By Gloria Lombardi

DionIt is hard to create effective digital workplace transformation. The shiny new technology fashions attract a lot of attention, which can distract from the real needs of a diverse workforce. But Dion Hinchcliffe, industry analyst, thought leader, and ZDNet columnist, is redressing the balance. “To be leaders in enterprise digital transformation, companies cannot just serve a mythical average user; they have to have more diverse and inclusive viewpoints. That makes everything complicated, but very rewarding too.”

A veteran of next-generation enterprises, Hinchcliffe has spent the last two decades in the trenches working with corporations and startups to bridge the gap between business and technology. He is a sought-after keynote speaker and prolific writer on social business.

In this interview, Hinchcliffe shares his views on the latest models of digital transformation. He tells MARGINALIA more about the required skills for the future and what he expects to be the next developments in workplace collaboration.

Gloria Lombardi: You are running a survey, the 2017 Trends in Digital Communications, to investigate enterprises’ investment in digital communications and collaboration this year. Looking at the responses so far, is there any particular result that seems to stand out?

Dion Hinchcliffe: The survey is open until the end of April; so far, we’ve had 211 respondents and results are still coming in. A clear emerging theme is the biggest challenge to improving digital communications being the ‘fragmented tools and experiences’ within the workplace.

GL: Given the pervasive nature of this problem, what might be the next phase of enterprise communication and collaboration?

DH: In the short term, the problem will worsen; there’s so much competition – new communication and collaboration tools launch every other week. There’s a great deal of choice and companies end up providing a fragmented experience.

Companies have started to respond to this problem in two ways. One approach is what we call, application integration. All the tools get connected into a better environment to provide a more coherent experience. This is what Slack does – the app allows you to bring all your communications tools inside their platform. You can find and use those tools from one place in a holistic and integrated way, as opposed to jumping from one tool to another one.  So we see this inclusiveness and a hub forming around a multitude of apps. Cisco, Microsoft, Facebook, and IBM for example, are all trying to build this type of environment. But it’s early days, and it’s unclear whether they will be able to replicate the vibrant ecosystem that Slack has already built.

The second approach is about bringing your own applications (BYOA). As long as the tools are secure, and the data is protected, some companies let you use the tools that you think are best for your job. On the one hand, this approach can make the fragmentation problem worse, but on the other hand, savvy workers are able to optimise the tools for their job.

GL: Last year you compiled a broad list of disruptive technologies. Enterprise technology moves faster than companies; which emerging tech can we expect to have a major impact in the workplace in the years to come?

artificial-intelligenceDH: Artificial intelligence is probably the biggest one, which has direct digital workplace ramifications. Virtual reality is another one – VR technology is not ready for the workplace yet, but it will be in 2020.

Robotics is also going to be a significant player. Many digital workplace teams I collaborate with already have robots – for example, tele-presence robots – in their offices. Robots are being trialled, but it’s happening right now.

GL: With the rise of these emerging technologies, especially AI and robots, a debate is unfolding about the required skills for the future. What are they in your view?

DH: There are some soft and hard skills to develop. To stay relevant in a digital workplace, workers need to have modern, omni-channel collaboration skills. It’s about understanding how to work with people through various digital channels and how to effectively engage stakeholders in a multi-channel way. It requires being able to navigate large communities, as well as small teams, distributed groups, and remote teams. In each situation, employees need to understand which tools to use and how best to use them, while knowing how to work out loud, which is the seed of knowledge management and creation.

Having a developed emotional intelligence is crucial. Digital channels are still very tough for humans to use; it’s easy to get the message wrong, or the tone of voice wrong. We need to teach workers to work effectively from a personal and human standpoint on digital channels. I am not advocating a major education campaign, but I do not see many organisations providing appropriate education around these empathetic and communication skills.

GL: You have been tracking the changes in enterprise digital transformation for years. Have you seen any particular switch of strategy or focus by companies in recent times?

virtual-realityDH: One of the most important patterns that I see being adopted by digital enterprise leaders today is around building an open foundation for company data.

Companies cannot survive without data – data is an irreplaceable asset; anything else can be replaced. Yet, in most organisations data is usually siloed. It is not entirely functionable; It’s used in a primitive manner. For example, the HR department wants to protect its data and refuses to connect its HR system to the rest of the company’s applications. That is not the case with digital transformation leaders such as General Electric (GE) and Barclays. Those companies work hard to open up all their data and put it to work across the business – wherever it needs to be to create value, whether it is for the customer or employee experience.

