Category: Digital workplace

Do virtual teams benefit from face-to-face meetings?

I’m in the middle of a project to examine the reasons why collaboration adoption seems to be slower than anticipated. A report on the research will be published in February. I’ve spent some time looking at a very considerable amount of research into collaboration and virtual teams but only today came across a paper that seems to challenge conventional wisdom and good practice in virtual team management. It has long been the assumption that off-line face-to-face bonding was crucial to achieving high performance virtual teams, but now a paper by Professors Olaisen and Revang at the Norwegian Business School, Oslo, causes me to think that this might now be an out-dated approach.

Their paper is entitled Working Smarter and greener: Collaborative knowledge sharing in virtual project teams and has just been published in the International Journal of Information Management (Disclaimer – I’m a member of the Editorial Board). One of the very important aspects of the research is that it was a longitudinal study in which four virtual project teams with a total of 42 members were tracked quite intensively over the period from 2014-2016. Most studies of virtual teams and collaboration are undertaken over a much shorter period of time. There was one team each from Banking, Insurance, Oil & Gas and Biotechnology sectors. The paper sets up a number of propositions which are then tested against the way in which the teams operated and delivered results.

In the discussion to the paper the authors comment that “the quality of communication has replaced the need for physical meetings”. In effect, we are now so used to virtual communications that we have built up ways of assessing the extent to which we trust people virtually that initial face-to-face meeting are no longer of value. In this regard it is interesting to note that in the 2016 RW3 Global Trends in Virtual Teams survey 41% of respondents stated that they had no face-to-face meetings during the year. The survey goes on to suggest that the lack of face-to-face meetings does have an impact on team performance. Who is right, especially given the small scale of the research project.

I think that what we are seeing in the apparent conflict between the research study and the RW3 survey is that we are at a tipping point. Facebook and a host of other social applications are providing a virtual community that we are becoming adept at working with and in. The same is increasingly true in the enterprise environment. Much may depend on the age generation of participants and research is now being undertaken to explore the extent to which the age profile of a team has an impact on performance, for example Toward a More Nuanced Understanding of the Generational Digital Divide in Virtual Teams (download) . More research is needed both from in-depth research and surveys that record the attitudes of a wider based of respondents. But we may be getting to the stage where off-line meetings may have a more limited benefit, with savings in travel costs and probably less time being required to establish an effective team.

Martin White






The Intranet Focus 2016 good cause

As many of you know each year I donate the money I would have spent on Christmas Cards and postage to a good cause.

I expect that most of you will have stood in Trafalgar Square, looked up at Nelson’s Column and across to the National Gallery. However I suspect that few of you will have spotted a large church on the north-east side of the square with columns as the façade that faces onto the Square. This is the church of St. Martins-in-the-Fields, which it certainly was when the first church was built in 1222. The current church dates from 1762, and so is older than the Square, which was not completed until 1844.

What is not visible is a vast Crypt, with a 200 seat cafe/restaurant and it can also host conferences and meetings. All the profits go to support the outreach activities of the church. If you enjoy classical music you may know of the global reputation of the Academy of St. Martins-in-the-Fields, a chamber orchestra founded and directed for many years by Sir Neville Marriner, who died earlier this year. The church gave it space for rehearsals and for its first public performance in 1958.

So why have I have chosen a church in the middle of London for my good cause this year? Well once again this year digital workplaces have been centre stage, now enriched (!) with social networks, cognitive search and artificial intelligence. Work (we are assured) is going to be so much more productive and enjoyable in the future.

But do we think for a moment of the people who do not have a home, let alone a job? We talk of the Future of Work, but not of a future without work for those who for usually no fault of their own are now alone and have no future, or have no access to the training needed for digital working. Will the digital workplaces we are building create a the digital divide?

Even in the centre of London, one of the most affluent cities in the world, there is despair, poverty and homelessness. It is easy to say that the UK Government should be doing more. However it’s not just a question of money but of community. Someone to talk to who will not judge, a hand to shake and be hugged by and a sense of security and peace within one of the most beautiful churches In London.

