The Digital Workplace – just the next generation of your good old Intranet?

Published October 5, 2011 by Stephan Schillerwein

This is the 1st part of a series of three blog posts giving a preview to the business whitepaper “The Digital Workplace: Redefining Productivity in the Information Age” due for publication on October 10th (rescheduled from Sept. 30th). Please also see the introductory post for more information.

What is a Digital Workplace?

It can be quite a challenge to describe what the Digital Workplace really is about (thanks to the initiative of Mark Morrell we now at least have a first definition of the term in Wikipedia). For instance: is the Digital Workplace just a cooler name for the next generation of intranets? Or is it simply the sum of all (digital) systems you use at work (and consequentially, have we all been working with Digital Workplaces for years)? Or maybe is it the ability to work anywhere and on any device?
While all these aspects have their place, they don’t represent mayor steps forward in relation to the problem to be solved. Therefore, from the point of view established in the whitepaper, the Digital Workplace has to offer a new approach which actually has the potential to substantially impact how work can be done in a better way in the digital age.
So, instead of trying to give a definition, let’s approach this by asking: what business problem is the Digital Workplace going to tackle? The answer to this is surprisingly simple: the Digital Workplace is going to solve the huge problems organizations of all sizes and industries currently have in information work.
To fully appreciate what this means, we have to talk a little bit about what information work really is. And that’s where the problem begins. There is an almost total lack of awareness for the relevance, scale and impact this type of work has in any given organization. Without much notice, Information work has become the most universal, most relevant and most impactful kind of all work types. Whether it is management taking a decision, a product responsible analyzing competitive data, a nurse checking the latest medical regulations or a sales rep preparing for a meeting with a potential client– all this is based on information, all this is information work. Whenever human cognitive processes occur in a work task (e.g. communication, decision making, reading, analyzing, solving problems …), information is involved (as an input, as a output) and what you have is information work.
With information work being such a ubiquitous element, it should be obvious that information is a key organizational resource. This resource needs to be properly managed just like any other resource in organizations (like for instance managing money, machines, employees, etc.). But the sad truth is that information is not managed like these other assets but rather left to its own fate (and the “care” of technology) instead.
Further lack of awareness exists when it comes to the effects that problems in information work have on productivity and work outcomes. Also the extent of these problems is largely unknown. The next post will look at these points in more detail. But the situation is so serious that senior management worrying about their employees wasting time on Facebook and Twitter is nothing short of ridiculous in contrast to the productivity lost in information work.

A new approach for information work and information management

Intranets have hardly ever been positioned as instruments to optimize information work. While they of course provide information that is used in information work, they are rather information repositories than tools that directly support information work, let alone help to design information work in a better way.
These characteristics are something that intranets have in common with the many other information management tools present in organizations today. They all suffer from a number of fundamental shortcomings, for instance:

  • They address information work with isolated solutions and without a common, organization-wide architecture
  • They try to support information work in isolation from the work processes in which information is used
  • They (passively) hold information available for access by the user instead of delivering it in the context in which it is needed

There are many more reasons why the approaches to information work and information technology that were applied so far have led us into a desolate state of affairs. The report also looks at how the persistence of industrial age business principles in organization plays its part in this as well.
In addressing these issues, the Digital Workplace will represent a fundamental shift for organizations. Mike Wing, VP of Strategic Communications at IBM put it this way: “Your goal is not running the intranet, but rather unleashing the capacity of the organization”. Up until now, this hardly ever was the focus of intranets and other information management initiatives. Intranets et al. have enabled better communication, better information provisioning etc. but not considerable better organizations or ways of working. Tools typically have been at the center of information work. Instead, work processes and business logic have to be there. It is not better information technology that is going to solve information (work) issues but better information management and better information work practices.

The Digital Workplace is the “master key” to information work

If we take a pure “tool perspective” to get a grip on the scope of the Digital Workplace, then it encompasses all systems and technologies used to handle information of any kind. This includes not only unstructured information (as typically present in intranets, collaboration tools, document management systems, etc.) but also semi-structured and structured information or data (as typically present in databases, business intelligence systems (BI), customer relationship management systems (CRM), etc.).
This already is quite a change in perspective: instead of asking “what kind of information is this?” (to determine whether it is something that for instance has its place on an intranet), now the question would be “what information and functionality do we need in this step of the process (or to execute this task)?” (and then delivering it independently of format and source when needed).
In order for the Digital Workplace to be successful (i.e. solve the problems of information work) things have to be approached in a very different manner: we need to start designing information work from the ground up, from a holistic viewpoint and with information management (and not information technology) playing the mayor role.
This also implies that the Digital Workplace should not be thought of as an IT-system but as a work ecosystem. From an organizational viewpoint there are four dimensions to this:

  • Work practices (how we do work)
  • Management practices (how we lead, what the culture should be like, …)
  • Logical infrastructure (what enterprise-wide elements have to be in place, like e.g. a master information architecture, governance, roles, …)
  • Technical infrastructure (e.g. systems, integration, physical work environments, …)

This is critical. And current approaches typically have addressed work practices, management practices and logical infrastructure only to a very limited extent (if at all), especially when viewed from an organization-wide perspective.
So, what will the Digital Workplace really be like? Information will come to you in the context that you need it in order to do what you are currently working on. You will spent the dominant part of your time in just one user interface (that will seem to be just one system) in which you have full control over all your work tasks, all information needed and all functionality required to do your job in the best possible manner.
The report presents concrete examples how the Digital Workplace supports people in various typical work areas. Also, the third part of this blog series will give more insight into this. Before that, however, more light has to be shed on the problems in information work and information management. Look for the next post towards the end of this week.


  1. The Digital Workplace is very much NOT a bigger and better intranet. Now matter how extraordinary your intranet it is still only a core element of a well functioning Digital Workplace. We define the Digital Workplace as the place where work meets technology.
    Organisations have built physical workplaces; we know them and understand them. We now need to design and shape the Digital Workplaces where increasingly staff and contractors work. The Digital Workplace (DW) is where work meets technology; it operates irrespective of location and (in the future) device.
    All workplace technologies are part of the DW: those in operation and new ones yet to arrive. Sometimes you will be on the intranet, sometimes not. New enterprise applications such as Yammer and Instant Messaging are part of the DW. If you have a Twitter feed coming into the organisation then that is part of the DW. Self serve HR systems are also part of the DW. If you are working from a cafe on a smart phone, accessing instant messages, sales data or online expenses forms, you are in the DW. But always you are in the Digital Workplace.

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