Last week I attended the “Digital Workplace on Tour” roadshow hosted by Microsoft and Hewlett Packard Enterprise: an all around fun event designed to offer a glimpse into what “workplace” could mean in the future. The main theme of the workshops I took part in was digitalisation – the transformation of teams, projects and processes into virtual entities as well as the tools and infrastructure that make it possible.
During a discussion about the problems of web meetings I realised there’s lots of misconception about what digitalisation actually means: Digitalisation offers us the means to free ourselves from decades-old limitations, to reinvent and innovate the way we work in more radical ways than ever before. But often, what we’re really doing is simply virtualising everything – including the obstacles we face. Including what was already out of date in the pre-datastream era. Including practices that have lost their value. Two examples:
- “Holding better online meetings” sounds like a reasonable goal, right? Well, what it actually means is to carry the burden of frequent meetings with us into a time when “always on” culture has made them largely obsolete.
Frequent meetings were necessary in the past because they granted access to information from different sources that was otherwise hard to obtain or compile and enabled a live exchange between these sources. Meetings were unpopular even then; today they’ve also become largely pointless:
Modern project teams are constantly connected live and seamlessly by means of amazing, often free-to-use tools such as Slack, Trello or the Google Suite.
The internet has made communication and information amenities that are as natural to us as running water. If you need an answer or have an important message to convey you don’t wait for a meeting to take place – you pick up your phone, laptop or tablet and get it done, right now. Digitalisation has done more than simply making meetings virtual; it has evolved teamwork into constant collaboration – and by solving this much larger problem, it has made many meetings redundant and dispensable.
- “Expanding car connectivity to improve flow of traffic” makes sense from today’s point of view – but it demands huge resources while it falls short of addressing the underlying problem: There’s a huge excess of mobility that is entirely unnecessary.
Why do we make all those creatives and knowledge workers endure a commute to the city every day when they only need a laptop and their phones to work? Why do six families from the same apartment building have to do their shopping individually and in separate cars when half of them feel it’s a drag to go?
We do need more connectivity to solve the problem, just not necessarily between cars: If we did a better job at connecting people to their goals, many of them wouldn’t even have to start their engine in the first place.
In both examples unlocking the true potential of digitalisation requires large-scale systems thinking, design thinking and consequent questioning of the status quo – not mindlessly virtualising it along with its outdated foundation.
So if you want to digitalise your organisation make sure to focus on the innovation part: Simply upgrading infrastructure, dressing up timeworn business models or adding bandwidth to the solutions of yesterday is not the path to success – it’s just the route to what Lean Startup entrepreneur and author Eric Ries calls “achieving failure:” the successful execution of a flawed plan that leads nowhere.