The second pattern I see today is the design for loss of control, which helps companies to move faster. Enterprises cannot create all the value they need out their own data and knowledge alone. They need help. So, they are creating an open environment where anyone – inside or outside of the organisation – can access and use their data. This is where we see the emergence of hackathons, developers networks, and open access through APIs. This is also called the decentralisation of transformation – companies cannot possibly do all the work by themselves. If they try, they fail. But if they let anybody who has ideas help to create change, then they have a chance to succeed.

GL: You contributed to The Future of Work predictions for 2017 on MARGINALIA. Are you expecting some changes, or further developments, in the trends you identified?

DH: I see that companies are starting to take employee engagement technologies more seriously. Last year, I tracked almost 40 employee engagement solutions – whether they actually enable engagement effectively is still unknown as they are brand new. But companies that were measuring the disatisfaction of their employees, are actually trying to do something about it now. Some companies, of course, have always worked on their culture and employee experience. But now enterprises are trying to create more comprehensive and consistent solutions to tackle the employee engagement issue, which is still one of the largest problems inside the majority of organisations.

For the first time last year, I heard more leaders talking about technology and workers happiness at the same time, in the same conversation. In the near future, I expect to see new ways of designing organisations for employee happiness – even CIOs are now talking about building digital workplaces that make workers engaged and happy.

GL: When it comes to ‘who is in charge’ of the change, which models are organisations adopting to drive the digital workplace transformation agenda forward?

DH: There are two big models in place today.

One is about building a digital workplace team, especially inside large companies, that is responsible for the overall digital workplace experience. I am gratified to see this development, as it is a proof point for the maturity of an organisation. So far, companies have had various, disjointed digital teams – for example, an intranet team, a business intelligence and analytics team, and so on. Now, the digital workplace teams are trying to make the whole digital experience more consistent, organised, and designed.

The second model, which began almost three years ago, sees the CIO and the CHRO finally coming together. They’ve recognised that they were not talking to each other, and that a divide between the people in charge of tech and the people in charge of people was not helpful. Now, CIOs and CHROs are sorting this out and creating something better, jointly. Those are hard projects, but with a big impact as two of the most powerful people in the organisation are coming together to sponsor the transformation. Those C-level initiatives drive key changes inside the workplace. They are also high risk initiatives because the company is trying to make bigger changes. Sometimes, many small changes are far more effective than a few large changes. But even so, this model is still the faster way to drive major shifts inside the business.

GL: You have worked with many enterprises on their digital workplace transformation journey. What advice would you give around how to deal with the change more effectively?

digitization1DH: There are some success stories from companies such as Bosch, from which we can learn important lessons. This large multinational, for example, has always been consistent about the adoption of new workplace technology. The company rolls out solutions and once the process is completed, it moves to the next thing. Bosch is a good example of being a mature social business with community management going up to executive levels. The organisation is fairly visionary when it comes to digital leadership. It understands that leadership driven changes are the most effective ones. Its managers are trained to lead through networks as opposed to doing things the old command and control way.

So, any part of the organisation can change but it needs enlightened leaders. Initiatives such as reverse mentoring are important.

I want to highlight the importance of mindsets. Culture is difficult to change. It may be that some of the workforce still want to use their own old habits and tools, while others, often new hires, are keen to adopt new ways of working and develop their capabilities. My advice is to focus on educating the latter group – those people who are ready. Eventually, there will be a critical mass, which can help the rest of the organisation move forward.

So, do not try to force the people who do not want to change. Instead, go and work with the people who are ready to change. It’s about connecting, collaborating, and developing change agents, tapping into the network of people who want to help, who want to drive local change and give their input. It is far more effective. Do not spend energy on trying to overcome obstacles – go around them. Ultimately, that is what drives the change.

GL: Box World Tour Europe took place recently. Box founder, Aaron Levie, emphasised how cloud collaboration is not only a competitive approach, but it will also lead the future of work. Would you agree?

DH: Yes, the cloud is the natural end state. For some organisations it will take longer. But there is almost no value in collaborating on-premise other than having some control. Cloud is far more agile.

It is challenging as laws are making it difficult to get fully there. In most organisations, 80 to 90 per cent of the entire technology budget goes towards maintaining legacy systems. Only, between 10 and 20 per cent of the budget goes towards innovation and moving to the future.

But, in the long-term, companies will eventually end up in the cloud. You give up some control, that is true. But cloud makes it possible to move towards a mature digital transformation. It is much easier to maintain systems because the technology is constantly upgrading – you are always on the latest version, you have an economy of scale, you have faster ability to execute, and you have cheaper costs.

The best developers, and the people with the most innovative ideas, are only investing in the cloud. You cannot get an on-premise version of Slack!

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