjacent markets and the business context of its intended use.”

Gartner outlines several recommendations for IT leaders. A crucial consideration is the need to shift focus from general productivity improvements to detailed use cases and application scenarios that serve specific work patterns and community needs.

IT leaders should be encouraged to exploit user experience design practices to gain a deeper understanding of work patterns and the associated training and knowledge-sharing requirements. This enables them to better differentiate and choose between social software technologies.

Understanding what is right for the organisation and what is not in a confusing and growing market, in turn, leads to a successful project with high employee engagement.

“As a corporate solution, no one vendor has all the answers. Those promoting the tools claim it is the best thing since sliced bread, but you need users to be willing to use it first and foremost,” says Campbell.

Understand the role of IT
IT leaders will need to be able to knit everything together and manage technology diversity. They don’t want to have functionality that appears to be redundant and only adds to infrastructure complexity, says Gartner.

Perhaps one of the most important pieces of advice―one that can enhance the IT team’s position and appreciation within the organisation―is to grow its role.

Gartner recommends an expansion of IT’s responsibility from the infrastructure and operational aspects of social software platforms to promoting user experience design, teaming and community management best practices across the organisation.

The next-generation workplace is what every CIO aims to create. It fosters an environment of collaboration, which leads to productivity gains, and talented employees are attracted to organisations where agility, creativity and collaboration are at its core.

“Consistency and quality of what information you share and base your decisions on leads to organisational success,” says Campbell.

Lock advises CIOs to think about integration of next-generation technologies in the future as well, because the digital world is always evolving.

Gartner predicts that by 2020, 30% of meetings will be facilitated by virtual concierges and advanced analytics, and that 20% of activities dependent on human expertise will be done using knowledge automatically extracted and previously codified by observing human activity.

“The ability to integrate is not just important for now―it will need to integrate with other technologies in the future. By ensuring this, you have the ability to spread sideways and grow,” says Lock.

Forrester’s Gownder forecasts an interesting future: “Success starts with choosing deeply focused workflows and then designing human-machine interactions that complement the employee journey. You must then employ everyday AI and/or digital colleagues to augment your human employees’ performance.”

When employees engage with collaboration platforms that are integrated with other new technologies such as machine learning, the workplace of the future is ready for business.