Team Collaboration and Employee Engagement

Over the last few years I’ve been spending a lot of time talking to HR people about the way employees use technology to do their jobs. As someone with an IT background, who is often frustrated that conversations around the technology used to communicate and collaborate are too focused on cost of ownership and richness of functionality, rather than on whether the tools actually help employees to do their jobs more effectively, it has been refreshing. As an expert in HR said to me recently, “I don’t care what tools people use, I only care about what they do with them”.

Of course, such discussions also have their frustration – especially when business people say “don’t talk to me about choice of collaboration tools, in this organisation collaboration technology is something that is inflicted on us,” or IT pipe up in a meeting and say “so we’ll do that with Sharepoint as it is our strategic collaboration platform” even though it is not suited to the use case being discussed and so will end up not being adopted by the users.

I really don’t think this can go on. I see business people actively promoting Shadow IT to their teams because the solutions IT are providing are not fit for purpose, sometimes with IT turning a selective blind eye as they have no budget to address the need, and I see HR teams wanting to reinvent their workforce and the way they work, but knowing that they will fail if employees continue using last generation technology.

What is clear to me is the IT must become actively involved in the design and capabilities of the digital workplace if they are going to create a workforce that can respond to the consequences of digital transformation and the business disruption it brings. I’ve been talking for a while about the fact that business need to move from a “tools outward” model (deploy the platform and see how people use it) to an “employee inward” model (design employee journeys to maximise productivity and the value that employee brings to the organisation). It is time for HR to start thinking about the entire employee experience (not just they way they engage with HR processes) as leaving the tool choice to IT is going to become a drag on the organisation transformation required for the digital age.

One of the areas where we have failed to help with this change is in the way we use the term “collaboration” to encompass all forms of employee to employee interaction, resulting in a “one tool fits all” mentality which doesn’t match reality – and certainly doesn’t fit with the way the Mobile, Social, Cloud, Analytics and Cognitive enables tools that people use in the private lives have evolved.

To illustrate this, I’ve been using the contrast between team collaboration and enterprise wide employee engagement. No-one can doubt the need for good team collaboration tools – and, indeed, the tools in this area are finally improving significantly as team start to move from email, Sharepoint and Skype towards platforms like Slack, Box, Cisco Spark and Watson Workspace.

However when organisations try to use those same tools for organisation-wide engagement, they hit a problem. Team collaboration tools are all about focusing on the current activities and not getting “distracted” by things outside. These activities are limited to those directly involved or with a need to know. By default they keep content private, only sharing final team deliverables.

Lack of Engagement

The solution is an enterprise engagement platform.

Engagement Platform

The benefits of enterprise wide employee engagement are manifold. The best known exponent of this is John Stepper with his Working Out Loud movement – building relationships that matter to create a collaborative, innovative culture. Opening up to engage with the rest of the organisation (and beyond!) provides easier access to expertise and knowledge, enabling better decisions and helping get work done faster. But I believe the benefits go far beyond improving individual productivity.

Engagment Platform Benefits

When conversations happen beyond the team, they enable ideas and insight to flow up and across organisations – the most obvious benefit being increased innovation, more effective management and less nasty surprises. Similarly these conversations help understanding flow down an organisation, so every employee can make every decision in the context of the organisations goals and strategy as well as their tactical needs. They spread awareness across different business units, departments and teams so that the actions employees take every day are aligned with the strategy at the top and the actions being taken in other parts of the organisation.

This requires the opposite to silos – it requires open, transparent behaviours. It is what enables agile, outcome focussed teams to coordinate what they do instead of creating potential conflict. It helps avoid unintended consequences and provides early warning of an approaching crisis.

That is not to say that an enterprise wide engagement platform can replace a team collaboration platform. It can’t. But the same is true the other way round. Trying to use a team collaboration platform for enterprise wide engagement simply will not deliver the desired results.

