Digital Disruption and the place for Enterprise Collaboration

Also published on Medium:

We are all surrounded by digital disruption. The smartphone in your pocket most likely represents a total disruption of the cell phone market. The movie streaming account you use on your tablet device has probably replaced your purchases of DVDs. We are all familiar with the apps that let you call a taxi and pay with your credit card which is disrupting the world of transportation, and of course the worlds largest accommodation provider actually doesn’t own any property.

Whether we have experienced it in our own organisations yet, the remarkable digital disruption, which is caused by the confluence of extremely smart mobile devices, faster and faster mobile communications, the availability of online services and the inevitable demands of younger people to use the new technology, is likely to affect your organisation soon.

According to the CapGemini Digital Transformation Institute report of March / April 2017, sixty nine percent of businesses lack the agility, flexibility and digital mindset to undergo a digital transformation.

This potentially represents a huge problem for many organizations. Are they ripe for takeover, becoming irrelevant or going out of business by competitors (old and new) who transform, find a new business model and are able to leverage to the expertise in their organisation. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review (Analytics Study, 2016), seventy two percent of organisations are vulnerable to disruption in the next three years. To address this threat organisations must innovate to find new ways of working. They need to drive staff engagement to make sure that their policies, procedures, customers, delivery and supply chain, operations and all other aspects of their business are optimised. According to CapGemini, eighty percent of organisations have challenges with innovation. Is your organisation one of them?

Where are Organisations Investing to Address Digital Disruption?

I believe that we are in the transition into the third major wave of technology development and this third wave is where organisations who will survive digital disruption are investing now.

The First Wave

The first wave, offered mainly by software companies who focus on personal productivity and who’s primary means of delivering “collaboration” is by sending word processor documents, spreadsheets or presentations to each other by email. The focus of the first wave was on desktop productivity but increasingly we have found that while we have put control of document production and communication into the hands of end users we have definitely increased the “collaboration payload”. How many emails a day do you receive? I know colleagues who receive well over one hundred emails every day. They have multiple versions of the same file from different people and thus increasingly struggle to know what the right file is. Conferencing has replaced some meetings, especially those across long distances, and with the advent of better and better bandwidth is now a viable solution. However, we still travel for business and like the cinema’s demise was predicted by the arrival of the VHS video recorder, we still prefer to meet people in person and are still prepared to sit for many hours on long haul flights to do so.

The Second Wave

In the first half of the 2010 decade the world of social media exploded into our consciousness. Facebook now counts its users in billions, LinkedIn and many other social network solutions address a desire for some of us to interact with others using a digital platform. Facebook and the others represent a digital disruption of the way people keep in touch with each other. Technology is now allowing people to reunite with each other after many years, keep in touch with loved ones with only a click and to maintain strong relationships thanks to the fact that technology has moved so far.

Social media, however, of course also has its downsides. People are “trolled” at one extreme and in general people tend to post the best things that they are doing which can have the effect of making others think their lives are inadequate. These are transitions which we as a human race are still working through and it will be fascinating to see how it evolves.

In a business context, Enterprise Social Networks represent a unique opportunity for workers to share what they are working on. This broadcasting can have a remarkable effect in business — serendipity.

In the first wave, using email to tell people about what you are doing, or to send them something because you think they will be interested in it contributes to the vast number of emails we get each day. People send you things not necessarily because you have asked for it, but in fact because they think you should or might need it. You have to wade your way through all this noise to get to the communications you actually need.

Enterprise Social Networks reverse this approach and encourage a more “pull” oriented approach to information sharing. By encouraging people to share openly, you can subscribe to documents, updates, groups, communities, individuals that you want to hear from. This is exactly the same as the way Facebook works. Trying to find your friend’s information through the billions of status updates and other information which happen daily on Facebook would of course be impossible. Instead, Facebook shows you the updates from people you are friends with or groups or other things that you are interested in.

Enterprise Social Networks, like the social components of IBM Connections, Yammer, Facebook at Work and their likes can provide a wonderful way of finding out something you didn’t already know, or asking a question of your network when you don’t know who could answer it. The follow on benefit of this kind of interaction is the fact that people become known experts in a particular area as a result of their interactions. When you search for something the people producing the information is given as much weight as the content itself.

To get the greatest benefit from an enterprise social network, having located someone who might be able to help you should instead post a message to them on their message board. Why? Well, because everyone that expert is connected with will also see that message and they may have more information or more insight to the question you are asking. Why is this important? Well, you could have emailed that expert directly and waited until they had a chance to respond. Their response would presumably be limited to you and hence that knowledge exchange would be private only to you.

By making it more public several things happen — first the expert may be helped by one of their network and their workload is reduced. Second, the exchange of knowledge becomes “public” and when someone else in the future has the same question or something close to it, they will find the answer automatically and the expert will not need to be disturbed.

This is just one way that implementing an enterprise social network can improve productivity and can also improve the collective knowledge of the organisation. It can help to convert the tacit knowledge that walks around in everyone’s heads and helps to make it explicit and thus available for others to benefit from.

The second part of the second wave of productivity has been in the move to file sharing, usually in the cloud. File sharing has of course been around ever since a computer network existed, and file servers are still commonly deployed in organisations as the place where people are supposed to put their documents.

Mere file systems however are not particularly useful beyond that which exists on your own computer. The problem with file servers, and file sharing in general, is that you need to know where a file is, in order to find it. If you don’t know that a file exists, how do you know where to find it? Thus, merely moving your file server to the cloud does not make people more productive. A file sharing solution must have integrated search, tagging, meta data, descriptions, preview and a relatively simple structure which encourages people to locate files easily. The simpler the structure the more serendipity can occurs.

