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Do Digital Workplaces Drive Innovation or Efficiency?

April 21, 2021 Digital Workplace
By Sam Marshall

Countless strategy statements claim their digital workplaces both increase efficiency and encourage innovation. Is that realistic? Or is it like the recruitment ad looking for someone who is “a team player that works well alone”?

According to Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn, two researchers from the University of Michigan, efficiency and innovation are culturally competing values. Try to optimize for one, and you’ll take away from the other. That’s why being clear about what you’re aiming for with a digital workplace matters, but also a key part of helping it succeed.

“Some organizations are viewed as effective if they are changing, adaptable, and organic such as Microsoft, Apple or Nike … Other organizations are viewed as effective if they are stable, predictable, and mechanistic, for instance most universities, government agencies, and the New York Stock Exchange." — Cameron and Quinn in Competing Values Leadership.

Any organization where a focus is on ROI will sacrifice innovation for efficiency, because it is easier to quantify return from changes to known processes (or simple cost cuts) than it is to show value from wholly new processes and products.

Why Innovation and Efficiency Are at Odds

I’ve described in some detail how the Competing Values Framework from Cameron and Quinn apples to digital workplaces in "Why Collaboration Works for Others But Not for You," but if you find frameworks a little dry, here’s another way to look at it.

Innovation is about trying out new things, some of which will fail. Most innovation in business isn’t about radical, breakthrough innovation (unless you’re an R&D lab), but about new insights and incremental improvements.

But here’s the thing: innovation is also wasteful. You spend time on things that don’t work out. You make changes that end up being worse than what you already had. When you do something in a new way, others don’t know about it so it introduces extra friction. Netflix unashamedly prioritizes innovation, with some famously brief policies (“Our vacation policy is ‘take vacation’”). But it also has the clarity to realize that it is in a low-risk business.  “We’re in a creative-inventive market, not a safety-critical market like medicine or nuclear power” stated its induction deck on Netflix culture.

To be efficient, you need to experiment, but also lock in the improvement that works. You may have to train people to follow a new process that will take time to adopt. From thereon, you don’t want people to try different ways or keep experimenting. That will just slow everyone down, increase costs again or introduce risk.

Efficiency isn’t always great though. As Henry Mintzberg argued: how excited would you be about going to a restaurant that billed itself as "really efficient"?

Related Article: Don't Wait for the Innovation Lottery: A Deliberate Approach to Ideation

A Digital Workplace for Efficiency

Digital workplaces designed to support efficiency are likely to be more structured and more centered around processes and documents than people. If that sounds a little dull, take heart: done well, the enterprise search will return good results! When you need to request something, it will be clear which form applies, and how decisions get made. When you need IT support, systems and service levels will be in place. These can all make for a satisfying and productive place to be.

However, there’s a strong caveat here: sometimes the most efficient thing is to know when to make an exception, and that may well be about talking to the right person. For example, a procurement department onboarding a new vendor may get bogged down in a detailed checklist, when a quick conversation with the right person in Legal to say “does this actually apply here?” could skip things forward.

So even efficiency-oriented digital workplaces need to cultivate a degree of social capital. Most likely though, there will be a well-managed people-finder in place to help you track down the right person too.

Related Article: Test Your Digital Workplace People Finder Score

A Digital Workplace for Innovation

An innovation-centric digital workplace is likely to take a more networked approach. I’d expect it would encourage open conversations (see last month’s post on Teams vs. Yammer for the Microsoft specifics), and sharing knowledge through internal posts, blogs and seminars.

Barriers to collaboration should be low. For example, creating a new online project space should be approval-free, and even granting access to externals is likely to be straightforward. Digitally, you’re looking for the equivalent of “let’s grab a coffee and a flipchart.”

More formally, a raft of ideation (idea management) tools are available that can help too, including Qmarkets, PlanBox (formerly Imaginatik), Planview Spigit and Brightidea. Other digital workplace specialists are active in this space as well, for example Valo Ideas and Sideways 6 both work on top of Microsoft Teams. All of these bring a level of process to help cultivate new ideas and ensure they get properly considered rather than simply petering out. However, none of these will fix a work culture that is too dominated by efficiency.

An innovation-centric digital workplace sounds more liberating than an efficiency-oriented one. But the inevitable inconsistency comes with downsides. You probably need a good personal network to get things done. When you search for a document, you might find five versions and not know which one to trust. And all those freely-created collaboration sites may get spun up but then never properly closed down. Metaphorically, the innovator’s digital workplace is a more cluttered desk.

Related Article: What You Can Do to Build an Innovative Ecosystem

Finding a Balance

Most organizations like to think they are innovative. Innovative just sounds cooler than "efficient." Yet they also often have a firm focus on the bottom line. So, can you mix and match?

One way to find a balance is to have different departments with different work cultures — and it may well be that you want, say, your products department to be innovative, but your finance department to be efficient. This is precisely why R&D exists as a function (and why creative accounting is generally frowned upon).

Another is to create projects that take people way from their routine. If you are focussed 100% on execution, then you have no slack to try working in a different way.

One consequence of this is our digital workplaces may well need to be configured in different ways for different departments. A company-wide rollout of Microsoft Teams shouldn’t apply the same policies for all users and shouldn’t even train them in the same way. The trick is knowing when to tighten up, and when to ease back.

About the Author

Sam Marshall is the owner of ClearBox Consulting and has specialized in intranets and the digital workplace for over 18 years, working with companies such as AstraZeneca, Diageo, Sony, GSK and AkzoNobel.

He is the lead author of the annual SharePoint Intranets in-a-box review.

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