The sudden need for so many of us to work from home over the past several months has given a massive boost to distributed teamwork. Working patterns that had only existed on the sidelines became mainstream almost overnight. Fortunately, the shift to digital teamwork had already been trending for many years and the tools and techniques were ready for just this moment. Businesses that had already adopted them were able to make the switch to distributed working without missing a beat.
The vast majority of businesses and teams weren't so fortunate, however. Many had barely begun to implement the necessary digital infrastructure and tools, while others that had the technology in place were still early in their journey of learning to use it for distributed work. There's even more learning ahead, as the tools continue to evolve in response to the changed patterns of work they enable.
It's become evident watching businesses adapt to their new circumstances over this time that there are several phases of maturity in this journey. Many of the necessary tools and skills are unfamiliar and it takes time to fully grasp what's really involved. It's also important to be able to map out the journey and be sure of having the right framework and tools in place as they are needed. I've written previously about the importance of engineering a collaborative canvas for digital teamwork across the enterprise, but that's only half the story. Putting the technology in place has to go hand-in-hand with changes in business culture, organization and working practices to take advantage of what the technology enables.
This article therefore sketches out the first outline of a maturity model for enterprise digital teamwork. There are some similarities, but important differences, with the five levels of autonomy in distributed work recently described by Automattic founder and CEO Matt Mullenweg. The company behind Wordpress.com, WooCommerce, Akismet, Tumblr and many other web publishing tools has always championed remote working by its 1,150+ employees — to such an extent that it closed down its San Francisco co-working space in 2017 because almost no-one was using it.
Mullenweg's article, and the podcast interview on which it is based, emphasize crucial cultural aspects of remote working, in particular the importance of trust and autonomy, along with the actions management can take to foster successful distributed teams. These are essential to making a success of digital teamwork, but the aspects I want to focus on here are the interactions between the technology and how teams operate. Mullenweg starts from the stance that distributed work is inherently better, and I suspect there's a lot of truth in that. But my perspective is that digital teamwork provides better outcomes even when people are working alongside each other in offices, provided they use the tools to their full extent. We probably needed an enforced absence from our offices to make us break out of our old habits and recognize the full potential of digital teamwork. But once we reach the top level of maturity, there's no going back to the old ways, even for those of us who do end up back in the office.
Level 0 - digital teamwork as an add-on
Most organizations have started out on this journey firmly planted in the traditional workplace, with digital tools seen as an add-on that's only used when direct contact isn't available. The pre-eminent example is email, which became the default replacement for traditional letters, internal memos and some phone calls. Electronic documents and file sharing replaced traditional filing cabinets. Web conferencing made it possible to discuss a slide deck or demo a software product without having to be in the same room. But none of these activities changed the way work was done, they just made it a little faster or cheaper because people or paper no longer had to physically travel between locations.
Level 1 - digital teamwork as a workaround
The next step up is what we've seen occurring across the world during the enforced work-from-home regime. Everyone has suddenly had to adjust to not being in the same room or building throughout the working day — a novel experience, unless you've already been part of a globally distributed product development, marketing or software team, or a remote work pioneer like Automattic. The immediate response is that in-person meetings and conversations migrate to online equivalents, but there's little other change in behavior.
Video meetings are the most obvious way of replacing the interactions people used to have in the office, and their ease of use has made them the first tool people turn to. Messaging platforms are another simple alternative, offering a cleaner, faster conversation channel than back-and-forth email. But these tools are a small part of the full toolbox for managing the flow of work across a distributed team. If most of your collaboration is still relying on a combination of chat, video, emails and shared spreadsheets or documents, you're not achieving the full potential of digital teamwork.
Level 2 - first steps going truly digital
The path to true digital transformation begins when the technology enables new, more efficient patterns of work rather than simply providing an alternative channel for existing behaviors. Turning a paper form into a PDF that people fill in and pass around electronically may be going digital, but transformation only happens when the entire process becomes an app that people simply tap to complete. Level 2 takes us into the first stages of this transformation, replacing paper-based workflows with digital alternatives, or turning the shoulder-tap information-seeking that's a staple of office routine into more systematic online knowledge sharing.
Progress to this level depends on having enough of the tools in place to enable these new patterns of work — this is where preparation to identify and implement the right tools is crucial. A full collaborative canvas for digital teamwork combines four different teamwork patterns, each supported by a specific type of digital tool. While in-the-moment interactions are enabled by video chat and messaging tools, much of the work in an organization gets done in other ways — for some people it revolves around content, others focus on functional applications such as finance, customer service or people management, while the fourth pattern revolves around co-ordinated workflow.
