Why Digital Working comes before Agile Working and Smart Working

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  5 Oct 2015   JohnEary

Numerous hands pointing to computer screens and pads

Digital by Default has become the mantra for a large number of organisations, especially those in the public sector. You can register to vote online, submit your self-assessment tax return, and pay your Council tax. The UK Government aims that 90% of all transactions are completed digitally by the middle of 2016. aims to have 90% of the UK’s online population using digital public services by 2020. Most retailers now offer a web site to purchase all manner of items. Banks have added mobile banking to their on-line offerings items. Most firms encourage their customers to deal with them digitally rather than by phone. This channel shift is commonly called a ‘digital by default’ strategy. Organisations are encouraging people to interact online as this is substantially cheaper way of conducting business than by phone or letter. In many case this strategy offers improved services to the customer. All this is fine but it is about the external operations of the organisation.

What about the internal operations , sometimes called the ‘back office’? Of course the use of external digital services with the automatic updating of customer databases can lead to internal efficiencies in eliminating the need for rekeying information, with its attendant risks of introducing errors. But these are transactional activities. Within every organisation there are many activities that are non-transactional and here progress has been patchy. Many digital technologies have emerged but are they being exploited as effectively when they offered to employees rather than customers?

Why Digital Working comes first

How can a digital ways of working, or Digital Working for short, provide further efficiencies and improvements? Hang on you say why do we need yet another term in the Flexible Working lexicon? We already have Home working, Mobile Working, Remote Working, Smart Working and Agile Working. Aren’t you just talking about Agile Working? Not necessarily. The essential component of Agile Working is autonomy, employees are able to choose how they perform their tasks, within agreed limits as well as where and when. Arguably Agile Working could be paper based, with employees dragging around briefcases stuffed with paper forms and manuals. But, modern successful implementation of Agile Working, certainly relies on the effective use of digital technologies, so Digital Working is an essential precursor for modern day Agile Working. Digital Working also enables employees to work smarter.

Efficiencies from Digital Working

Physical-Meeting.pngLet’s take a simple example of internal meetings. We can all agree there are too many meetings but in reality many are necessary where decisions are made on a consensus basis, such as in local government, so some meetings are a necessity. Physical meetings are inefficient in a number of ways. As offices shrink and people work in different locations finding a time when everyone can be in the same location can often incur delays before a meeting can be held. Attending meetings often requires travel adding time and incurring costs. Physical meetings can often be longer than necessary – people arrive late, or engage in conversations that are social or off the subject of the meeting. Not everyone attending is involved in every agenda item. If you use your laptop during a physical meeting, for example to respond to emails or write a report, this is at best distracting to the other attendees and is often regarded as bad manners.


The digital equivalent of a physical is a conference call. It involves no travel, not even walking down the corridor. As there is no travel conference calls can be held at quite short notice as it just depends on the availability of the participants. Participants can continue to work on emails and reports when they are not involved in the agenda item without disturbing anyone. In my experience virtual meetings keep to the point and are invariably shorter than their physical equivalent.

Another opportunity for efficiencies from Digital Working is documentation. Most organisations have reduced their stashes of paper documents by converting them to electronic files and forms. However this is not Digital Working in my book. Many of these electronic documents are stored on shared drives, where the file structure is opaque and inconsistent making document retrieval difficult. Even worse I still come across examples of documents held on personal drives that only the PC owner can access, and when thy choose to share them ads them as email attachments. A digital way of working is to place these files in an Electronic Document Management And Records System (EDRMS) that provides ready access for everyone authorised to access the documents while providing secure storage of the documents. There is an added benefit that the number and size of emails with files attached is reduced.

A recent blog post UK Central Government through the Government Digital Service has recognised the need to address with digital initiatives associated induction and training courses, performance management reviews,  and expenses claims take up much more time of Civil Servants than they should.

Digital Working for all

There is another reason why Digital Working comes before Agile Working. In reality Agile Working is not available to everyone. Because of the nature of many jobs, or where individuals lack the skills or experience, many employees will not be granted the essential dimension of Agile Working, autonomy. However all employees can make use of Digital Working. So there can be more efficiency savings from Digital Working than can be achieved by Agile Working alone.

john-eary-100x100-01.jpgWritten by John Eary, Director of JEC Professional Services Ltd. I have a strong track record in advising organisations on new ways of working and exploiting IT effectively. My blog seeks to provoke thinking on the opportunities and challenges of new ways of working presented by technology.

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