Of course, deploying an engagement platform will not, of itself, deliver these benefits. People have to use it in the right way. That requires a cultural shift, supportive leadership that truly leads and personal change of behaviour. But we know that behaviour change is hard, so it requires well designed tools that support and encourage this change.

Fortunately, we already have engagement platforms that have been proven to support this way of working: enterprise social networking tools like IBM Connections – although we have traditionally done them a disservice by calling them collaboration tools. They deliver a very different user experience to team collaboration tools but, because their scope is the whole enterprise not just a single team, they require a level of commitment and organisational change that goes far beyond something IT can deliver alone.

But it is exactly this change that HR must think seriously about as it tries to build a workforce fit for the future.

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Catching up with Social & Other Media in 2016

Looking back, I realised that I failed to publicise several of the other social media posts I published in 2016, so here is a summary (the headings are links to the content):

Collaborative Ecosystems – You are not alone

Was a guest post for the European Union’s FutureEnterprise project, funded by the European Commission to opening new avenues for Internet-based Enterprise Innovation in Europe, for which I was a Subject Matter Expert. The blog post looks at how social networking can provide mutually supporting ecosystems to enable innovation.

Digital and Social Media Opportunities for HR and Employee Engagement

In an interview with Jo Dodds for DSMLF Radio (a podcast series for the Digital & Social Media Leadership Forum, which is available on SoundCloud), I discussed how use of a social collaboration platform in businesses can encourage employee engagement and help HR to better achieve their objectives organisations to better leverage the diversity of their workforce.

A New Way to Collaborate

This webinar looks at IBM’s cloud collaboration service (IBM Connections CloudIBM Connections Cloud), explaining how its social networking and engagement capabilities take collaboration to a new level, and enterprise-wide level, and allow it to outperform alternatives like Microsoft Office 365 and Google G Suite.

From Collaboration to Engagement

My presentation at ICON UK 2016 on how social collaboration technologies can be applied to improving employee engagement and hence business results is available on SlideShare.

Cognitive and the Office of the Future

This webcast from IT Pro features a conversation hosted by journalist Stephen Prichard in which Clive Longbottom, of analyst firm Quocirca, and myself discuss Cognitive Computing and how it is going to impact employees and the way we work in the future.

cognitive-the-office-of-the-future-itpro_cs999_ibm_webinar_banner2

As usual, the theme of all of these is how digital transformation is changing the way employees collaborate, engage and work . Expect more on this topic as 2017 continues.

As always, discussion on this topic is welcomed in the comments…

Moving from Employee Enablement to Engagement

As social, mobile, cloud and analytics technology continue to redefine collaboration, organisational structures and the way business is done, HR is coming under increasing pressure to take a central role in engaging and empowering employees, not just enabling and evaluating them.These technologies are redefining what it is to be an employee, as millennials expect to bring the technology they were brought up with into the workplace, redefining how organisations function, as aspirations to build a startup culture and work with an ecosystem blur the boundaries of the workforce, and redefining the business models around which current management structures were designed. Agility, empowerment and engagement are what a modern business wants from its employees – and it is looking to HR to help to deliver what IBM calls a Smarter Workforce.

In practice, this transformation occurs at two levels: the macro or strategic level where leadership is provided, permission to change is granted and the rate of adoption is managed; and the micro level of individual teams, processes, departments or business units that pioneer new practices to address the challenges they face – whilst continuing to coexist with legacy operations around them, which were built in the old world. This freedom to drive change at the micro level is key to maintaining traditional revenues and reducing the risk that comes from massive disruptive change.

IBM BusinessConnect 2015 in the London this November I was heavily involved in the HR Day, where instead of giving HR leaders a day of presentations we ran a series of workshops designed to get them to share experiences with each other, under the guidance of IBM thought leaders. A recurring theme of the day was giving the employee a voice, with discussion on areas like continuous listening to better understand the workforce, using analytics on employee generated data to gain new insight, engaging with employees to create a culture that enables change, leveraging diversity to avoid groupthink, and using customer facing staff to better understand the changing market.