For 90 years St. Martin’s has cared for these people, especially at Christmas when it usually raises over £2.5 million with the help of the BBC.  As well as the support it provides for people in the immediate area of the church (Connection at St. Martins) this church in London cares for people across the UK.  It makes small grants available within days when other sources of support have failed. These grants are often to buy a cooker, a bed or a fridge for people moving into unfurnished accommodation. If the funds I have donated buy someone a cooker or a bed then that is a gift that could  be one small step for them along a road to a brighter future.

I would ask that in the year ahead we never lose sight of the fact that every employee in a digital workplace has a family. I feel we sometimes see ’employees’ as a sort of persona, and forget they are individuals, people who are trying to keep a balance between their commitment to their work and a concern about what the future will hold, not just for themselves but also for their families.

With my best wishes to you for 2017

Martin White


How will digital workplace autonomy satisfy corporate compliance?

The focus of the current interest in social networking is to enable the individual to make decisions about how they work, who they work with and what they share to achieve personal and business objectives. Working Out Loud is a fast-emerging element of this support of internal autonomy. There is a wealth of survey and anecdotal evidence that this fosters innovation and is good for employee engagement. One of the 2016 surveys was published by McKinsey & Company and was entitled “How social tools can reshape the organisation”. At the time of writing this blog the report had been dropped from the McKinsey website but there is a summary on the Consultancy UK website. It does rather read like a paean of praise for social networking at a time when other surveys (for example Digital Culture Clash from Cisco) are indicating that it is not quite as simple as some observers would have us believe.

No matter how much autonomy individuals have to create teams and make decisions on their own account  all organisations work within some form of compliance.  There will be a board of Directors that have defined responsibilities towards the organisation and towards shareholders and stakeholders. At some point a hierarchy will kick in. Hierarchies, like bureaucracies, have a poor reputation but have a role to play in the process of reviewing decisions that are going to commit the organisation to a specific course of action. Among the outcomes of the McKinsey survey was that 25% of respondents predicted that in the next three years strategic decisions would be made from the bottom up and that organisational hierarchies would either be much flatter or disappear all together. Call me old-fashioned but I can’t see major strategic decisions (21st Century Fox acquiring Sky is in the news today) being made bottom up when there are shareholders and regulatory authorities to take account of.

The challenge I see emerging is defining and managing the processes where autonomy and compliance meet. At what level within the organisation does this take place, and is it a hard transition or a soft transition? I’ve looked back through around 20 recent surveys on corporate collaboration and digital social working and I cannot find any discussion of this topic. It is not going to happen by magic. As a component of an overall social strategy for an organisation decisions are going to have to be made on how information and knowledge from autonomous working is sifted, verified and presented up the chain of management. In the final analysis the directors are responsible, in compliance terms, to shareholders, laws and regulations. This is enshrined in corporate law. An implication is that there is an audit route back to the decisions that were made leading up to the action being taken. When autonomy escapes compliance you end up with the Volkswagen story and a very large hit on corporate performance. It will be interesting to read the full Volkswagen story in due course.

I have no preconceived ideas about when and where autonomy and compliance should meet. Wherever it is this the pressure on managers will be very considerable as they seek to balance the demands from their own managers with the ambition of being supportive to autonomous work processes that are clearly having an impact on innovation, speed of response and employee engagement. Working out loud is an example of where a document or even an instant message written in the spirit of WoL is taken to be a definitive statement by someone who reads it in isolation. At present the focus on collaboration strategy is about what tools are needed to support this style of working. In my view the success of a collaboration strategy will be the ease with which outcomes from collaborative working can move through and up the corporate structure in a way that safeguards the interests of all stakeholders. This is not a technology issue but about supporting managers who find themselves between a rock and a hard place. If you want to read a story of what happens when ‘top down’ conflicts with ‘bottom up’ download this study of decision making in Nokia that led to the company losing the smartphone battle. What would happen in your organisation under the same circumstances?

Martin White

Frameworks for implementing and assessing collaboration

Ever since the advent of computer-supported cooperative working (CSCW) in 1984 there has been an immense amount of research into the development of a framework for collaboration processes that will assist in both the planning and implementation of collaborative solutions. Wikipedia has a very good survey of the background to CSCW I have been tracking this research for a number of years, and in this post I have referenced just a new of the many frameworks that have been developed, with an emphasis on work over the last few years.

