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Digital workplaces – learning the lessons of history

In this guest article, Martin White looks back to the foundations of the digital workplace.


If you look closely at my business card you will see the letters FRSC underneath my name. Although an information scientist by trade I am a chemist by training and am inordinately proud to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Chemical Society a few years ago. My training as a chemist informs the way in which I carry out consulting assignments, but that story can wait for another day.  As a chemist you quickly learn to be as good at information research as you do chemistry research. In probably no other discipline is there so much information published. For example Chemspider is a free web database of 28 million chemicals and you can search these chemicals by structure as well as name. Chemists are also well used to a digital workplace as electronic lab notebooks (ELN) become widely available. Take a look at the overview video on this Accerlrys page (on the right) [direct video link] and remember that in addition, chemists are very good at handling Big Data. Pharmaceutical drug discovery can become highly problematic when a company has over a decade worth of test data that needs to be analyzed. Chemists need to visualize 10 years of pharmaceutical test data in real-time. Big Data is not a buzz word for chemists but a part of their daily lives.

Over the last couple of years digital workplaces have certainly crept up the buzz word index scale. All of a sudden intranets become exciting and intranet managers will be able to transform the business performance of their organisations by the time SharePoint 2016 comes along. I have my doubts. Many of those who promote digital workplaces do with the best of intentions but with little awareness of the amount of information there is available to help design these workplaces. As you watched the Accerlrys video you may have been thinking that chemists can do things with Electronic Laboratory Notebooks that your colleagues in corporate HQ cannot do with their iPads and SharePoint. So my first point is that anyone prognosticating about digital workplaces needs to go and talk so some research chemists. They will be given the inside track on the need for standards and for very adroit user adoption practices.

Let me step back a moment into the world of chemical information. The Royal Society of Chemistry offers an archive of all the research papers the Society has published since 1851. You might be surprised to know how many companies have bought the archive. Chemical processes might have changed over the years but the chemicals have not. It could be that a chemical first synthesised in 1934 seemed to have good therapeutic properties but could not be produced to an adequate level of purity at an acceptable cost. Now a new catalyst may be available which would enable the cost-effective production of that chemical to be undertaken.

old-officeAlthough digital workplaces seem to be ‘new’ in many respects they date back to at least 1984. This was the year that Irene Greif and Paul M. Cashman coined the term Computer Supported Collaborative Working (CSCW) to define their area of research into the way in which IT could support people in their work. Move forward to 1992 and you come to a paper published by Paul Dourish and Victoria Bellotti from Rank Xerox EuroPARC entitled Awareness and Coordination in Shared Workspaces. This seminal paper has been downloaded over 1 million times from the ACM Digital Library alone but how many people currently developing the concept of digital workplaces have read it?  Twenty-one years on it is still as relevant as it was in was in the Nineties.

How can this be, you ask. Well the technology may have changed but people and the way they build networks and relationships and evaluate the relevance of information have not. You may like to browse through the conference papers of the ACM CSCW Conference, which takes place every two years, and take note of the research that has already been carried out into digital workplaces (though that might not be the term used in the papers) that is as relevant today as it was when it was first presented. As a very rough indication there are probably around 20,000 papers on various aspects of CSCW. The guru of CSCW research is Jonathan Grudin at Microsoft. Take a look at his page and marvel at the breadth and depth of the work he has carried out.

To make matters worse (or in fact better) it is not just the CSCW literature you need to be familiar with. For example, have you read the paper by Timothy D Golden and Allan Fromen in a November 2011 issue of the journal Human Relations about impact that managers who work away from the office might have on employees?  The paper ‘The Use of Technology in the Digital Workplace: A Framework for Human Resource Development‘ published in Advances in Developing Human Resources is also well worth reading.

Personnel and personal relationships will be an increasingly important issue in digital workplaces. Not only are HR specialists and sociologists looking at these issues but also management scientists and occupational psychologists. There is a brilliant set of papers on knowledge sharing in the Volume 31 Issue 11, 2012 of Behaviour & Information Technology, a journal which should be on the must-read list of anyone in the digital workplace development arena.

Interestingly if you go searching for this material in Google you are unlikely to find it; and even if you do find it you won’t be able to read it. You won’t be able to find it because the papers are stored as PDF files in publishers’ repositories. There are very few links for Google to assess and often there may only be a title or an abstract to work on. Using Google Scholar will find the papers (around 700 on digital workplaces at present) but in most cases you will still need to pay to read them.

So what happens at present? We have Jane McConnell’s Digital Workplace Trends report, which will appear at the end of January. This is absolutely invaluable as an indication of progress towards the achievement of an organisation-wide digital workplace, but even a survey as comprehensive as this cannot be extrapolated into a digital workplace life-cycle model. Her survey is a beacon of light in an otherwise fairly dark world where stories from a few early adopters are scaled up as good practice.

Inevitably we are all stumbling to work out how a ‘digital workplace’ might look like and operate, and I am certainly excited by the journey. By ignoring history, in the form of thousands of research projects and the papers that have been written about them our rate of progress will be slowed substantially as we repeat the mistakes that others have made. At the very least anyone involved in digital workplace development needs to be scanning these research publications, and putting a budget aside for access to the material.  We owe it to our employers and our clients to be fully cognizant of the history of digital workplaces if we are to help them shape and implement a workable future.

[ Martin White ]

Photo credit: Rochelle, just rochelle

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Martin White
Martin White

Martin White is Managing Director of Intranet Focus Ltd. and a Visiting Professor at the iSchool, University of Sheffield. He works on information management and intranet strategy projects, and is increasingly involved in enterprise search projects. His latest book, Enterprise Search, was published by O’Reilly in late 2012.

When not at a real or virtual desktop Martin can be found sitting on an organ bench playing anything from Bach to Messiaen.

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