Intranets and digital workplaces – the missing 20 years

by | Oct 12, 2016 | Digital workplace, Intranets

At the Intranet Now event in London last month I highlighted the situation that, in my opinion, there had been little development in intranet good practice over the last two decades. To be sure mobile now has a larger role to play and we dabble in enterprise social networks, which are basically low-functionality intranet applications. I’m working on a lecture on digital workplaces for 130 students at the Information School, University of Sheffield and I wanted to set the scene for them, as most were still quite young in the mid-1990s! This was a period when Charles Grantham was leading the discussions about the future of work, writing ‘The Digital Workplace’ and ‘The Future of Work’ in 1993 and 2000 respectively.

However arguably the first book on digital workplaces was ‘Liberation Management’ by Tom Peters, published in 1992. This book has not had the publicity of ‘In Search of Excellence’ and ‘A Passion for Excellence’ published in 1982 and 1986. Peters did not refer to the case studies in the book as examples of digital workplaces and indeed the subtitle of the book is ‘necessary disorganisation for the nanosecond nineties’, which might have put off many potential readers. In reality this book is about the way in which networked organisations (this was the era of Lotus Notes) were starting to flourish, There is a section in the book starting on p153 of the paperback edition which lists out 27 organising propositions for the survival of businesses working in a very fast-changing market era. These include

  • Most of tomorrow’s work will be done in project teams
  • You will routinely report to a person for one task who reports to you for another
  • Organisational learning will be highly rewarded
  • Applying new technologies to out-moded organisations is a design for disaster
  • Real-time access to information is a must
  • Market-place power will be a function of your place in an array of networks

These may all seem commonplace now, but how many organisations truly believe in them? For the late 1980s and early 1990s this was remarkable forecasting. Liberation Management is full of insights that even now we are  only slowly accepting. I especially like the section on ‘Don’t Let Project Teams Be Committees’ (pp208 – 201), which includes

  • Let teams pick their own leaders
  • Honour project leadership and project membership skills
  • Allow outsiders in
  • Give members the authority to make commitments on behalf of their functional departments

When you combine the learning in this book, all gained from synthesis of corporate case studies, with the rapid adoption of intranets a few years later I do wonder what we have been doing over the last two decades. As with intranets the concepts of networked organisations and digital workplaces are emerging as innovative thinking. It would be easy to blame the financial crash of 2008 onwards but this book was written 16 years before the banks went bust. Without doubt the technology has changed since 1990 but primarily in technology. The history of artificial intelligence, a concept developed in the mid-1950s, seems to be following the same pattern. The fundamentals have not changed but are now being enabled by processing power. I would encourage any digital workplace practitioner to find a copy of Liberation Management (it seems to be out of print at present) and read through it to see if there are ideas and guidelines that you can adopt that might shorten development times and increase corporate impact. Technology may have changed, but our brains have not, which is why for me this book still has significant value.

Martin White