Imagine you want to open the best research and education institution in your city, such as a University. You’ve noticed that existing learning environments do not cater for teacher or student needs in the digital age. As a result, you decide to design and build the most innovative of all office and teaching spaces; one that promotes collaboration using the latest in digital innovation and teaching technology. You outsource to various vendors who will build the institution and its IT infrastructure on your behalf, whilst you get busy hiring academic and non-academic staff and advertise to potential students. Once everything has been built – the faculty offices, lounges, lecture theatres, tutorial rooms, eating locations and learning spaces – you officially ‘open’ the doors to your new facility.
You start enrolling students and the academic faculty start designing courses. At the start of semester, you sit in your office and look down at the institution you have created. You see the students coming and going but soon enough, you start to notice something. The students do not seem to be using the multimillion-dollar collaboration space you built especially for them. Instead, they’re working out of the café across the road. You also notice that your academic staff travel frequently for the partnered research projects they have with industry sponsors, causing you to worry that your school’s knowledge is running out the door free of charge. You see the arts students working at different hours to the business school students, and even though your facilities offer the latest in Apple products, everyone seems to be bringing their own devices. Overall, you realise that the students and teachers are not using your facilities ‘as intended’, so you talk to your administration to discuss what you can do to ‘fix’ this issue. Perhaps you need to train people for how and why to use your facilities, or maybe even introduce a policy in an attempt to get people to use the facilities in specific ways.
What has essentially happened in this scenario is that technically, and theoretically, you achieved your vision of creating the best teaching and learning environment in the city. Strategically and pragmatically, however, you have failed. In your desire to create something you saw as valuable, you forgot one main ingredient: the people. It is the social and cultural aspects of your institution, not merely its technological environment, for which your vision would ultimately derive its meaning. The technology itself – whether digital or material based – was never going to dictate how and why people worked. As stated by the philosopher Alan Watts:
There is a ‘constant’ called the University in which nothing stays put: students, faculty, administrators, and even buildings come and go, leaving the university itself only as a continuing process, a pattern of behaviour.
Both technology and people change alongside one another, so to favour one element, the technology, is to disregard the other element that both creates and consumes the first. The University analogy is the same for the Digital Workplace in which we expect IT to be used in a specific way which means we often forget to ask basic questions such as ‘How do people use technology?’ or ‘Where does technology come from?’ We can use a self-driving car as an example to illustrate this point. Someone has to program the car to decide whether or not in an accident the car saves the life of the person on the street or the lives of the people inside the car. It is not technology determining this moral dilemma, it is the programmer of the car itself.
When technology ‘works’, we also tend to forget about it as we go about living our lives. When we need an Uber ride, we do not consciously think of ourselves as reaching for a piece of hardware (our phones) and engaging with software. When we go home and watch our favourite TV show on Netflix, we do not tell ourselves we are streaming content from the internet. With Uber, we are trying to get from A to B and with Netflix, we just want something to watch whilst we eat dinner. Technology in both scenarios is seamless and unobtrusive. This is how people engage with technology in the world – it is a somewhat hand-in-glove relationship. We live in buildings, wear clothes, drive cars and cook food in our kitchens. We cannot do any of these everyday tasks without technology, and yet we seldom realise that we are engaging with technology throughout these processes. The same is true for the digital workplace and how employees work.
If organisational decision makers do not understand the unity between people and technology in their workplace, they will continue to experience the unrealised potential of both their employees and their IT. Instead of abiding by the traditional ‘build it and they will come’ mantra, decision makers need to reflect on how they themselves interact with technology in the world. The digital workplace is calling out for more empathy in this regard, so that instead of imposing a world of work on employees, we try and cater for how employees prefer to work, and IT is one solution for this type of accommodation.