Selling the New Workplace

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.
Business cases are difficult to articulate for collaborative technologies as Irwin Lazar recently pointed out. Projects intended to deliver benefits not easily mapped to the bottom line are tough to sell; impossible at times. Irwin also points out that some tools are already seen as necessary and are easy to sell, such as a telephone or email. Until a tool reaches the point where it is widely regarded as necessary it will continue being a tough sell. How can we change this?

One approach is to simply wait until a collaborative technology becomes mainstream. Unfortunately, this may not be anytime soon given the multitude of proprietary systems, their distinctive interfaces, and each having their own little quirks (quirks are fine, as long as they are standard quirks). However, Web 2.0 technologies have the potential to change this dynamic as a number of them may establish de-facto interface standards. For example, Microsoft and IBM now provide blogging capabilities so at least we are seeing similar interfaces emerge.

An alternative approach is to target a larger goal rather than simply reducing travel or speed up some existing transaction. I think intranet strategists need to consider selling the concept of retooling the Intranet to provide a new workplace infrastructure. This means transforming the Intranet into a place where work gets done rather than simply providing connectivity to applications which is how most intranets started in the first place. Over time they have evolved into a smattering of tools that independently perform well but, as a whole, make it difficult to get a job completed or to see opportunities. This is because of the manual overhead imposed on the information worker to make all of these tools work together.
This new workplace will certainly have collaborative capabilities because we must collaborate to get our work done. But it will also have personal productivity tools as well and, depending on the type of work, knowledge sharing, e-learning and other closely related technologies. Workplace tools should have dynamic characteristics that ease their use and widen their applicability like self-service startup, customizable process support, lightweight data access, etc.

For so long we have separated workplace tools by functional area: personal productivity, collaborative technologies, messaging, eLearning, now Web 2.0, etc. By doing this we concentrate far too much on the technology and not enough on their use. By focusing on making workplace users more effective we define a problem deserving the funding of any large enterprise application. The "application" in this case is effective information workers. Still, that sounds too soft, what is the business case?

Earlier this year The McKinsey Quarterly published "Competitive advantage from better interactions" which identified three types of business activities: transformational (the production of a finished product), transactional (the processing of something, like paying the bills), and tacit (the non-routine or complex problem solving). This was a follow-up to "The next revolution in interactions" published in 2005. Their conclusions were eye-opening and are ones every intranet strategist should read. In short, many companies have improved transformational and transactional activities by applying technology or outsourcing. But, any competitive advantages derived from these actions are short-lived because they are easy to duplicate. In other words, Nicholas Carr was right, IT doesn't matter; "follow, don't lead", and "focus on vulnerabilities, not opportunities".

However, tacit activities involve your most talented employees and are difficult to automate through standardized processes or tools. By providing capabilities that make these activities and employees more effective companies can create sustainable advantages. In other words, IT matters, but it takes an approach different from what we have done in the past.

I think the new workplace is an approach that matters. It improves transformational and transactional activities to their maximum potential (meaning, you stay in the game) and can make tacit activities more effective enabling distinct competitive advantage.

I believe the workplace is the one thing intranet strategist should focus on the most. Awareness of collaborative, personal productivity or other technologies is important but the shaping of the Intranet into a workplace is the unique goal of an intranet strategist. Market segments, such as video conferencing, should be the focus of companies selling products. The intranet strategist's primary concern should be the building of an intranet that is the best place for a company employee to get their work done.

So the first step in building a business case for collaborative technologies is to establish buy-in for the new workplace as an important capability for a company; one that keeps it competitive and creates sustainable competitive advantages.