The path to digital transformation opens up when an organization starts using these various tools to streamline previously manual processes. For example, a digital content management system guides participants through the various steps to process a document, a work management tool records each step as a task moves through a process to completion, or a messaging channel collects information and surfaces existing knowledge to help resolve an issue. This is the beginning of what Mullenweg calls "when things go truly asynchronous" in level four of his model — but I'm adding some further levels because going digital, done right, opens up additional capabilities that are only now starting to become achievable.
Level 3 - digital-first automation
Processes that often simply just happened in an office environment with everyone present, suddenly fall to pieces once everyone is working apart. Digital tools not only plug that gap, but the right tools do it faster and more efficiently than in-person contact. For example, instead of using email, messaging or Zoom calls to let people know you've completed a task or need their approval, updating status in a shared work management tool means everyone can easily find out who's done what, and what needs doing next.
This works best when people adjust their routines and processes so that their work is tracked in a digital tool, but without adding extra time or effort. Automation is crucial to getting this balance right. Instead of the extra overhead of separately updating a work management tool, the ideal is to have each new task automatically created from an existing template, and then automatically updated each time it's ready to move to the next step. Here's where having all the various tools connected up in a collaborative canvas starts to pay dividends, because the integrations to enable these triggers, actions and alerts are already in place.
Artificial intelligence adds further support for automation, for example by suggesting relevant automations when the machine learning recognizes a pattern it's seen before. Real-time analysis of messaging and voice conversations brings new automation capabilities to web meetings and message threads, making it possible to surface relevant information and documents, or record and assign actions and key points during the course of a conversation, and then save a searchable transcript for later reference.
This is the stage where digital teamwork starts to come into its own, getting the right information and knowledge into people's hands when they need it, and helping them complete tasks faster and more accurately than ever before. This applies irrespective whether everyone's all in the same office, working from home, or spread out across multiple locations and timezones. But there's even more to come as we progress further up the maturity model.
Level 4 - Intelligent measurement
By moving work itself into a digital framework, we're now able to process and analyze it digitally. This crucial step lays the foundation for moving up to more advanced levels of digital teamwork. Of course, if none of the digital teamwork tools in use are connected to each other or are incapable of exchanging data, this next level remains out of reach. That's why it's so important to have a strategy in place to ensure that there's an effective collaborative canvas for digital teamwork across the enterprise, whether built around a single core platform or forged by connecting various best-of-breed components.
As well as supporting the four distinct patterns of teamwork, the collaborative canvas also encompasses four key components at the technology and data level. Mechanisms must be in place to ensure files and data are kept in sync, and to allow for search across the entire infrastructure. There must also be a robust system of access permissions and a mechanism for identifying participants and the skills and experience they bring to their teams. To support these capabilities, many digital teamwork vendors have been developing what is known as a work graph — a database that maps all the entities involved in teamwork, and their relationships. A work graph is most often used to underpin the relevance of search results, such as suggesting relevant files or people based on your and their recent activity. But as more and more work is digitally instrumented, the work graph becomes much more than an enhancement for search.
Several digital teamwork vendors are now beginning to map work to goals, providing a basis for connecting work to the business outcomes it is designed to achieve. In a distributed workforce, it's particularly useful for each participant and team to be able to see how their own work connects up into the organization's overall goals. Conversely, managers and executives have more assurance that the work going on out of their sight is still contributing to their desired outcomes. Digital frameworks make it possible to provide this visibility with far more granularity and immediacy than traditional approaches. But there's another benefit to having everything digitally recorded — the data can now be analyzed. This brings us to the final layer of digital teamwork maturity.
Level 5 - Digitally augmented teamwork
Having every aspect of teamwork digitally instrumented brings it into a realm where data science opens up new possibilities. We can not only measure teamwork as it takes place and assess its impact on outcomes, we can also use machine learning to identify which teamwork patterns work best. In the same way that today artificial intelligence can listen in on contact center interactions and suggest alternative lines of conversation or actions, in the future a digital teamwork tool could suggest an alternative way of setting up a new task that might improve results.
Throughout the history of computing, the emphasis has been on removing people from processes — using automation to eliminate human error and delay. Today, we're on the threshold of a new era in which technology can augment the contribution people bring to those teamwork processes where their participation is essential. This is still very much in its infancy — both in how the technology works, and in organizations learning how to applying it — but the potential impact of these new tools and techniques as organizations progress through the various stages of digital teamwork maturity is enormous.
There's much more to say about this model as it continues to evolve. I hope this introductory outline provides food for thought and welcome your feedback below in comments or via Twitter and LinkedIn.