The Digital Work Crisis and What to Do About It

digital work crisis

Regardless of where you work, you’re likely racing to digitize your processes across departments, from sales to finance to customer support and beyond. Since digitization saves time and money, it’s without question the right direction to head in, which is why companies are spending $1.3 trillion worldwide to do it. And yet for all the benefits that digitization brings, it also brings new pressures—pressures that collectively make up the digital work crisis.

The problem is compounded by the fact that too many companies are managing work in an outdated manner, using yesterday's metaphors (folders, files, spreadsheets, e_mail_) for today's complicated digital landscape. This carries big implications for executives, who are too often flying blind with no way to plan, execute, and measure work at a strategic level.

To properly address the digital work crisis, we must first understand these new pressures and then know how to effectively rein in the chaos the crisis brings.

The Digital Work Crisis: New Pressures of the Digital Age

Put simply, the digital work crisis is the combination of all the pressures that come with digitization, including overwhelming software options, endless iterations, global competition, isolated workers, communication overload, information overload, and increased rate of technological change.

Let's look at each pressure point in detail.

Overwhelming Software Options
As any B2B software vendor knows, the sheer number of possible tools to choose from can be paralyzing. For instance, here’s a snapshot of the various software products available to marketing departments from 2011 (which numbered around 150) to 2018 (which numbers to more than 7,000):

total marketing apps over time

And here's a closeup of 2018:

total marketing apps

It's overwhelming. And this is just for a single department. How are you supposed to vet all possible software vendors, much less choose the perfect fit for your company? The sheer number of options that didn’t exist 5, 10, or 20 years ago can be crippling—especially when each new piece of software doesn’t communicate with the product suite in place.

Endless Iterations
Not only are there a glut of possible software products to choose from, but in order to maintain them all you often also have to know which version of those products you have. Do you have version 7.2 or version 7.4? Do your company desktops have the latest operating system? Do employees have smartphones that are compatible with all the latest mobile versions of those software products? Keeping track of versioning can add tremendous pressure to organizations, particularly since the average enterprise uses 51 cloud services for each department.

Global Competition
In addition to endless software variation, companies in the digital transformation are typically forced into a global competitive landscape. As a result, it’s generally not enough to focus exclusively on consumers in a specific city. You have to think instead about how you’ll compete with startups across your country and beyond. And considering that the next Silicon Valley will likely arise outside the United States, this trend will most certainly continue. Digitization flattens the world.

Isolated Workers
Signs indicate that remote work is here to stay, since the percentage of employees who only work remotely rose from 15% in 2012 to 20% in 2016. On the one hand, this is clearly an amazing benefit, one that results in increased flexibility and better work-life balance. But it also means that communication that would have otherwise happened face to face happens online, which can result in the loss of small talk or other means to nurture deep human relationships. This can bring added pressure when team members feel they can’t relate to each other on a personal level but still need commitment and collaboration to get through their most difficult moments of their projects. Of course, this isn’t to say that remote work should be avoided (far from it!), but it is an added pressure to be aware of and intentionally compensate for.

Communication Overload
We all love how effortless it is to dash off a text, email, or instant message, but this ease of use comes with a price. It means that unless we shut off notifications, we will likely experience a constant barrage of communication all day, even beyond work hours. It’s no wonder, then, that on average U.S. workers say that 24% of their workday consists of going through emails and being interrupted for nonessential tasks. Communication was never so easy. It was also never so distracting.

Information Overload
When we asked knowledge workers a series of questions about data, we were surprised to find that only 4% of respondents said that they wanted more of it. Contrast that with the 40% who said they have good data but are struggling to make the right decisions with it. This reflects the sharp rise in the amount of data, which is estimated to reach 163 zettabytes (i.e., 163 trillion gigabytes) by 2025, most of it unstructured. It’s too much for anyone to comprehend, much less know what to do with it.

Increased Rate of Change
Above all, what’s creating the digital work crisis is the sheer pace of technological change. Think of the sites you spend your time surfing online. Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc. Chances are that most of them didn’t exist 20 years ago. Now think of the rise of the internet of things, self-driving cars, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and everything else that’s on the cusp of becoming mainstream.

Given Moore’s Law, which holds that computing power doubles every 2 years, the pace of change can be dizzying, even unnerving. It’s no wonder that one-third of knowledge workers worry they’ll be replaced by robots or artificial intelligence. It’s also no wonder that companies don’t talk about a 5-year plan and instead talk about a 5-month plan. As the writer Yuval Harari says, “We’re in an unprecedented situation in history in the sense that nobody knows what the basics about how the world will look like in 20 or 30 years. Not just the basics of geopolitics but what the job market would look like, what kind of skills people will need, what family structures will look like, what gender relations will look like. This means that for the first time in history we have no idea what to teach in schools.”

Managing the Digital Work Crisis

Overwhelming software options, endless iterations, global competition, isolated workers, communication overload, information overload, and increased rate of technological change—that’s what makes up the digital work crisis.

Some companies try to address this crisis by stretching legacy tools (such as spreadsheets and email) to do more than they were made to do. Too often this results in a strange mix of automated and manual processes that don’t translate well across departments.

Other companies essentially place a band-aid on the problem, settling for short-term solutions that they'll have to rip out in a few years.

The problem with both of these approaches is that neither one is sustainable. They both keep the core of the problem intact.

To fix this crisis, tomorrow’s leaders need to move from an old model where work is uncoordinated, disconnected, inconsistent, unpredictable, invisible, and unmeasured to a new model where work is harmonious, cross-functional, connected, and observable. This new model of work integrates, simplifies, and streamlines the complicated morass of digital technologies to rein in the chaos.

At the center of this new model of work is the operational system of record, a platform that gives employees insights into all the work that’s going on across the company. With an operational system of record in place, companies will reduce the unintentional pressures that have arisen in the digital age.

An operational system of record enables you to:

By fully understanding the digital work crisis and embracing this new model of work, you'll effortlessly navigate the pressures of the digital age and be ready for whatever new complexities the future brings your way.

For more details on an operational system of record, see "What Is an Operational System of Record?"