Podcast

Building a digital workplace, one office at a time

As technology evolves, much of the work that was typically completed in a physical office space can now be conducted in a digital workplace. The transition is reshaping IT environments, as mobile devices become more powerful, cloud computing goes mainstream and bring your own device becomes an industry standard.

Paul MillerPaul Miller

In this podcast, Paul Miller, author of The Digital Workplace: How Technology is Liberating Work, and the founder and CEO of London-based Digital Workplace Group, discusses how technology is transforming the way we work and how business is conducted. Miller tells SearchCIO.com Assistant Site Editor Emily McLaughlin about the factors behind these changes, and what forward-thinking CIOs can do to adapt.

Read a partial transcript of the interview, and click on the link to listen to the full podcast on the new digital workplace.

 

Enterprise organizations have been undergoing a digital transformation for years, in the shift from paper to electronic documents, for example. How would you define the digital workplace now, and the driving forces behind it?

Paul Miller: Well, to define the digital workplace first off, we all know and understand physical workplaces -- offices, factories, shops, warehouses, etc. Those have really shaped the last 200 years. Increasingly, where we find ourselves working are in digital workplaces. So, essentially, what the digital workplace is, is the digital equivalent of the physical workplace. I would suggest that work is either happening in digital or physical workplaces, but that's it -- there's nowhere else where work can happen.

I think the driving forces are partly technological: We have far more powerful technology and far more powerful connectivity.

Paul Miller,
founder and CEO, Digital Workplace Group

The other way of describing the digital workplace is that it's intranet, microblogging, HR systems, supply chain, email, audio, video, teleconferencing, mobile, etc. -- all of these are the artifacts of the digital workplace. I think the driving forces are partly technological: We have far more powerful technology and far more powerful connectivity. So I think the quality of the technology is allowing the digital workplace to be far more present now.

I think the other thing is that there is a kind of process going on within the nature of work that is giving people more control, influence and autonomy over how work happens. I think people enjoy having levels of flexibility.

You talk about the 'future of work' in your book. What is your vision for the workplace five years from now?

Miller: If we are looking forward five years, I think there are certain things that are clear. One is that the physical workplace for organizations will occupy less physical real estate than it does today. Whether physical workplaces like offices actually disappear, or whether they are simply redesigned and are diluted in size, it's hard to tell exactly. The physical footprint of organizations is going to deteriorate.

I think the other thing that happens is we will find ourselves in richer, more meaningful and more pleasurable and productive digital environments. The quality of audio and visual, of telepresence, of real-time technologies, will improve. Our ability to collaborate will improve, and the technology that we carry around with us will start to improve.

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To give you an example, if you go into Zara -- which is a clothing chain in Europe, very popular -- they realize staff in their stores are in touch with the customers, obviously, on a daily basis. So they said, 'Well, why not turn them into market researchers?' So using kind of smartphone devices, the staff in the stores are now able to engage in conversations with the customers in a new way. So, if you went into the store and said, 'I really like that dress, but I would prefer it in purple,' that information gets fed through to Zara's manufacturing, and within a week that dress is on sale in the store in purple.

That is an example of what I like to call the 'mobile frontline,' and the empowerment of frontline roles through technology. I think that we sometimes think of the digital workplace as being something for corporate workers, but it's not, because in that case it worked for the retail sector. I think the digital workplaces themselves, or the user experience, will feel more seamless. We will be able to move through these places far more effortlessly.


Read the full transcript from this podcast below: 

Emily McLaughlin: This is Emily McLaughlin, assistant site editor for SearchCIO.com. Today, I'm speaking with Paul Miller, author of "The Digital Workplace: How Technology is Liberating Work," and the founder and CEO of Digital Workplace. Paul is here to talk about how technology is transforming the way we work and the way business is conducted, now and in the future.

Thank you for joining us, Paul.

Paul Miller: Hi, Emily. It's great to be here.

Emily McLaughlin: All right. Question one; enterprise organizations have been undergoing a digital transformation for years. For example, the shift from paper to electronic documents. How would you define the digital workplace now and the driving forces behind it?

