Steelcase, furnishing the cloud

SUMMARY:

Workplace fittings and furniture maker Steelcase has not only upgraded its technology to ease access to cloud apps, it’s also rearranging its workplaces to help employees be more productive with them

Gary Graeff, Steelcase
Gary Graeff, Steelcase

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the challenges enterprises are facing in managing access to an expanding portfolio of cloud applications alongside their existing IT.

One company that provides a stark illustration of these challenges is workplace fittings and furniture maker Steelcase, a 10,000 employee global business that last year celebrated its centenary.

While its internal operations run on SAP and other on-premise applications such as Microsoft Sharepoint and product lifecycle manager PTC Windchill, Steelcase uses a wide range of cloud applications for sales, collaboration and other functions. These include Jive, Oracle CRM OnDemand, Service-Now, Google Apps, Concur and Basecamp.

Business drivers

As in many other enterprises, it is demand from business users that has driven adoption of these cloud applications. According to Gary Graeff, IT group manager, personal computing and collaboration services, speaking in a video produced by its supplier OneLogin:

“There are a lot of solutions in the cloud that our users want to use. As an IT organization, we could take two stances. We could just say, ‘Absolutely not, shut it off,’ and then make them use our systems. Or give them a method by which they can adopt those that make them most productive.”

That’s often easier said than done in an established organization whose infrastructure has grown up on-premise and wasn’t designed with a global Internet in mind. So, for example, Steelcase operates four separate Active Directory instances, one for employees in each of three global regions — the US, EMEA and APAC — plus a fourth for external users.

In addition to its 10,000+ employees, Steelcase also offers certain applications to 24,000 external users, who log in through a partner portal on the Jive platform.

Active Directory

Thomas Pedersen, OneLogin
Thomas Pedersen, OneLogin

Steelcase uses cloud-based access management platform OneLogin to give all these users single sign-on (SSO) access to their cloud applications. All four Active Directory instances are synchronized in real-time with OneLogin to ensure that up-to-date user access rights are always enforced.

To bring its own in-house web applications into the same environment, Steelcase has used an open-source toolkit to add support for SAML, the XML-based standard for exchanging authentication and authorization data. The applications can then plug into Active Directory to verify user credentials.

Like Okta, the cloud access management vendor I focused on two weeks ago, OneLogin benefits from offering a cloud-based solution that’s simpler than Microsoft’s on-premise add-on Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS).

OneLogin’s CEO Thomas Pedersen told me last October: “Microsoft is trying to move customers to Office 365, but these customers don’t want to use ADFS for single sign-on. The biggest thing is, they don’t want to invest more in on-premise infrastructure.”

Changing the workplace

As a company whose mission is to equip the workplace environment, Steelcase is practising what it preaches in its own offices, encouraging more mobility and collaboration among its workers. Graeff explains in the OneLogin video:

“We don’t really have that many desks for people to sit anymore. We have remote workspaces or we have collaborative workspaces. We also encourage people to work offsite if they need to; from home if they need to; from a coffee shop if they need to.

“If you’re going to be working from all those varieties of locations, you need to be able to access all of your data and your applications, no matter what device you’re on or where you’re at.”

Unsurprisingly, Steelcase believes the workplace environment has to change along with the technology to adapt to more mobile, collaborative ways of working. In a white paper on how the workplace can improve collaboration (PDF), the company discusses the drawbacks of traditional workspaces:

Most workspaces today don’t support collaborative work processes. There’s little choice in where and how to work. Individual workstations separate people from each other, and meeting spaces must be reserved in advance. In addition, they can easily dwarf the participants and tamp down energy and mood. Areas with audio privacy for phone and videoconferencing are few and far between, so workers make do in their work-stations, frequently disrupting others.

Social spaces, if they exist, often don’t have power sources or WiFi, so they’re under-used. There are few places to array work-in-progress for discussion or show finished work for future reference. Individual workstations are set up for focused work only, and there are few places to go when you need to do work with others other than ‘third-places’ such as coffee shops, which often don’t adequately support work processes and can compromise company-confidential information.

Furnishing for collaboration

The white paper goes on to draw some conclusions from a study of what happened when its marketing communications team tried out a prototype workplace designed to emphasize technology-enabled collaboration:

Not surprisingly, collaboration happened more often in the new space specifically designed to support it, though not always in predictable ways. As researchers studied how people used and interacted within the new environment, several key ‘ahas’ emerged.

  • Collaboration is iterative and mostly informal. The study confirmed that effective collaboration is an intertwined progression of face-to-face and virtual interactions as workers move through the day …
  • Equal access to information is crucial. True collaborative work happens most and best in spaces that easily support 4 to 8 people (physically and virtually) and everyone has equal access to digital and analog information displays and can see each other eye-to-eye …
  • Technology rules. If a space has easy projection and teleconferencing capabilities, it gets nearly constant use. Meanwhile, ‘dumb’ spaces that are low on technology capabilities are used far less. In an ideal collaborative work environment, there’s easy access to data and power throughout with no ‘dead zones’ so workers can share digital data with others anytime. Technology needs to be simple to use, easily present, and never detracting from the purpose at hand.
  • Visual contact is key. Like a good restaurant that’s not too empty and not too packed, the right amount of people density in the workspace makes a positive difference … Because workers didn’t have individually assigned workstations, they often adjusted their proximity so they’d be close to the people they needed to work with on a given day …
  • A social space is critical as the hub of the work area. It serves multiple purposes: a place for individuals to talk about work casually and as a ‘town center’ to pull together the larger group. In addition, social space sets a cultural tone for the rest of the space …
  • Providing space for private, focused work remains critical for productivity. Collaboration worked well throughout the Steelcase prototype space, but focused work was a challenge for some workers as they adapted. Paradoxically, as the trend toward collaboration intensifies, privacy — visual, audio, and psychological — also is escalating in importance.

The findings make sense when you think about it, but of course this is something few organizations are thinking about: the transition to more collaborative working practices is taking place in an ad hoc, haphazard fashion rather than being consciously planned.

It’s not just the legacy on-premise technology infrastructure holding back progress; it seems that even the arrangement of furniture in the office conspires to get in the way of successful implementation of digital working.

Disclosure: SAP and Oracle are diginomica premium partners.

Photo credits: Feature photo courtesy of Steelcase. Headshots courtesy of OneLogin.