Productivity software messaging converges around new types of digital workspaces

June 18 2019
by Chris Marsh


The productivity software space has really taken off over the past five or so years. It's difficult to think of any incumbent segment that is safe from disruption. Go-to-market strategies, user engagement, product capabilities, partnerships and ecosystems are all changing. The outcome is twofold – the continued adoption of new SaaS apps is catalyzing even more fragmentation, but companies want more consolidation across that sprawl. The latter is birthing new types of intelligent digital workspace – a new cohort we collectively term Workforce Intelligence Platforms (WIPs). Many struggle with the language to describe these, however. This report will give some ideas on how to do that.

The 451 Take

Conventional thinking in software has emphasized a minority of creators and a larger cohort of curators determining the experiences for a majority of users. This balance is shifting as software gradually becomes more intelligent in providing the majority of employees with customized experiences – and the means to customize those experiences themselves. Based on this idea, vendors are increasingly positioning themselves as more integrated types of products and platforms, which we collectively refer to as Workforce Intelligence Platforms. With this comes messaging from different technologies around the idea of a hub where more employee attention will be focused on getting work done, along with accompanying syntax that is less functional and more experience- and outcome-oriented. This is a significant shift that could see conventional ways of talking about product functions, features and experiences give way to new narratives. Vendors need to understand this shift to build for the next generation of employee experiences.

New spaces for work

It used to be that forward-looking keynotes and vision statements from vendors would herald a future where singular workspaces would exist where employees could get all their work done. While that existed for a time in hardware with the rise of mass-market PCs (before smartphones became mainstream), it only ever existed in software in the form of the big productivity suites like Microsoft Office.

Interestingly, the idea is coming around again as a reaction to SaaS having drastically increased the number of applications employees are now using and the complexity of the connectivity now possible across them. There's a benefit to that, but for most companies this app sprawl has been at least as much a negative as a positive for workforce productivity.

Our Workforce Transformation, H1 survey shows that only one-third of employees are very satisfied with the mix of tooling to get their work done – having to use too many apps is the biggest pain point, and 40% think that number will only increase over the next year. Employees and IT are struggling to leverage tools that often still don't integrate well and across which it's difficult to create useful workflows. Addressing this is now a strategic priority for IT departments. In fact, our Corporate Software Survey, September 2018, showed how improving productivity and collaboration tools was perceived to be the primary IT-led priority in digital transformations.

It's not just an end-user and IT concern. There is a growing realization that the tooling used by the workforce has a significant role to play in the overall employee experience, and that this can impact recruitment and retention. Forty-three percent (43%) of employees believe recruitment, retention and development should be the single biggest strategic priority of their company – workforce tooling is therefore increasingly consequential in the war for talent.

We believe the opportunity to address this challenge constitutes a significant new white space for productivity software. Multiple emerging visions target this Workforce Intelligence Platform space (not so much a recommended moniker for a specific new product category as a way to articulate growing convergence around the opportunity represented by WIP).

Language from different tool types is beginning to converge Language from different tool types is beginning to converge



Terminology used

Stated examples of value proposition


Collaboration, messaging

Collaboration software

The central collaboration hub around which an enterprise's application estate gravitates and integrates.


Enterprise social network, collaboration


A tool for employees to communicate, collaborate and connect, into which other business applications integrate, consequently increasing the ROI of those other apps.


Work management

Work execution platform

A unified platform for businesses to apply structure, connectivity, automation and reporting around their work.


Work management

Work management platform

A company's GPS predictively understanding users' intentions, automating and surfacing work at optimal times, matching skills to tasks, and assigning and managing resources and schedules.


Work management

Operational system of record

An enterprise's fifth core system of record alongside CRM, HCM, ERP and ITSM, drawing data and information from those other systems, but housing much of the workflows and processes itself.


Cloud content management

Digital business and digital workplace

A singular platform for an organization's content-centric intelligent processes enabling agile collaboration across a company.


Workflow automation

Digitizing workflows

An intelligent platform to digitize employee, customer and IT workflows.


