By Gloria Lombardi

Digital workplace transformation is not an easy journey — but it is a worthwhile one and often a necessary one to compete in the 21st century. But it can be a challenge for leaders to articulate a clear vision for a digital future. Transformation is not a concrete matter, and the journey is likely to be complex and disruptive.

While it’s tempting to experiment and try out every new piece of tech, it’s important to avoid hasty decisions and consider longer-term organisational goals. It’s still important to be reactive though, and reviewing the business strategy and adapting it to emerging needs will help future-proof the business. Similarly, the organisation’s vision should evolve over time, as technology changes the markets and society’s expectations. Change, as ever, is constant – and so people across the organisation have to be aware of what’s working and what’s not working so well and be prepared to adapt process and technologies.

Rob Colwill, CEO and founder of the digital workplace hub, ElevatePoint, believes that companies that lack focus on their employees are less effective in digital transformation efforts. He finds organisations that join the dots between strategy and employees’ daily work realise the maximum value.

MARGINALIA speaks with Colwill to explore the barriers to digital workplace transformation, and how ElevatePoint is helping organisations through the change. In this interview, Colwill also explains why companies should stay away from narrow, short-term thinking, when embracing digital transformation.

Gloria Lombardi: What are the pitfalls when embarking upon digital workplace transformation?

Rob Colwill: Organisations need to be efficient, and of course leaders are looking for efficiencies when planning digital transformation.

But things can go awry if the strategy is not expertly laid out and well understood. Many leaders struggle to define the exact goals of a digital transformation programme. Technology vendors, consultants, and agencies can muddy the waters when the objectives need to be clear, no matter the solution.

The strategy, and culture, must be well understood before planning solutions. Let the people and the strategy, together, inform the practical side of the digital transformation plan. This helps to avoid buying technology for the sake of technology, which is a common pitfall. It also makes sure that any tools the organisation buys serve a specific business goal.

GL: Why do organisations struggle to focus on their strategy, culture, and goals? 

RW: There’s often a disconnect between what employees do every day as part of their work, and what leadership define as the strategy. I mean, in many organisations, it’s difficult to connect your daily work to the company strategy.

What we see then, of course, is that departments and even individuals, may spend money on buying digital tools or ‘point solutions’ as quick tactical fixes. The IT strategy isn’t strong enough to guide spend; or if it’s too strong, departments go around IT and purchase cloud or consumer solutions to solve an immediate need. This all falls outside of the larger digital strategy, and often goes unseen. It’s invisible, incoherent, and often risky in terms of information management. An organisation with this sort of department-level tech fragmentation will have to do a lot to manage the change to more org-wide systems and processes. Yet, departments can’t be left without the solutions they actually need. It’s complex; we expect digital transformation to be an organisational metamorphosis, but it has to include and continue to support the basics.

Additionally, everyone hates to see their commonly used systems replaced again and again. While we don’t want to slow the pace of change, we do need to be strategic about how we disrupt people’s work.

GL: How do you, at ElevatePoint, help organisations manage their digital workplace transformation?

RC: As a company, we focus on building intranets. Intranets are now often part of a more complete picture of a digital workplace. And so we try to create a hub, a digital hub, for the ‘people’, ‘processes’, and ‘technology’.

The ElevatePoint digital hub becomes a place for people, for communications, for recognition, for content and commenting, conversation and collaboration. Going back to what I said about the challenge of defining the strategy, the intranet can be the primary platform for providing and discussing the strategy – and even refining it. Leaders can communicate the vision, project managers can explain current initiatives, and line managers can get their teams involved.

We help organisations create a focal point, connecting the business or transformation strategy to people’s daily work. As a hub, the intranet helps people access the right tools and information they need to get their work done.

The digital workplace often provides a multitude of solutions for different people and different types of work, and that’s all good and necessary. But we need something that connects tools, services, and information to people, and that’s the intranet. At ElevatePoint, we build intranets as part of the digital workplace to connect the dots and to become the heart of the digital transformation programme.