Managing knowledge with files, however, is a risky strategy. If I make a change to a file to update it, do I replace the existing file, used by everyone else? Do I make a copy of it with my name, so I know which I one I edited? Can I backtrack through earlier versions if something is changed I need to get back? What if someone else is editing the same document somewhere else? How do we handle the conflict?

Thus, File Sharing while the de-facto approach for collaboration for many organisations is far from being a perfect solution. Organisations who want to protect themselves from becoming irrelevant or being lost in digital disruption need to have a more pragmatic and forward-looking view on how the management of files and more importantly the knowledge contained within them is handled.

The third part of the second wave is the introduction of chat and messaging between workers. This “instant messaging” facility is a critical application in many organisations. They often support rich content and the ability to send files to co-workers. They can support group discussions and in some cases telephony, video and other services.

Chat and Messaging supplements the use of the telephone and certainly can increase the productivity of a worker by being able to conduct a long-running chat, or quick discussion with workers anywhere in the world simultaneously. Chat and Messaging also represents an incredibly disruptive influence to someone’s though process and work. Like email, chat and messaging decides when it wants you to be disturbed — not the other way around. Exactly like the telephone. How often have we received a telephone call from someone who has no idea what you are doing and calls you with what you might think is a trivial issue when your head is engaged in something you think to be more important.

In many situations chat and messaging can be enormously productive. In others it can be enormously disruptive to productivity. Like many of the other parts of the first and second waves, the correct and appropriate use of these collaboration technologies can result in genuine improvements in productivity and efficiency, but used wrongly it can at least be yet another channel to stay on top of and at most become something that dominates your working day.

Don’t forget too that the discussion which happens is in a completely different place from your email, from your files and from anything else. What do you do with the information that’s captured, the exchange which happens? Is it lost?

The Third Wave

The third wave is the place we are today. It’s the evolution of productivity towards being more focused on the unstructured information which flows around your organisation. It’s the phone calls, the chat messages, the experience and the expertise which lies between your organisation making a digital transformation and one which remains part of the earlier waves and susceptible to the kinds of disruption we’ve spoke about already.

This third wave is all over the media and all over our lives already. It’s the emergence of the driverless car, robotics, assistants at home that respond to your question with “Hey” or “OK”. It’s contextual analysis, sentiment analysis, actions and Q&A pairs. It’s all about finding the intelligence in the systems we all now use. By using computers to augment our own intelligence we can again move forward in business by being more ready to respond to a customer’s request. It’s being able to predict and model and anticipate when a piece of machinery is going to break down. It’s sifting through the chat history, call logs, meeting reports and all the other sources of information which we have at our fingertips these days to make sense of it.

We would all recognise that the biggest computer with the largest network is still no match for a single human. It does not seem that there will be any obvious change in this situation for a very long time. However, by being able to supplement instead of replace human intelligence computers can continue to do what they are so good at — crunching through enormous amounts of data and finding patterns we might not see. Supplementing an oncology doctor’s insight to a patient by “understanding” the condition and providing the kind of additional insight which that doctor would not be able to have on his own.

So much information is produced these days in the field of medicine and oncology that it is impossible for even the most dedicated and scholarly doctor to be able to stay on top of it. Much like we are overwhelmed by the volume and diversity of information which now confronts us from our smartphones to our tablets to our computers to our TVs to our cars, so we need help to augment our lives. We need to be able to make sense of all the input available to us to help us make better business decisions; to anticipate what our customer might need; to delight that customer with our excellent service; to stand out from our competition by providing the kind of care that our customers now expect from us.

If your organisation is not moving in this direction, according to the studies, there is a strong risk that you will be overtaken, become irrelevant or go out of business.

Much of this seems like science fiction however. For a small manufacturing company with ten employees do you really need to be at the cutting edge of cognitive conversational analysis? Maybe not, but being somewhere on the road will position that company to develop newly innovative processes which shorten delivery times or reduce costs. By bringing the concept of intelligence into even basic interactions — like sentiment analysis on a customer’s email which adjusts the priority of a service desk request, they can be better. They can augment their business — not by replacing people but by giving them the opportunity to be better. To use the social skills which we all want — human to human interactions with someone who knows what I need — not some call Center working through the same old script.

Thus, to be successful in the third wave the culture of your organisation must adjust to allow it room. It needs to be set by the management who are forward thinking enough to realise that the world is changing and that your organisation must change too.

The Institutional Knowledge — that which is held in documents, wikis, spreadsheets, emails and all the other places from the first and second waves is just the starting point for the transformation. The tacit knowledge and experience by working out loud in social networks, the questions and answer forums with your experts and your customers where their problems are solved and understood so that the situation is avoided next time — is actually all your organisation has. It probably walks out the door every night at 5pm. Without PEOPLE in your organisation KNOWING and CONTRIBUTING all you have are files on a file server, emails with no context and machinery or a service which can’t operate.

Wave three therefore is about the evolution of the Information Age to use the “raw material” of our working lives and bring some element of machine learning and cognition to that raw material. Currently your organisation is limited to the capability of your best people to do a good job. What if you could use computers to help the other people do a better job? What if you could use your existing investments in information technology as the starting point of a revolution in your business to transform, to evolve into a truly listening AND LEARNING organisation?