Digitalization not only creates hybrid work – it also integrates work content

After almost two years of the pandemic, the world finds itself in a gigantic experiment on how the return to the office will look like for many of us. As David Gelles wrote in the New York Times recently, the strategies of CEOs for how their organizations will work are almost as numerous as the CEOs.

The spectrum ranges from a strong preference of having everyone back in the office, to the decision to become a remote-only firm and give up offices altogether. In between falls a panoply of various forms of hybrid work, which comes with its own challenges. 

There are many factors to consider when deciding on the form of hybrid work that is appropriate for your own organization. Work roles and processes, task requirements for physical proximity, and individual worker preferences all play a role. In this post, I want to focus on one specific factor: the digitalization of work. The process of digitalization had been underway long before the pandemic hit, but Covid has dramatically accelerated it. One of the more visible signs of digitalization is the rising availability of low-cost computing power and connectivity.  For many workers this has enabled them to do their existing tasks faster or better, or both. 

But an even more important effect of increasingly powerful digital tools has been the merging of functions. As a first step, we often see that adjacent functions get integrated into a single tool.  Consider, for example, the integration of analysis and simulation into engineering design work. While it used to be that a design engineer would first create a design geometry in a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) tool, say for a chassis of a desk chair, then hand it for subsequent stress analysis to an expert in that type of analysis, who would return the results to the design engineer, who then would integrate the results into the next iteration of their design. Today, a growing share of the analysis intelligence is embedded into the CAD system. As a result, the design engineer can run many of the stress analyses themselves, leaving only the more sophisticated type of analysis for the specialist. (My colleague Tucker Marion and I documented this and other effects that digital tools have on the innovation process itself in a recent paper in the Journal of Product Innovation Management).

The next step of function merging can be seen when data and digital models connect multiple steps in the value chain to create entirely new benefits.  Consider how a Canadian company re-invented its dental implant business, integrating recent advancements in digital design, digital imaging, and additive manufacturing. Combining digital optical surface data with X-ray bone data, it builds digital models that help the dentist to locate the optimal location, angle, and position of the implant, to plan the drilling process, to design and 3D-print drill guides, as well as the implant itself. Reduced physical exploration of the  implant site helps reduce recovery time, lowers the risk of infection, and leads to a superior outcome.

A third level of integration can be observed in situations where new data allows the creation of entirely new value.  For example, today low cost sensors allow collecting a myriad of data from products in use, which can be used to create new services.  Understanding the condition of various machinery in real-time, enables to provide pro-active maintenance schedules, saving cost by avoiding unplanned interruptions, and increasing machine uptime. 

To achieve these outcomes requires us to know more about the work tasks that are adjacent to our own task. Which steps in the value chain proceed our task, and which steps follow?  Which steps can be integrated, and where can value be newly created?  This also means that one’s own discipline can no longer define the boundary of either responsibility or imagination.  In a recent paper in Sloan Management Review, we called this skill that the innovation workforce needs to have somewhat tongue-in-cheek “Omniscience.”

So, instead of simply re-organizing our work in a variety of combinations of virtual, face-to-face, and hybrid configurations, let’s keep an eye on where and how the value creation occurs, what role we play in it, and – most importantly – what role we could play.

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