  • Unpacking Team Diversity: An Integrative Multi-Level Model of Cross-Boundary Teaming (2016) Harvard Business School Working Paper download
  • Team Communication Platforms and Emergent Social Collaboration Practices (2016) published in International Journal of Business Communications April 2016
  • From The Matrix to a Model of Coordinated Action (MoCA): A Conceptual Framework of and for CSCW (2015) Preprint can be downloaded
  • Why Supply Chain Collaboration Fails: The Socio-Structural View Of Resistance To Collaboration Strategies (2015) published in Supply Chain Management
  • Metrics for Cooperative Systems (2014) from the Fraunhofer Institute
  • Enterprise Social Collaboration Model (2013) sponsored by Microsoft as a download
  • Factors of Collaborative Working: A Framework for a Collaboration Model (2012) published in Applied Ergonomics, January 2012
  • Collaboration at Work: An Integrative Multilevel Conceptualization (2012) published in Human Resource Management Review, June 2012
  • Enterprise Collaboration Maturity Model (ECMM): Preliminary Definition and Future Challenges (2012) Preprint can be downloaded
  • Group Information Behavioural Norms and the Effective Use of a Collaborative Information System: A Case Study (2010) The link is to a 400 page PhD thesis written by Colin Furness, University of Toronto

Of the many books that have been published on collaborative working Collaboration by Morten Hansen is a very valuable resource and I also find Collaborating in a Social Era,by  Oscar Berg to be full of insights and some very useful graphics.

Martin White

Could Google transform enterprise mobile search?

The presentations at the 2016 Search Solutions conference, organised by the Information Retrieval Specialist Group of the British Computer Society on 30 November, were uniformly excellent. For me the most interesting was given by Dr. Qin Yin from the Google Research Laboratories in Zurich. To explain why I need to provide some context. In general the enterprise search experience on a mobile smartphone is poor. As the desktop UI has become more complex with multiple filters and facets it has also become more difficult to provide a sensible UI for a smartphone. Responsive design is not at option. There have been attempts over the years to develop mobile enterprise search UIs.  Autonomy offered one briefly and Sinequa does have a mobile solution but I remain unconvinced of the value of using a smartphone as a terminal device for enterprise search applications. It may be possible but is it desirable?  Another search product that is now largely history is desktop search, overtaken by improved (in relative terms!) Office search and the challenge of indexing (in my case) 10GB of stored data.

Qin Yin’s paper was about the work that Google has been undertaking on offering users the ability to search content that is already on their smartphone, in effect providing the mobile equivalent of desktop search. Now I know that Apple offer the Spotlight search through Siri but that is not a good experience in my view. Google is now offering the initial versions of what it describes as App Indexing, using its Firestorm suite. In effect you can now search through content you have downloaded into apps on your smartphone. The index is held within the smartphone but is revised periodically when (rather like with software uploads) from Google when there is sufficient bandwidth. There are some case studies on the Firestorm site.

Now for another bit of context. People tend to want their internal enterprise search to be as good as Google. We know that is technically not possible but at least it provides a default benchmark for the user experience. What occurred to me is that as this mobile internal search improves users will start to say “why can’t I have the Google App search on internal content”. I discussed this with Qin Yin after her presentation and the answer is that in principle you could, especially as Google ramps up its enterprise cloud offering. This would give the user effective access to people and expertise directories, policies and task applications, especially where the mobile desktop is getting rather crowded and you just can’t find the app with the information you need. Offline access would also be facilitated.

Now I may be off track with this but I think that as the application develops, along with Google’s enterprise cloud service, there could be a new dimension to enterprise mobile search. Although Apple have something that is sort of similar in concept  (but certainly not in execution) it is not in the enterprise information services business at all. I would be the first to admit that some of the systems architecture diagrams and descriptions from Qin Yin passed me by.  Mobile app development is not among my skill sets and I have to say that it was only half-way through the paper that the enterprise angle occurred to me and I transformed into a very active listener.  Even so I would recommend that you keep monitoring the way in which Google develops this approach so that you can be prepared to respond to the “Why can’t our mobile enterprise search be like Google?” question.