GL: Can the intranet really solve digital transformation problems, considering that technology alone can’t meet every challenge?

RC: Not alone, no; the intranet supports the people who consider the challenges and create the answers. Transformation will be more effective if everyone understands the vision and strategy, and is on-board for the changes. The intranet has to support the communication and collaboration needed to get everyone on the journey.

Intranets have been around for a long time, and many have been misused and abused, becoming document dumps and company newsletters. They can do so much more to align with culture, strategy, and to support people’s daily work. At ElevatePoint, we work hard to understand an organisation’s culture along with their current and future needs.

Digital transformation takes people, vision, and it takes heart. It’s a complicated and complex journey; no single piece of tech is going to make it happen. Leadership must understand and define the right strategic objectives; only then, as a second step, can technologies come in to take things forward.

GL: So, what does an organisation need to look at when considering the people side of the business to ensure digital transformation is achieved?

RC: Every organisation needs to consider people’s digital skills and think about the sort of training people might need to ensure everyone is ready and able to make the best use of tools. To be explicit, I mean organisations need to consider everyone, not just office workers and laptop users. The mobile workforce, and those that only touch a computer every so often, should be included.

Every organisation must get their people involved with the vision, so like I’ve said, the vision needs to be clearly articulated. This is an engagement and change matter; people need time to connect the vision and the strategy to their daily work. Employees need to understand why the business is going through transformation, why and how it will help, and what their role in it is going to be. Transformation is disruptive, but the majority of staff should be able to see the benefits, and even see it as a personal opportunity, a career opportunity, rather than a threat. But to support such good morale, frequent communication around the vision is needed – nobody should feel out of the loop. Over and over again, the organisation must be clear about how they are tackling very specific goals.

People tend to respect leaders who communicate well, and talk about things that matter. Digital transformation is an opportunity for leadership to step up.

GL: What are the roles for the IT and the Communications teams?

RC: When Communicators and IT come together magic happens. Programmes of this size and scope shape up much better when the Comms and IT teams work toward a shared vision.

In the old days of IT, a lot of time was spent on running and maintaining servers. And that didn’t leave a lot of time for focusing on what the business needs and how they could help transform the business. These days, hopefully, IT is part of the business, and works to improve productivity in all ways.

Communicators used to be the mouthpiece of the leadership team. Although this is still part of their job, they’re also working with leaders, including those who are directly in front of employees. This communication and advisory role is crucial to transform vision and strategy. People expect communicators to be ‘in the know’ and to be trusted advisors. As I’ve said, communications need to be frequent, cover what the business needs, and address what employees want.

When IT works with the Communications team, the business will see a new level of employee engagement. Communicators should be empowered to have interactive multi-way conversations, rather than just broadcasting information. People need to be able to respond, to leave comments, to start discussions, and to ask questions. Everything works so much better when the Communications team is empowered and working alongside IT.

GL: Looking at the future of work, are you seeing any upcoming trends that could impact digital transformation?

RC: I’m concerned that digital transformation can be viewed as an IT refresh project, rather than as the opportunity to improve business.

I fear aspects of the business might pursue digital transformation without fully understanding how it can and should affect the business, the operations, the customer experience. I spoke with a client who was interested in artificial intelligence but had no thoughts on how AI might support their business. It was a conversation about whistles and bells, rather than the practicalities of AI. People do need to imagine what’s possible, and AI is certain to create an impact in the near future, but those sorts of conversations can waste a lot of time, if tech is deployed without a real need, can waste a lot of money too.

A positive trend is that we’re finally seeing, in the areas of intranets at least, is that people are more savvy; they’re working hard to make their intranets work harder, and clear about what they need and want.

Departments’ ability to mostly ignore the IT department and purchase their own tech solutions is shaping the future of work. They’re buying ‘point solutions’ to solve a specific problem. Cloud services make it easy to buy or rent solutions without on-premises infrastructure, and people expect easy-to-use software and kit – the ‘consumerisation of IT’ so to speak. It’s good to be agile, but I do wonder about the costs and the governance of this fragmented approach to procurement.