Talking to delegates, there was a high degree of variability in terms of digital platforms used to give the employee a voice and how they were being deployed (even the terminology varied from Engagement Platform to Talent Suite to Social Intranet to Collaboration to Enterprise Social Network). In some cases, HR teams were taking the lead by leveraging specialist jam platforms, wrapping social collaboration around employee survey platforms or deploying talent management platforms – often as stand alone services using a Cloud platform. In other cases, they leveraged external, cloud based services already being used in business units to improve the way they work. Finally, there were organsations with an enterprise social strategy, where IT offered a platform that could be used for HR purposes – offering significant benefits of reach and integration with where employees were already doing their jobs.

Earlier this year I participated in the Munich and London events in another IBM seminar series Continuous Listening – The Future of Employee Voice where I talked about how the IBM Connections social business platform (in the Cloud or on premises) could be used to increase the effectiveness of employee surveys by engaging with employees around the process. I demonstrated four specific ways in which such engagement could add value to an employee survey.

Taking just a couple of examples: when asking employees about their level of satisfaction with some aspect of the business, what if you could provide a link to a collaboration space where they could make concrete suggestions about ways it could be improved, comment on ideas from other employees and then vote on the ideas offered? Or how about engaging employees in discussions around the actions being taken to address concerns identified in the survey, crowdsourcing the answers to questions management might have about the concern and letting your employees know that their voice was being heard – and so encouraging them to engage seriously in future surveys.
This is a great example of using an employee engagement platform for a specific purpose. But it also illustrates the extra value that comes from having an enterprise wide platform where employees genuinely engage every day, with their team, with other employees and with management, because if it is where they do much of their work it avoids the need to “go somewhere else” to take part in this process. The engagement platform becomes, in effect, part of their desktop (or, increasingly, something they always have in their pocket). That is why IBM offers its Connections technology platform in different forms – on premises or in the Cloud, enterprise wide or packaged for a specific business purpose, in a browser or on a mobile device – enabling customers to move from niche deployment to enterprise use as their needs evolve.

Cloud, Mobile, Social and Analytics aren’t just impacting HR, these technologies are also challenging the IT department to transform. Just providing a tool, like a laptop or email, is no longer enough. In today’s world organisations need well designed employee experiences that address specific business needs – use cases like the employee survey above. IT can’t create those. It can provide a rich engagement platform, with capabilities like collaboration, social networking, team places, communities, audio/video, knowledge management, jamming, etc., but in today’s world of consumer grade IT and technologically empowered employees the business needs to take ownership for using the platform to deliver results.

As well as HR doing that for itself (using an engagement platform for Onboarding, Surveys, Talent Management, Appraisals, etc.), HR needs to partner with IT to help the rest of the organisation to use its most powerful resource – an engaged workforce – to deliver more satisfied customers and better business results by not just enabling and evaluating employees but empowering and engaging them.

Social Collaboration in Government

A while back I wrote a blog post on Social Business in the Public Sector where I discussed a keynote presentation John Swinney, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, made at Public Sector Digital Scotland, where he:

… clearly set out the need and the promise of the digital age. To move from government programs that are what they are, and either match a citizen’s needs or don’t, to delivering the personalised services that each individual citizen requires.

I was reminded of this listening to him present the keynote at ONE Public Sector Scotland last week, where he discussed progress made, the importance of enabling public sector workers to be empowered to do the right thing for the individual in front of them, and the need to become “relentlessly person-centred”.

In my social business masterclass later in the day, I tried to visualise this concept. Pre-digital, government programs were “one size fits all”:

But in the digital world, the citizen should be able to select exactly the services they need from a menu on offer:

However, you can only go so far down this path through technology, by providing a single front end that unifies services – or even by integrating back end services to smoothly move the user from one web site to another to deliver a coherent user journey that takes the citizen to what they need without them having to understand the internal structure of the government agencies providing it. To truly deliver an exceptional citizen experience, you need the government agencies involved, or more accurately the employees within them, to collaborate seamlessly as well.