Martin White


Agnes, Brian, Ellen, Jane, James, Janus, Kurt, Kristian, Mark, Michael, Paul, Sam, Susan, Tony and Wedge

If nothing else you will have to admit it’s an unusual title for a blog post. If you are a relative newcomer to the intranet community you may be unaware of the role that these people play in supporting the exchange of knowledge and good practice. Without exception the major consulting companies pay little attention to topics such as intranets, information management and search. Some do offer advice on social networking and collaboration but at a level that is targeted at senior managers who are probably the last people to network socially and collaborate. As I was writing reviews of outstanding reports from Jane McConnell and Sam Marshall yesterday their commitment to the wider community was very obvious. This post lists some of the people who in various ways and for many years have transformed our understanding of intranets, team working and digital workplaces through publishing reports and promulgating good practice and who have to make a living whilst doing so.

  • Agnes Molnar is an enterprise search evangelist with a very good knowledge of SharePoint search
  • Ellen van Aken curates a collection of 300 intranet promotion videos alongside her consulting work
  • Jane McConnell understands digital workplaces better than anyone else and publishes and annual survey of progress
  • James Robertson writes books, runs workshops and conferences, gives out awards and challenges conventional wisdom
  • Janus Boye runs communities of practice in Europe and North America and an annual conference in Aarhus
  • Kurt Kragh Sorenson also offers communities of practice and runs the IntraTeam event in Copenhagen
  • Kristian Norling is developing an excellent range of books and is the Swedish representative of IntraTeam
  • Mark Morell focuses on intranet governance as an author and consultant
  • Michael Sampson writes books and blogs about all aspects of collaboration and digital workplaces
  • Paul Miller set up the Intranet Benchmarking Forum and transformed it into the Digital Workplace Group
  • Sam Marshall publishes reports of an exceptionally high quality
  • Susan Hanley writes blogs and books on SharePoint with a strong intranet and portal focus
  • Tony Byrne sets the standard in assessing the performance of digital applications
  • Wedge Black and Brian Lamb are the entrepreneurs behind the Intranet Now conference

The Intranetizen team also deserve recognition.

Any list like this runs the risk of missing someone obvious. If you feel you are that person please let me know.

Martin White

The Organisation in the Digital Age – 2016 Survey and Report

Each year the Organisation in the Digital Age report takes me longer to read than the version for the preceding year. This is not because it is significantly larger but because each year the insights that Jane McConnell offers are even more worthy of due diligence. On opening up this 110 page report and looking at the Contents Page you are immediately struck by the scope of the report. This is not just because the contents page highlights the breadth of the issues surrounding the digital workplace but because Jane has pared the headings down to those that are of critical importance in making sense of, and in making progress in, working in the digital age. Over the last few months I have become increasingly frustrated at the number of surveys that seem to indicate an important trend but which, on closer examination, tell at best 50% of the real story. In the 2016 edition the 13 case studies and interviews with digital innovators are more prominent and more thorough than in previous years. This is an invaluable direction to go in as on their own the numbers tell less than half the story. Only through these case studies can you begin to gain the context behind the trends, and perhaps more importantly understand why progress has not been as rapid as was anticipated even a couple of years ago

As Jane notes in her introduction, a starting point for digital transformation is defining a compelling vision and strategy. The strategies that have been developed do not yet have sufficient traction in business units and with frontline people. The research shows that there is insufficient focus on people and change, and even less focus on creating new business models. In most cases technology was at the top of the investment list , with education and training at the bottom. However there is progress. In the initial research report in 2007 only 25% of respondents stated that people could share information using social tools, whereas today it is 86%. Only 25% of the organisations in 2011 offered internal crowdsourcing and ideation capabilities but that has now almost doubled. These are all steps in the right direction but there is so much else to do as a glance at the framework for the report indicates.

The report is based on around 300 responding organisations, of which almost 70% are common to the 2015 survey, which provides a reliable and invaluable baseline for trend analysis. There is no other report that has this heritage of continuous annual surveys coupled with the insights that Jane brings from projects and communities that she has taken part in over many years. It is worth remembering that Charles Grantham was writing about digital working in the 1990s and Jeffery Bier launched the eRoom collaboration suite in 2000. It has been a long journey with only isolated examples of corporate-wide progress.We need a benchmark against which to measure and focus our efforts. Jane’s commitment to the quality of research and insight provides us with just such a benchmark. Always there are more questions to ask and more answers to digest but for now this is the best there is. We should focus our efforts on making good use of the outcomes in the report and back off from conducting surveys and creating schematics that make the headlines but add little if anything to our knowledge base.