Paul Miller: Well, just to kind of define the digital workplace, first off. I mean, we all know and understand physical workplaces. Offices, factories, shops, warehouses, etc. And those have really shaped over the last 200 years.

Increasingly, where we find ourselves working are in digital workplaces. So on the one hand, what the digital workplace is is the digital equivalent of the physical workplace. And I would suggest that work is either happening in digital or physical workplaces, but that's it. There's nowhere else where work can happen.

The other way of describing the digital workplace is it's internet, microblogging, HR systems, supply chain, email, audio, video, teleconferencing, mobile, etc. All, if you like, the artifacts of the digital workplace.

And I think the driving forces are partly technological. We have far more powerful technology, and we have far more powerful connectivity. So I think the quality of the technology is enabling the digital workplace to become far more present now.

I think the other thing is that there is a kind of process going on within the nature of work that is giving people more control and influence and autonomy over how work happens. I think people enjoy having levels of flexibility. So I think those two things are driving forward some of these changes.

Emily McLaughlin: Okay. You talk about the future of work in your book. What is your vision for the future workplace, five years from now, let's say.

Paul Miller: If we're looking forward five years, I think that certain things are clear. One is that the physical workplace for organizations will occupy less real estate than it does today. Whether physical workplaces, in terms of offices and so on, actually disappear, or whether they simply are redesigned and kind of diluted in size, it's hard to tell exactly. But the physical footprint of organizations is going to deteriorate.

I think the other thing that happens is we will find ourselves working in richer, more meaningful, and more pleasurable and productive digital environments. So the quality of audio/video, of telepresence and other kinds of real-time technologies will improve. Our ability to collaborate effectively will improve. And the kind of technology that we will carry around with us will start to improve.

I think, just to give you an example, if you go into Zara, which is a clothing chain in Europe, very popular, they realized that the staff in their stores are in touch with the customers, obviously, on a daily basis. So they said, well, why not turn them into market researchers?

So using kind of smartphone devices, the staff in the stores are now able to engage in conversation with the customers, and if you go into the store and you say, "I kind of quite like that dress, but I'd prefer it in purple," that information gets fed through to Zara's manufacturing in Spain, which they brought back from China. And within the week, the dress is for sale in the store in purple.

And I think that is part of what I call the mobile front line, and the empowerment of front line roles through technology. I think often we think of the digital workplace as being something for knowledge workers. It's not. It's also, in that case, for the retail sector.

I think that digital workplaces themselves will feel more... the user experience will feel more seamless. We'll be able to move through these places far more effortlessly.
So I think those are two important changes, one in terms of the physical workplace, and secondly in terms of the digital.

Emily McLaughlin: What types of companies will have competitive advantage in this digital world, and why?

Paul Miller: I think one of the interesting things that I've kind of started to look at is that the digital workplace is sometimes attached, as I said, to knowledge workers, professional services, etc. But one of the biggest changes taking place... and the Economist newspaper covered this a few months ago, in what they called the Third Industrial Age. And one of the biggest changes the digital workplace is impacting is manufacturing.

Now, how can the digital workplace impact manufacturing? What it means is you need fewer and fewer people. They're talking about manufacturing through 3D printers. Local manufacturing. I think it's very interesting to think of the manufacturing area, heavy industry, as being affected as much as the knowledge sector through the digital workplace.

Another example. You've got mining companies like Rio Tinto that are locally operating some of their large vehicles in difficult to access areas remotely from distant countries. So you've got the digital workplace really affecting heavy industry manufacturing.

I think other companies that are going to have a competitive advantage are ones that provide a digital environment that's actually compelling to the younger people joining the companies. So for instance, there's a section in my book called "Digital Disappointments." That is the feeling where you join the organization, everything looks great, the offices are great, everybody's lovely. You fire up the technology, and your heart sinks as you realize that the environment you're supposed to work in, technologically, is so disappointing.

And I think the quality of the digital workplace will be a key differentiator, and I think the expectations of the digital makers, and the people who are coming after them, are changing what they expect. So I think there's a competitive advantage for organizations in that.

I think there's going to be... just getting back to the Zara retail example. I don't think there's going to be a sector of work that won't be affected by the quality of the digital environment.