 

This isn’t just about coordinating applications across the government web sites. Or even simply about aligning policies and procedures across government departments. Rather the issue is that: not only does the public not care which government department, agency, or public sector body is providing the service they need, but they want to be able to access the knowledge and expertise of public sector employees without worrying about which bit of the government pays them.

The good news is that responding to this desire not only produces more effective government services, it can also create more efficient ones. Initiatives like the Government Digital Service and G-Cloud have made good progress in reducing the cost of public services while improving their effectiveness. Now it is time to take things to the next level. To move beyond common web sites and infrastructure to start to integrate government employees into a single ecosystem of public servants focussed on better servicing the needs of the citizen.

This isn’t a new concept, like it is in some commercial companies where competition not collaboration is embedded in the culture. Collaboration is natural in public services, but what is needed is a focus on exploiting the latest social collaboration technologies to create an environment where expertise can be reused instead of replicated, knowledge can be shared as a by product of users’ day to day activities, and inter-departmental collaboration can reduce the cost of delivering services.

Cross departmental collaboration, cross agency collaboration, cross public sector collaboration – and, indeed, collaboration beyond to include local government, the third sector, delivery partners and small & medium enterprises who can help to service the citizen’s needs. The first challenge for government was integrating services – the next is integrating people.

In IBM, when we think about how public services can be taken to the next level we build stories about how cross government collaboration could save costs and change the lives of citizens. Could we help departments respond to freedom of information requests faster and at lower cost? Could we make it painless for a citizen to complete their tax return? Could we make it easier to claim benefits by removing barriers while reducing the chance of fraud? Could collaboration between local government social services, the police and school teachers save the life of a child?

Now that would be something to be proud of.

 

Social Business Trends for 2014

Traditionally I use the journey back from IBM Connect to put together a blog post based on buzz at the event to forecast key trends for the year(s) ahead (take a look at my 2012 and 2013 predictions and see if you think they worked out – most of them continue to be major areas of focus).

So, following on from the review of 2013 that I wrote on the way out to Orlando, here are the new themes that I expect to dominate in 2014:

Social Business Design

Social Mail: The most exciting new announcement at Connect 2013 was IBM Mail Next. Until now, the infusion of social collaboration into the mail client has built out from the mail box. It has taken the form of sidebars, business cards, links and embedded experiences that seamlessly take the user from their mail to adjacent social content. IBM Mail Next reimagines the inbox in terms of the conversations you have having with other people and the actions and projects they are part of. By thinking about the context of the conversations, rather than the mechanism of the email messages, and by applying analytics and task management capabilities to help you keep track of your different activities, IBM Mail Next offers a user-centric tool for managing collaboration.

Social Intranet: IBM Mail Next is browser or mobile app based, and is part of a broader trend to move all forms of collaboration, from collaborative document editing to real-time multimedia meetings, into pure browser applications that are also surfaced as mobile apps. It has become clear that users prefer to do their collaborating from mobile devices, so this aiding the transition to a post PC era whilst significantly reducing desktop support costs (one of the biggest parts of the IT Budget). Indeed, bring your own device is rapidly showing that users would like to choose their own tools, and where organisations embrace this they can improve the user experience at the same time as reducing costs. All of which makes the Social Intranet increasingly the core of enterprise IT: a single integration layer that provides role based, personalised access to applications, content and processes to each individual user via a browser or their mobile device.

Social Ecosystems: But in today’s world, an intranet isn’t enough. Modern enterprises can’t deliver what they need to through internal collaboration alone. Companies need their ecosystem of suppliers, partners and channel to deliver their brand value, and close collaboration with those organisations is critical to success. So just as the mobile trend is challenging the traditional concept of the corporate firewall, since most of the devices that need access to it spend most of their time outside of the firewall, so the need to provide access to applications, content and processes by external parties is forcing organisations to question their approach to the enterprise perimeter – and in the process giving them the opportunity to position Software as a Service (SaaS) as a natural extension to their intranet environment as part of a hybrid cloud infrastructure.