Development and deployment, security and identity, collaboration, planning and tracking

Project tracking, business management, agile planning

A platform to unleash the potential in all teams, allowing them to plan, secure, track, collaborate and support their work.


Corporate performance management

Connected planning platform

A single platform that, by connecting communities of people with data, enables everyone to plan more easily and to more dynamically influence decision-making.


Application PaaS

Digital workplace

A single place for teams to streamline operations and processes, manage and organize their business data, and track project status and accountability.


Work management


Part spreadsheet and part database, teams use Airtable to flexibly organize their work, their way.


Workspace, networking, application delivery controller


An intelligent workspace integrating with employees' commonly used applications, surfacing their contextually relevant tasks to improve their individual productivity.



Digital experience cloud

A multifunctional platform allowing companies to create highly customized intranets, extranets and customer portals supporting modern digital experiences.



Social and collaborative intranet

Connects companies' digital workplaces, encouraging collaboration, making communication easy, capturing and sharing collective knowledge, simplifying work, and enhancing productivity.



Intelligent workplace

A workplace facilitating collaboration, delivering corporate information, capturing and surfacing knowledge, and connecting and automating different tools employees use to speed up their daily routines.


Virtual whiteboarding

Secure collaborative workspace

Virtual workspaces unifying content and conversations in a shared space so dispersed teams can work better together, staying on the same page no matter where they do their work.

FileMaker (Apple subsidiary)

Application development platform

Workplace innovation platform

Escape the work rut by streamlining processes while saving time and money.


Productivity suite

Intelligent workplace

Where teams can collaborate and streamline workflows, organizations can engage employees and communicate effectively, and individuals can be more creative and productive with AI-powered experiences and insight.

As product positioning begins to converge from previously more discrete product segments, new types of messaging syntax are emerging.

As more vendors realize the demand for more integrated digital experiences for employees, there needs to be new language to describe products and the outcomes they enable. At a high level, what these new central workspace approaches have in common is the attempt to give companies a way to balance the three 'As' of workforce productivity – agility, autonomy and alignment. To institute more business agility, more employees need to be empowered with greater autonomy over the design of their work, but for that to be effective, there must be alignment between overall strategy and those means of local execution, and between that execution with governance, compliance and security requirements.

Historically, that's been challenging to enable in rigid, integrated suites or across an estate of different best-of-breed applications. Therein lies the rationale for having a singular plane along which to do that, and it's therefore no surprise that the 'workspace,' 'workplace' and 'workforce' language regularly occurs.

The problem with this language is that it alludes more to the one-size-fits-all connotations of traditional enterprise applications than the plethora of specialist consumer apps consumers have accommodated to in their digital lives. For some employees, even if it's not the case in reality, it will still imply a provisioned, standard and therefore undesirable experience. While conceptually easy to understand, the language is neither particularly action- nor outcome-oriented – it's a digital space, a place to do things.

Vendors are countering that perception by messaging around intelligent, contextual and personalized work happening in the workspace – one destination but with an experience tailored for each individual user. This is appealing – for example, 47% of CXOs believe that they should be providing more automated and intelligent context around how information is surfaced to their workforce.

Some are stretching that narrative further to talk about digital WIPs as autonomous systems – you give it your outcome and it charts the way to get there, like GPS, even predictively anticipating obstacles along the way. 'Productivity platform' is also a term that some have begun to use, emphasizing the desired outcome over the functional description – instead of or as complementary to more conventional workspace, workplace and platform messaging.

An integration layer

Another focus is on emphasizing integrations and real-time synchronicity with other applications, with some vendors positioning as a 'neutral fabric' providing the connectivity to support new digital work arteries, work streams or workflows – a kind of user-centric integration PaaS (iPaaS.) In fact, vendors like Workato, Zapier and Azuqua have found fertile ground as ISV partners' white-label integration layers. In our conceptualization of the WIP architecture, we refer to this as a 'work mesh.' This has translated into a noticeable increase in the number of metaphors around an ecosystem of apps feeding into the central workspace.