Martin White

Building Information Modelling – a prototype for digital workplaces

Much of the discussion and debate around digital workplaces takes place in a vacuum. With the exception of the case studies in Jane McConnell’s Organisation in the Digital Age reports there are very few published examples of working digital workplaces. For that reason it is well worth taking a look at what is happening in the global construction industry in the adoption of Building Information Modelling. The Wikipedia entry on BIM is written by people who are very conversant with this work. One definition of  Building Information Modeling (BIM) is that is a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility providing a shared knowledge resource for information about a facility that then forms a reliable basis for decisions during its life-cycle; defined as existing from earliest conception to demolition. I’d like to highlight the word ‘shared’ as BIM brings together all the stakeholders in a construction project from design to build to maintain and then demolish. Demolishing a complex building requires knowledge of how it was built!

There are global standards for BIM files and file management, an area where the UK construction industry is very much in the vanguard. For several years the Royal Institute of British Architects has been publishing an annual survey of BIM adoption. The 2016 report notes “We can see that BIM adoption is set to increase. Within one year, 86% of people expect to be using BIM on at least some of their projects. Within three years, 95% expect to be using BIM. Within five, that number increases to 97%.” Among the leaders in implementing BIM is Laing O’Rourke and it is well worth reading through its Engineering Excellence Journal.  Although there is a lot of good news the challenges are also important to be aware of. In the 2014 edition of Engineering Excellence Journal Laing O’Rourke comment that “The current fixation with Building Information Modelling (BIM) within our industry globally is gathering pace and this is undoubtedly progress. However, it once again reflects the vested interests within our own ranks that we chose to embrace the minimum standards of these new ideologies and technologies only when pushed to do so, rather than seize the opportunity to exploit their potential for real and lasting industry-wide transformation.”

This challenge is not unique to the global construction industry. In all sectors there will be a tendency to do the minimum possible rather than look to the future and work backwards to define what is required to take full advantage of not just the technology but the way in which the technology facilitates teams working together to solve complex problems. Of course the problem is always that we can often learn more from failures than we can from success stories and it is very difficult (especially for quoted companies) to share project failures There is no open forum for the exchange of visions, roadmaps, achievements and challenges, and in my opinion many conferences in this area focus on how employees are working in the back office at headquarters and not 30 stories up on a skyscraper building with only a ruggedized tablet for company.

If you are engaged in any digital workplace initiative I would strongly recommend that you take a look at BIM implementation. There may not be any individual elements that can be applied to your own sector but the principles are eminently transferable. Note just as an example the exemplary commitment of the Royal Institute of British Architects in supporting BIM initiatives. Are your industry and trade organisations playing a similar role?  And if not, why not?

Martin White



Language, emotions and disrupted collaboration

It has been my immense good fortune to have had business experience in around 40 countries. Comparing notes with Paul Corney (Knowledgeetal) early this year I think we ended up with close to 60 between us. When we meet it will not take long for the conversation to move into projects we have been working on with multiple cultures, especially in terms of language. Work experience in 40 countries and with teams speaking 17 different languages as well as English certainly does not mean I am an expert. But I have become reasonably expert at listening and watching and learning from those on the project team who are almost certainly not speaking to me in their mother language and then trying very hard not to be an embarrassing Brit. Even working with Paul in Barbados (nominally English speaking) a few years ago we had to be especially alert not to make any assumptions about organisational and national cultures. You only have to read a book such as Understanding Global Cultures, by Gannon and Pillai, even to  begin to get a sense of national cultural complexities. Although When Cultures Collide, by Richard Lewis, was written in 1996, it remains an excellent starting point on business teams across multiple countries working together. Finally read Walking Through Jelly: Language Proficiency, Emotions, and Disrupted Collaboration in Global Work, a HBS Working Paper and I guarantee you will radically change the way you work with German colleagues.

