a series of five blue silos, side by side, with a spiral staircase in the middle
PHOTO: Waldemar Brandt

Let’s get right to the point of a digital workplace: it’s about creating a more efficient workplace. The efficiencies gained from your investment in digital tools will afford employees more time to work directly with customers or to strategize better processes around the customer experience (CX). One thing a digital workplace should not do is overload individuals with useless data, which will have the counter effect of creating a cumbersome, less efficient workplace.

A lot of software companies claim to remove operational silos, through an all-encompassing central data platform. The fact is, as negative as the term silo is today, getting rid of them is a utopian dream. Without operational silos we’d be too inundated with data.

Great CX isn’t about a fully unsiloed workplace, rather it’s about the right data, for the right person or group of people. But to what extent does a digital workplace solve this? When does data become innocuous and meaningless? How much are we relying on technology when all we need are transparent standard operating procedures? When does it become impractical or even impossible to interconnect everything? 

We need to ask all of these questions before embarking on a digital transformation in the workplace.

Related Article: Don't Dismantle Data Silos, Build Bridges

Defining the Digital Workspace

You'll find many definitions when you begin to research “digital workplace.” As good as any I could find is a “virtual compliment to the physical office space, the digital workplace is a broad term that includes any device, software or platform that staff members use to execute their jobs.”

As you can see, the digital workplace isn't a one-size-fits-all definition. But one thing we should agree on is any digital initiative should begin with the customer in mind. 

Most companies wouldn’t define themselves as digital because they have email domains. Yet, in some companies that is all that is necessary. Sam the plumber who works on a freelance basis needs a mobile phone, a Facebook account, and an email address and that is as digital as he needs to be. A little too simple of an example? Fine. A boutique digital marketing agency needs a website, email, phone and a marketing automation suite that likely comes with a CRM. The agency is fully digital, yet its digital suite is simple and inexpensive and it can likely service clients that dwarf them in size. What’s important is the fact that they can function without over-digitizing, because they are small and agile, while serving their customers excellently. 

What about a larger organization where people don’t all know each other? The larger an organization gets, the more difficult the digital conundrum gets. But it wouldn’t be so difficult if companies began their digital strategy with the end in mind, and that end is the customer. 

Related Article: What a Digital Workplace Is and What it Isn't

Does Everyone Need Access to All Data?

People who work in the customer experience area often decry the existence of data silos, arguing they stand in the way of delivering excellent customer experiences. It's worth asking: can we truly unsilo data? Even if unrestricted data flow would solve every CX problem, as humans subject to the psychology behind office politics, we simply wouldn’t allow it to happen.

We tend to build our own silos and keep information from people purposefully, especially at work. There are multiple reasons for this, and you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think that survival is the most instinctive trait people exhibit at work. "I’m the only one who knows all the coding for such and such and if something went wrong they’d be screwed without me," "I set up all of the lead nurturing sequences with such complexity that no one in the company could figure out what to do with them if they fired me," and so on. Just one more reason why companies should be investing in training. But, employees, from interns to upper management, will find a way to silo information, so there’s no reason to go overboard in investing to unsilo all of your data.   

Humans are tribal by nature. Every company is a tribe unto itself with its own unique data sets, and within each company are divisions with their own data and within each division there are teams and so on and so forth. Realistically, does an entire company need access to all the data? What we need to figured out is, to serve the customer properly, what data needs to be shared with whom. Then, make sure the people with access to the data, especially interdepartmentally, understand why they need it, how to use it, and how not to abuse it. 

Related Article: Old MacDonald Met a Data Silo: E-I-E-I-O

Discipline, Not Disruption

We’ve heard the horror stories of what silos in the workplace do. We know what happens when we are slow to adopt a new way — look no further than Kodak and Blockbuster for anecdotes. No one wants to be the company doing nothing while other companies are being “disruptive.” But a solid customer experience plan that pulls back from technology and is more personal might be more disruptive now. Putting a face to the data might be the better experience rather than trying to force more digital on people. We’ve learned to personalize, now is it possible to be personal?   

I believe we can be, and believe it doesn’t begin with a digital workplace, it begins with the right digital workplace. Even a personal experience can mean different things, but by beginning with your customer and working your way backward, you should see the light.

I know this simplification isn't practical at all levels. Data silos will most likely always exist. Digital connectivity at the workplace — or anywhere else — is not going to change human nature, but the right technology and data for the right people working with the customer in mind will take you far in the long run.