Social Projects: But this trend towards external collaboration with your ecosystem cannot be addressed by simply throwing open the gates to your network. What organisations need to do is define specific projects to deliver identified business value and then design a solution to address them. This is very different from the way IT traditionally create enterprise-wide infrastructures – but again, Hybrid SaaS comes to the rescue, avoiding the need to spin up new server infrastructures but instead reusing integration that has been done with SaaS services to create a model that accelerates return on investment by deferring costs until business value is realised.

We are also seeing a revolution in the way we design these projects – no longer thinking about the data and applications you have available and how can they be delivered to the users, but thinking about the user journey required by the multiple actors within and outside the organisation to execute a required process to deliver maximum business value. Implementation is then about putting together those user journey (by integrating content, applications and processes from the intranet, leveraging the service oriented architectures of the last decade and cloud services of this decade) and delivering them through compelling browser and mobile app experiences using open, standards based integration.

Users will access many of the processes delivered via these social projects from their new social mail environments, the social intranet will integrate them with the resources needed and the participants will not just be internal but spread across the whole social ecosystem – as a result driving new levels of personal and organisational productivity by making business processes easier, faster, cheaper and more satisfying to use.

Social Business in 2013

The last year has been pivotal for Social Business as organisations shift from being concerned about the issues that the new Social, Mobile, Analytics & Cloud (SMAC) technologies raise for their IT strategy, to accepting that they are irreversible and adapting strategies to accommodate them. The question is now when and how each organisation should embrace them.

There is an emerging acceptance that sharing knowledge across organisations will increase their ability to deliver more effectively on their business priorities – and that better tools than email are needed to raise users’ productivity and leverage the organisation’s talent effectively. Have you noticed that job roles with Knowledge Management in their title have suddenly started changing to say something like Social Media? The question now is which tools and platforms best address this need and how to introduce them.

Companies that would have said, only a couple of years ago, that their strategy for mobile was Blackberry, and that it wasn’t going to change any time soon (well, apart from some senior executives that were allowed to connect their iPads to the network – in an echo of the way Blackberry penetrated enterprises by winning the hearts and minds of senior managers), are now making bold statements that “Bring Your Own device is our strategy.” It’s just a question of when and how.

Similarly, Big Data and Cloud have become acceptable technology choices and organisations are working on their IT strategies to figure out how they fit and where to prioritise them.

Social Business is rapidly moving from the latest fashion fad to business as usual. But does that work? Can organisations successfully adopt collaborative ways of working without changing their command and control hierarchies, and their competitive organisational structures and employee compensation schemes? Can the commoditisation of the users access point and shift to user selected and managed devices be reconciled with traditional “locked down” IT management? How will employees and customers privacy concerns be addressed when using analytics to derive information from every fragment of content they produce and every conversation they have? How will we change traditional views of enterprise security management and confidentiality regimes when, not only is the data being stored in some Cloud service somewhere, but we are pointing powerful analytics at it specifically to find new insights while providing transparent access, as far as possible, to all employees from the privately owned devices in their pocket, so they can use it to increase company profits?

Or is it true that social business technologies are disruptive, and therefore will disrupt current enterprise structures, processes and policies as they are adopted. Is this an inevitable part of becoming a Social Business?

Here is my favourite graphic from 2013:

It makes the point that social business is primarily a cultural change, with significant organisational and operational implications, but one that can only be made if it is supported by the right technology. It’s a bit like the cultural shift from the Internet being something you used when sitting at a desk in front of a PC, to something use while walking down the street. It took the right package technology (initially the iPhone and App Store, then it’s smartphone siblings and their ecosystems) to enable that shift to “suddenly happen” – even though the 3G networks and devices with similar capabilities (for example Nokia’s Communicator range) had been around for a while without catalysing the change.