Let me rearrange the words in the title of the paper and state that  “Collaboration in Global Work is disrupted by Language Proficiency and Emotions”. I have seen endless surveys about the propensity for collaboration with awesome exponential growth curves which take absolutely zero notice of this statement. Recent PR by Microsoft on the subject of chat is a case in point. When people wish to share opinions and ideas they will tend to use their mother tongue as it gives them the broadest possible range of nuances. You can sit on a train or bus in London and hear people float between English and their national language quite seamlessly. Working on a project in Germany recently one breakout group in the workshop wanted to use German as their working language, and why not? But then I had to depend on the summary given by the leader without being party to the nuances I could gain from the groups working (for my benefit) in English. As it happened the German language group came up with some of the best comments as  they were not constrained even by what was in general a high level of command of English.

Taking these issues forward from ‘collaboration’ to the digital workplace, the language challenges will remain. To be sure younger people will improve still further their command of English, and we are told confidently by Google and Microsoft and others than machine translation will soon be as good as a human interpreter. That word ‘interpreter’ is important. Working in European Commission meetings with simultaneous interpretation I am often aware that the interpreter is trying to convey subtle meaning and contexts. If you want to see some examples just take a look at @VeryBritishProblems to get a sense of the problems. Your colleague says “Interesting” in response to a statement from a colleague. What exactly do they mean? It may depend on the tone of voice or even the body language or your prior knowledge of their negotiating stance. Welcome to the real world of team work. But even fluent speakers of English may find it hard to write the language in a document or in social media without wondering if they have made a fool of themselves, and worse still their organisation. In English we just have the verb ‘to know’ but the French have both savoir and connaitre. Are you certain which to use, and why?

So as you continue to invest in applications to support collaborative working perhaps it might be worth understanding (not just documenting)  the linguistic and business cultural issues across the organisation and working through what the implications are for a wider use of these applications and the challenges that will lie ahead in what will certainly not a mono-lingual mono-cultural digital workplace.

Martin White



Findwise Findability Survey 2016 – strategy wins out!

The outcomes of the Findwise Findability Survey 2016 were presented by its author, Mattias Ellison, at the Findwise Findability Day in Stockholm last month. In the interests of transparency I have been involved to some extent with the design of the survey and the presentation of the results. The 2016 report can be downloaded from the Findwise site. With all annual surveys the challenge is to keep a balance between questions that relate to the trends in search implementation dating back to 2012 and yet pay attention to topics that deserve special attention at the present time. I think Findwise has just the right balance in the 2016 report.

I’m not going to work through every chart and table in detail as I want to encourage you to download the report and read it for yourself. For me the main interest this year has been the set of questions on how a search strategy has an impact on search performance. There is certainly a welcome trend towards organisations having a search strategy, up from only 20% in 2012 to over 50% this year. The report presents a series of charts which show that having a search strategy has a significant benefit on search performance, mainly because the strategy provides a business case for investment in team resources, metadata and analytics. The chart on the roles participating on a search governance programme shows a higher level of business involvement when there is a strategy in place. Indeed there is no aspect of search management that does not appear to benefit from having a search strategy. Which then makes me ask why still half the organisations in the survey do not have a strategy.

Based on my consulting work I think that the answer to a lack of a strategy is that although at an operational level search managers understand the value of a strategy they cannot find a sponsor or owner for the strategy. This is especially the case where an organisation has multiple search applications acquired and supported from different budgets, and there is no overall ownership of search. Findwise does provide some guidance on strategy development and you can find a list of headings for a search strategy on the website of my Enterprise Search book, the entire focus of which is the need to take a strategic perspective on enterprise search.

This survey is a lonely beam of light on the fairly mysterious world of search management. AIIM did publish a survey on enterprise search in 2014 but now search is not listed as a technology that the organisation sees as important. No comment! Undertaking research on the scale of the Findability Survey is a significant commitment by Findwise, especially in achieving a high level of participation, and the search community should not only be grateful for this commitment but reward it through participating in the 2017 survey. If you want to make a business case for more investment by your organisation in search then the 2016 Survey makes a definitive case for doing so through the development of a search strategy.

Martin White