January 26, 2021

A systems approach to digitisation in the workplace


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The workplace is an ecosystem. It consists of an interdependent series of teams, knowledge, functions, services, resources, infrastructure and space, operating together in a system towards fulfilling goals and objectives within pre-defined time, budget and scope constraints.

In knowledge businesses, the competitiveness and profitability of the business is largely determined by the effectiveness of this ecosystem to perform and deliver. One way of gaining business advantage is to look at enabling this ecosystem to run as efficiently and seamlessly as possible.

However, the appetite to look at optimising workplace dynamics has typically been low in the average company. Many business leaders felt that their workplaces were already running sufficiently. Others adopted a ‘leave well enough alone’ approach, while many others simply considered that priorities need to be elsewhere, such as focussing on customer acquisition, securing new contracts, product and service innovation…

And then along came the pandemic. And suddenly, overnight, workplaces across the globe had to quickly find a tempo to continue operations in a remote working scenario. Like in so many other times of crisis and dramatic change in the history of mankind, human beings (and businesses alike) have shown an impressive ability to adapt and pivot as part of our deep rooted survival instincts. As we now start to stabilise and find our way forward, there is an opportunity for businesses to reassess their workplaces and how they function, and to find a new workplace advantage by becoming digitally equipped to thrive in a New Normal.

This is a particular opportunity for businesses from the knowledge economy, in that knowledge-based businesses lend themselves particularly well to ‘virtualisation’, i.e. their activities can be decoupled from the physical world.

Let’s look for a moment at the current digitisation trends in businesses today. The landscape in many companies consists on the one hand of a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution for managing the sales pipeline bringing new contracts into a business, on the other hand an Enterprise Resource Planner (ERP) manages resources and revenue recognition. The space in the middle, which is the critical space ‘where work happens’ (and where employee satisfaction, customer success and profitability margins lie), tends to be comprised of a fragmented and disconnected mix of offline processes, spreadsheets, email and a plethora of numerous niche or point applications for the management of projects, task execution boards, expense apps, corporate travel management suites, time management tools, communication tools, and now even Apps that are designed to manually connect other Apps. The problem is that companies that digitize how they work by contracting an increasing number of niche or point tools, end up with an overinflated technology overhead (with associated costs and maintenance burden). The ensuing tool overload leads to technology stress in workers, a disjointed workplace experience, and dispersed information (with data and processes being silo-bound), all of which contribute to a productivity slide. Moreover, instead of maintaining one application, companies need to maintain multiple, and instead of training and onboarding staff on the use of one application, they need to be trained on the use of multiple.

And here is where we need to circle back to the start of this article. The workplace is an ecosystem. By this we mean that it is made up of subsystems (i.e. teams, functions, processes, knowledge, internal services…). It is dynamic; so it is constantly evolving and changing. And it is interdependent; an update or action in one of the subsystems tends to be relevant for others in the ecosystem. The best way to digitise such an ecosystem is via a ‘systems approach’[1], which is based on a number of fundamental principles that are particularly powerful when considered in the architecture of a Digital Workplace:

  • Holism– a change in any part or component of the system affects the whole system directly or indirectly.
  • Specialization– the whole system can be divided into smaller components so that the specialized role of each component is appreciated.
  • Non-summational– every component (subsystem/partial system) is of importance to the whole, and as such it is essential to understand the actions of each component for gaining the holistic perspective.
  • Grouping– as the process of specialization can create its own complexity by proliferating components with increasing specialization, it becomes essential to group related disciplines or sub-disciplines.
  • Coordination– the grouped components and sub components are coordinated and controlled so that they can work in a concerted manner in keeping with a unified holistic concept. If we design an architecture where by the coordination and control can be enhanced and enabled with Artificial Intelligence tools then we can data-drive an intelligent ecosystem.
  • Emergent properties– the group of interrelated entities (components) has properties as a group that is not present in any individual component. And this, combined with the intelligence mentioned above- is the true power of a systems approach.

Applying a systems approach to the digitization of the workplace as a dynamic and interdependent ecosystem should be the way forward in driving the digital transformation movement in knowledge businesses.

[1] https://ecomputernotes.com/mis/information-and-system-concepts/systemsapproach