As a sweeping generalisation, I see companies that use a proper, integrated Social Business platform from the leading vendors are generating successful adoption of the cultural and process changes they are looking for, while those that think that can make this transformation with tools they already have, or legacy technologies that just offer document sharing and communications, are failing.

Proper social platforms are built from the bottom up to facilitate effective collaborative working, have deep embedded social analytics to surface the information users want and can integrate with existing business applications through open standards to add value to existing processes. They are not, primarily, a content platform (indeed they should be able to integrate with and use the content platforms an organisation already has in place), rather they are a platform for building relationships between employees (and between employees and partners or customers), and for discovering experts and knowledge (whether that knowledge is in a document internally, or externally, or exists only in someone’s head). They are people centric, not document centric, collaboration platforms.

In 2013 we also saw the start of change in the market. Social business discussions had previously been focussed in two areas: Marketing, to engage externally via social media, and IT, as a better collaborative infrastructure than email. Now there are enough proof points of the value of social business techniques to get attention from all parts of the business: from the sales force to customer support, from HR to financial planning, from procurement to catering.

So Social Business technology vendors will tell you that 2013 saw the rise of Line of Business (LoB) as the key influencer in purchases, rather than IT. Sometimes signing the cheques (especially for cloud based services) and sometimes driving IT’s procurement priorities. This has implications for how technologies are acquired, since LoB are project based whereas IT are focussed on infrastructures for use across the organisation.

Projects often are not large or important enough to justify the purchase of an entire enterprise infrastructure, and that has led to a recurring theme in discussions with IT as they discover that the company is all ready running 4, or 5, or 10, different social business platforms for different projects (some in cooperation with IT, some independent but with acquiescence of IT, and quite a few without the knowledge of IT). Not only is this causing increased financial costs, but it also creating silos of knowledge and reinforcing exactly the sorts of barriers within the organisation that social collaboration is trying to remove.

This trend is also driving one of the characteristics of the age of Social IT. Big, enterprise wide, mega-projects, fully costed (and with all the risks taken out) are no longer seen as the way to succeed. Rather the right approach is to start many, small projects and evolve them, accepting the innovation risk of failure and investing in and developing the projects that prove they can deliver real value to the business. The mantra is that of continuous proces improvement, not wholesale process reengineering.

This is leading to organisations starting to put a strategy in place of acquiring an enterprise infrastructure which can start small and grow, hosting the evolution of divergent existing social projects, and being used as the platform for new ones. It is starting to require organisations to rethink their security policies and integration architectures to allow projects run on external cloud platforms, so as to avoid large, up-front investments (even if they could afford them – simply creating a large project drives behaviours and metrics which are ill-suited to the sort of agile, collaborative organisations that innovate successfully and outpace their competition).

Integration is key here. Not just with existing content and applications, but also across different solution domains. For example, it is increasingly becoming clear that the separation of marketing’s social media activities from internal social collaboration platforms has negative consequences. Organisations are realising that they cannot get benefits from their social listening if they cannot effectively communicate the insights it generates to the employees who need to understand them (and act on them). This requires internal collaboration with the employees that can take advantage of the insight to improve the company’s products, services and processes – and who knows where in the organisation they might sit?

And anyway, enterprises are starting to realise that external social engagement isn’t just something just a skilled social media team do. More and more of their employees are present on social media already and they understand that they can use interactions through social networks with their customers, partners and suppliers to do their jobs better and deliver better business results.

Gartner calls Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud a “nexus of forces,” which encapsulates the idea of synergy between them – the sum is greater than the whole. But look back previous waves of related technologies – like the Internet, the World Wide Web, email and laptops, that enabled nomadic workers, new corporate structures and globalisation. That wave of change was also synergistic with wider trends (e.g. affordable mass air transportation, 24 hour satellite news and the dominance of free market capitalism) to drive significant business changes – and with them broader cultural changes.