Emily McLaughlin: And let's talk a little bit more about your book. The title of your book points out that technology is liberating work. And can you explain this a little bit further?

Paul Miller: Well, I think one of the things that's interesting about human beings is... and I think work is intrinsic to us as human beings. It's part of the way we get value. Is that the extent to which you have influence and kind of can shape your work influences how much enjoyment and satisfaction you get out of work.

So I think even if you take something like a call center job. If you do as some organizations have done, and enable people to fulfill the call center role in a flexible time that suits them, doing it from home or from co-working spaces, their enjoyment, their experience of work, improves dramatically. And their productivity improves dramatically.

So I think there's a kind of liberating effect by having more control and influence over work.

Another kind of liberating effect, I think, is for leadership groups. And it's not all leaders and leadership teams who are seizing the opportunity. But those that are doing, people like Tom Glouster when he was at Thompson Voices, or Ben Baveven, who's now at Alcatel-Lucent. They're seeing the digital workplace as a way of connecting through live Q&As, video blogs, blogging, entering microblogging spaces. They're seeing it as a way of connecting in to a global distributed workforce. And so it's liberating to them to feel like they're part of the organizational conversation.

And so there's a couple of instances there where the technology is having a liberating effect.

Emily McLaughlin: Our readers are chief information officers who are in charge of IT strategies and supporting business goals through the use of technology. How should these CIOs be preparing or helping their organizations adapt to this new digital workplace?

Paul Miller:Well, that's a great question. And I think CIOs are in an impossibly difficult situation, because on the one hand, the organization is saying to them, "We need you to provide a high-quality digital environment inside the organization." And then they're also saying to them,"And it needs to be safe, secure, protected, and not expose us to any risk. And by the way, it needs to be in place within six months' time."

So there's an awful lot of expectation falling on the desk of CIOs. I think one thing that CIOs can start to do is change the way the organization thinks about technology. The analogy that comes to me is that technology is not something that's sort of added into the organization. A lot of people are starting to think of it more like the flow of money through the organization.

Now, money's not all controlled by the chief financial officer. It's controlled at a departmental, individual level inside the organization. And every part of the organization requires money, whether it's a commercial organization or not, to function.

And I think if the CIOs start to get the organization to realize that technology needs to be pervasive, and owned pervasively across the organization, and the responsibility for that devolved, as well as having some central strategic coordination, I think they'll start to prepare a better road map for the technology for the future.

I was doing a talk at Oxford University a couple of days ago, and one of the questions that got asked was, well, what's the impact of technology going to be on work? And this sort of relates to the question about CIOs. And I said, well, you need to stop thinking about technology as an add-on to the workplace. It's rather like we saw during the Olympics. When a swimmer dives into the swimming pool, they're immersed in water. Water is intrinsic to swimming. Without the water, the swimmer's not a swimmer. He's just a human.

And I think we need to think about technology rather like the water, and the relationship with the swimmer. It's very fundamental.

And I think this is a difficult task for CIOs to do. I think that's why they're finding themselves being pushed from pillar to post. But think about devolution, think about strategy, and think about this analogy with money and the flow of money through the organization.

Emily McLaughlin: And one last question for you. How do you see the role of the IT department evolving as a result of this digital transformation? Will it become more or less important, or maybe become something entirely different?

Paul Miller:Well, it sort of relates to the last part related to the CIO. I think the IT department will become something entirely different. I don't think you're going to have central ownership at a departmental level of technology. I think the responsibility for technology is going to flow out to different parts of the business, whether it's marketing, sales, production, etc. And they will have their own IT and technology capability locally.

I think, then, we need to set strategy at a central level, centrally. But I think that the IT department as it's currently configured... I can't see how that model survives as a sort of central resource, then going out in kind of spokes into different parts of the business. I see, if you like, a lot of... each part of the business having its own technology capability and responsibility, as it does financial strategy responsibility.

Emily McLaughlin: Thank you for your time, Paul. This has been Emily McLaughlin, assistant site editor with SearchCIO.com, with Paul Miller, author of "The Digital Workplace: How Technology is Liberating Work."

Let us know what you think of this podcast; email editor@searchcio.com.


This was first published in October 2012

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Is your organization shifting its focus to digital workplaces?

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