The Digital Social Workplace

People over Process


Advances in Project Management Series


By Dale Roberts

United Kingdom


Workplace computing has, for the last three decades, been about automating process. The result is that we work together in ways that are stilted. In information science terms, they are nothing more than transactional. Digital social tools are changing the way we work, share and collaborate but surprisingly in a way that is more, not less natural. Paradoxically, technology is making organisations, teams and projects human again.


“I understand why you would think that” my executive contact acknowledged at a recent customer meeting, “that our competitors are businesses like ours, other [so-called] fast moving consumer goods businesses”. The threat to their €50B turnover, it would seem was clearly going to be less obvious than my earlier posseting of the name of their biggest competitor. He went on “Rather, it is the vast crowd of small, innovative brands that are no longer held back by barriers to scale, even globally”. No one competitor was going to bring this behemoth down, it would seem. Rather, it was vulnerable to a thousand cuts from the long tail of artisanal sourdough and locally made soaps.

In a digital economy, businesses are no longer secure by virtue of their size. Our high streets are slowly emptying of lumbering giants. A decade ago the financial services landscape was populated by a handful of titans whilst today, they are under threat from small, pioneering insurgents commonly referred to as ‘challenger banks’. One, unsurprising reaction, has been for incumbent businesses to buy-up and absorb the new players but they may be making a fundamental miscalculation. They are typically acquiring technology, customers or brand but overlooking the critical ingredient: Their agile ethos.

Today, competitive edge is more about how businesses organise, communicate and behave rather than their products, services or the technology they use. It is less about web sites and mobile apps and more about people.


Human interaction has reached an electronic tipping point. It is digital, omnipresent, instant, permanent, analysable and searchable. It’s a shame that, existential issues of privacy aside, the most successful change agent and so-called social tool is Facebook because their usefulness is far broader. The Conversation Prism, an infographic co-authored by Brian Solis and now at version 5 (2013) lists hundreds of such tools supporting everyday human interactions from organising events to crowd funding. Whatever a group of people need to do, it can be done on-line or with the help of an app.

Business tools such as Slack have revolutionised the way we interact in the workplace as much as Facebook changed the way we maintain personal connections. Indeed, the term social is spectacularly misleading. It isn’t the adjective that describes the act of enjoying activities outside of work. It is attributive. It relates to society or organisations. A social group. Businesses and projects are social constructs. They are a group of people organising around a common purpose albeit an economic one.

Enterprise social tools are permitting new workplace norms. Communication doesn’t require being in the same room or even the same building. I consult often but today there is a reasonable chance that at least one person in my meeting will be in their pyjamas, providing it is a teleconference. Physical meetings are still important to forge closer working partnerships but they are only part of the mix. Indeed, on one recent occasion, I and a colleague travelled 140 miles for a meeting with a team of 7 to find that only one of them was physically present, the others joining virtually through a conference phone occupying a single spot in the centre of the table.

A decade ago, when managing projects, I would strongly recommend and sometimes insist on co-location and a project office. Today, the natural beat of project communication barely slows down when the team don’t even share a time zone.


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Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Routledge worldwide. Information about Routledge project management books can be found here.

How to cite this paper: Roberts, D. (2018). The Digital Social Workplace, People over Process; PM World Journal, Volume VII, Issue VII – July. Available online at https://pmworldjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/pmwj72-Jul2018-Roberts-digital-social-workplace-people-over-process.pdf

About the Author

Dale Roberts

United Kingdom




Dale Roberts is VP of Professional Services for Clarabridge, author, commentator, columnist, and speaker. As a professional services leader for Clarabridge in Europe, Roberts is advising some of the world’s largest companies on optimising the customer experience using social and digital insights. Prior to this he was part of the founding circle of Artesian Solutions, an innovator in social CRM and a Director of Services for business intelligence giant Cognos. Dale was identified a thought leader in big data and analytics by Analytics Week, is a contributor to business and technology publications including Wired and ClickZ and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. 

His first book, Decision Sourcing, Decision Making for the Agile Social Enterprise, is an inspiring commentary on the impact of social on corporate decision making. His latest, World of Workcraft, Rediscovering Motivation and Engagement in the Digital Workplace, is a timely piece on engagement, motivation and digital humanism in the workplace.