All of which set the stage for what came next: social media, always on mobile employees, vast quantities of unstructured data and utility computing available at low cost in the cloud.

Today’s vision of social business won’t be frozen in time and gradually adopted by all organisations – it will continue to evolve as each organisation adopts it, as each vendor evolves their offerings, as each entrepreneur brings a new idea to the market, and as each individual user provides feedback on what they are using, to contribute collectively to innovation in the space. The rate of change shows no sign of slowing down.

In the early 1990’s I worked for a company (Soft-Switch) that had great success connecting corporations’ separate, siloed email systems together. By the end of the 90’s that business didn’t exist. Not only did most organisations run only one enterprise email platform, but SMTP integrated the remaining systems seamlessly with each other and with applications.

Social Business platforms are still at the maturity level of those early 90’s email systems. They have a lot of evolving to do. There will be a lot of consolidation I the market. So businesses need to invest at the enterprise level with a social platform that will survive (and IBM is clearly the market leader).

I asked above whether Social Business will disrupt current enterprise structures, processes and policies? I think it is starting to do this already in some companies (like IBM). The interesting question is whether it will deliver on its promise and give those companies enough of a competitve edge that the rest will have no choice but to follow their lead.

Mobile Web or Mobile App?

When discussing mobile, the question I most often get asked is “should I build a mobile app, or is a mobile web site enough?” The answer is (almost) always “both, but for different purposes”.

Before we explore that, we should consider why a mobile interface is so critical. The number of smartphones+tablets being sold outnumbers the number of PCs and the number of smartphones sold in the UK exceeds the number of conventional mobile phones. This is a symptom of he fact that, for many demographics (such as the youth market, or large segments of the developing world), the mobile device is becoming the primary access mode for the web.

Certainly, from a personal perspective, the Smartphone is the primary way I access a range of services, from weather to travel & maps, from social networking to music & video content. But more than that, because most of the traditional news and company links I receive come via Twitter or Facebook, and I access those services almost exclusively from my iPhone, it is an effort to relocate the link to a PC browser. Furthermore as my primary browsing device at home is the iPad on the sofa, I am increasingly ignoring any web site that tries to force me to walk over to my desk and wake up the Macbook. We really are moving into the post-PC era.

So you can imagine how frustrating it is to click on a link in a Tweet or Facebook update, and be presented to a complex screen full of tiny print on my smartphone. I thought hard about whether I wanted to pick on one example here, especially when there are so many of them, but sites talking about the importance of good mobile apps are asking for it (sorry, @usertesting)…

That looks like a very relevant Tweet. Let's follow the link….

Oops! If you can't read the text, it says “Mobile apps and responsive websites are looking – and working – better than ever…” Unfortunately that doesn't include their mobile web site.

The reality is that Gen-Y (and many other people) no longer have the patience for this sort of web experience. Their reaction is “it doesn't work” rather than “I need to go and open this link on a PC”. So, if you are thinking of launching a Twitter campaign, or creating a Facebook page for your brand, you had better be making your web experience responsive, so it automatically adapts to mobile devices.

Yes, this does require rework – which is all the more reason why you need to choose a portal platform, like IBM's Customer Experience Suite, that will let you easily exploit future extensions to the digital experience with minimal reworking. Then, at least, you will be ready for holographic, 3D, immersive web experiences – or whatever comes next (smellyvision, anyone?)

So, our first key lessons is that making your web site responsive is a must (I chose the theme for this blog because of its responsive design – it is actually more readable on an iPhone that a PC browser), so prioritise the move to reponsive web site design today.

Earlier this year, at the IBM Exceptional Web Experience conference in Berlin, I listened to Jyske Bank talk about their journey to create a mobile friendly website. Their key conclusion? Going forward they have adopted a “Mobile First” srategy (as scaling that up to a full site is easier than dumbing down a complex web property). A user who doesn't have (or doesn't want) a PC will not accept a user interface with only half the functionality. Anyway, in some ways the mobile interface is richer, with has location awareness, a camera, plus the user is willing to share more personal information via it, and soon finger print authentication too.

