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PHOTO: Fallon Michael

A quiet revolution is happening with the digital tools we use in the workplace.

Until recently, the vast majority of the productivity apps and systems we use at work have been relatively dumb. While these tools help us do more, they also rely on human effort and skill to use them well. This inherent limitation has created a productivity paradox, where the potential of applying computing power to make a task more efficient or effective ends up outweighed by the manual interventions needed to make it work. We persist because there are other benefits from digitization. Despite how much we complain about the time we spend on managing email, no one wants to return to the days of sending memos through the internal mail or letters in the post.

Tools That Help Reduce the Day-to-Day Friction

But these tools are now being infused with new kinds of intelligence, which will not only start to address the productivity imbalance, but also mark a changing relationship with what we mean by knowledge work.

A small example of this is the Design Ideas feature in Microsoft PowerPoint for Office 365 subscribers. This feature uses intelligent services to suggest layouts, photos, illustrations and SmartArt graphics based on the content you add to slides. While the current iteration of Design Ideas isn’t the substitute for a creative human designer, it will save you time when pulling together slides for a routine presentation. You no longer need to be an expert in PowerPoint to create something professional.

Automating Microsoft PowerPoint won’t change the world, of course. But this same principle is playing out across all types of enterprise software. For example, facial recognition in Cisco Webex video conferencing can automatically add virtual name labels to people on a call. And the new Smart Compose in G Suite’s Docs aims to help you write documents faster and reduce mistakes in your writing. I am also a big fan of Microsoft Office Lens, which I use to crop and straighten photos of whiteboards and presentations automatically. 

All of these intelligent features are slowly but surely attacking points of friction in our experience of the digital workplace.

Related Article: What If We Used Collaboration Tools to Rethink How We Work?

Tools for Intelligent Integration

Integration is another point of historic friction in the digital workplace. As well as automating, the latest generation of applications and platforms are also intelligently supporting integration. This integration ranges from support for natural embedding, which allows someone to paste a link to the content in one app and have it appear in another, through to integrations that will enable one system to consume content from another by linking them together.

For example, Dropbox Paper allows people to embed up to 30 different types of files and external content. Interact intranet’s search connectors support SharePoint, OneDrive, Google Drive and Box. And according to Zapier, its low-code integration engine works with more than 2,000 other apps. These pre-built integrations allow people to create solutions that previously would have required custom development or specialist skills.

Combined, intelligent automation and integration mean that for business users, they need to shift from mastering the intricacies of using particular tools, to understanding the opportunities.

Related Article: Microsoft Project Cortex Ushers in the Era of Topic Computing

Goodbye to the Traditional Intranet Homepage

One other significant impact of intelligent applications and platforms need to be mentioned, which is the death of the intranet homepage. I commend the best intranet homepages of the past that tried to help bridge the gap between systems and improve productivity. But as we automate and integrate, we find ourselves shifting away from digital workplaces dominated by passive portals to a multi-channel, highly personalized, integrated experience.

Examples of this include solutions such as Beezy’s card-based news feed that helps people discover, follow up and recover past activity and LiveTiles’ Power Panel that effectively makes the features of a home page available from every intranet page. There are also digital assistants, such as Adenin’s Digital Assistant, which is accessible via chatbots, smart speakers and apps. Other solutions, like Guru’s knowledge base solution use a browser extension and Slack integration to make content available in the context of the tools someone is using.

Traditional intranet homepages should be thought of as a workaround or hack to overcome the limitations in earlier generations of enterprise software. While they were fit for purpose then, it's time for us to embrace the benefits of an intelligent digital workplace.

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