Actually, I was talking to a customer recently whose vision for their next generation intranet home page looked like the iPad home screen. Not so much the set of icons for apps (though that was seen as familiar to the users) but the concept that the user can choose the apps (icons) and lay them out according to their needs, then open them as they need them (this is very different to the traditional concept of portlet page designed for the user's role base on assumptions about the users needs – the predecessor of the rather hideous Windows 8 tile interface – but rather something simpler and less confusing for the person in front of the screen).

But, to return to the original question, does that mean that if you have a mobile web site you don't need a mobile app? After all, iOS has always been happy to store a link on your home page as if it was an app. Mobile frameworks like PhoneGap let you access local services like location and the camera from your mobile browser application. Isn't that enough?

I believe it is not. For two reasons. The first is logical and obvious – offline support. At the very least a mobile app which cannot connect to the server can make a phone call to the call centre so you can talk to someone – rather than giving the user no options at all. It can tell the user what to do now, if there is no wireless connection at all, and synchronise information like account and serial numbers or policy details.

The second reason is more subtle. It turns out that because the mobile device is such a personal, customisable, social device, users create an emotional engagement with it that is much stronger than they are ever likely to develop with a web page. But for this to happen the app has to be simple, intuitive and highly personalised within minimal configuration. All the things the PC has lost over the years and web pages find it hard to be.

So design apps that respond to specific user needs, create an engaged, social, compelling relationship with the user, and make sure they have a reason to return to them regularly. Otherwise they will be moved off the home screen and the user will forget that they are even there. That way, the app becomes a proxy for the user's engagement with your brand.

Oh, and one more thing. Don't design a smartphone app that doesn't adapt to the real estate of the tablet. It's real annoying to feel like you are being treated as a 5 year old when you have a device in your hands that, because of the touch screen and smart apps that connect you directly to people, content and organisations, feels even more powerful than your PC.

Similarly make your mobile web pages responsive to the dimensions and orientation of the screen – don't let them look like a simplified version for five year olds. That wont endear the users to your site.

So, the conclusion? Apps are “better” as they are lean and mean – but that likely means they are not sufficient. Technology typically starts that way, but gets complex and bloated over time as users keep demanding more features and marketing keeps looking for something new to sell. Fight it. Keep your apps simple because that's what users really want. Make them personal and engaging with an easy, clear value proposition, then users will keep coming back to them.

Web sites are good as they are comprehensive and do everything you could possibly want. Build a mobile web interface that repurposes all your services to be accessed in a mobile friendly way (and I mean all the services, ready for the day when there are only mobile devices). The web can accomodate the long tail of functionality, where the cost of implementing, and the cost of the user complexity in accessing it, isn't justified. It can seamlessly extend the functionality of your mobile app by delivering advanced functionality in a hybrid web app accessed via the mobile app.

But just because mobile apps and mobile web are different things with a different purpose, doesn't mean they should be implemented completely separately. Or even worse by different teams. They should use exactly the same back end services. Have a common look and feel, terminology and navigation. They should use the same user interface elements. That is one value of having a portal as a presentation layer for your web content – it front ends the services you offer in the same way as the mobile apps do.

So the portal layer needs to integrate with your mobile application development framework, providing common services to web and mobile users. Different presentation for different purposes, but with an integrating design and development team.

Most importantly of all, when you are designing for a user holding a smartphone or tablet in their hands, try to get inside their head. Understand what they are trying to achieve, Think about their context – not sitting at a desk but standing at a bus stop, walking down a corridor, or sitting in the back of a taxi. Use capabilities like location, camera, motion detectors and personal data on the device to contribute to an overall customer journey that will make your app, like their smartphone, feel more like an extension to their body and brain than a gadget they are using. Most of all, make the experience simple and satisfying.

Then let them bridge to the mobile web when things get complicated, rather than complicating things from the start.