This is an improvement on the best-of-breed positioning many SaaS vendors have taken – functionally-specific apps that play nicely with one another through prebuilt integrations and APIs, all equals among one another and differentiated enough not to be competition. That's patently not the reality (as the above exhibit shows) – vendors tell that story while looking to be (and beginning to message themselves as) more equal than those they integrate with, the hub with everyone else a spoke.

The inescapable logic is that, for most vendors, positioning as essentially the combination of an integration platform and central workspace will involve co-opting at least some of the workflow around those other systems, which otherwise could have been potential territory for their own value creation. In an age when user attention in enterprise software is becoming king, that's a contentious proposition. Vendors are increasingly claiming that they're increasing the ROI of those other systems by bringing them into the workflows users are engaging with, and that having a singular hub where user attention is concentrated creates a rising tide that will lift all boats. Inevitably, a focus here entails more messaging around ecosystems and marketplaces, and having a platform others can build on.

New interfaces

Going a stage further, language around 'digital canvases' is being used to describe flexible consumption experiences tailorable to different types of activity. Information could be pulled into it from other applications and displayed in personalized ways, with collaboration occuring in the context of that information, and tasks and workflows defined around it and actions taken. As business intelligence capabilities gradually democratize, it's often positioned as the plane along which new self-serve visualizations and modelling are consumed within a more integrated context and experience of work – a new interface to handle the diversity of activities that comes with integrating a diversity of applications into the WIP.

There are a few spins on this being pursued – either where the surface is a net-new interface, as with Dropbox's Paper, or where it's a more tailored and sliced experience of existing interfaces. Smartsheet, for example, with its Dynamic View capability, allows highly customized views into one of its spreadsheets based on permissions and context. The result can be a combination of spreadsheet, report and dashboard.

As ways to consume information in a WIP, 'cards and micro-apps' (terms borrowed from consumer applications) represent language being used more in productivity software. Citrix has used both recently to describe the personalization of its intelligent workspace experience. Previously, companies like limeade (formerly Sitrion) also used that terminology.

Another dynamic here is the growing centrality of virtual assistants as interfaces to personalized experiences. Openstream puts it center stage, front-ending its digital workplace positioning with its Enterprise Virtual Assistant messaging.

Custom app creation

In some ways, what we are witnessing is the reconstruction of a new custom app stack predicated on the need to make data more accessible and more easily consumable. There is appetite for improved data agility and fluency across a broad range of employees, with lightweight databases, low-/no-code app and workflow builders, and new flexible interfaces providing easier ways for nontechnical employees to create their own custom applications. We anticipate some of the language that has traditionally been used by PaaS vendors being used by WIP vendors. The focus will be on empowering those nearest to a business need to design the app to deliver that need. The emphasis will be on the minority, who traditionally have been those coding apps, turning into the majority, who create experiences and solve problems.

Experience- and operational-oriented syntax

One of the upshots of this shift in product is a shift in the functional archetypes products satisfy, tied to a general shift toward more operational and experience-focused messaging. Traditionally, productivity software tools have done some combination of store, record, share, secure, authenticate, manage, integrate, and enable collaboration or communication. Leveraging growing connectivity, intelligence and automation, we see more language around modeling, automating, visualizing, correlating, creating, contextualizing and curating – allowing work to flow and be in-context, relevant and personalized – where technology is pitched as getting out of your way and allowing you to do what you need to do.

We are also seeing more focus on clarity and transparency, having a clearer line of sight from strategy to localized execution (i.e., team and individual-based). Forty percent (40%) of surveyed employees want their company to more actively communicate its strategy, and 32% want more active involvement in the formulation of that strategy. That's not necessarily more visibility on more things for more people, but more focused, relevant and timely visibility pertaining to individual roles – the empowerment of everyone to embrace planning and understand their roles in others' plans.

There is a growing emphasis on ownership, autonomy and self-direction, predicated on that clarity around the context of work. Tied to this is a focus on optimizing the management of skills across the workforce, as well as new types of learning experiences supporting the self-direction of personal development based on new types of certification and skills recognition.

We are beginning to see early indicators of more emphasis on the creativity that comes from giving more ownership over the design of work – for example, creating software not just using a software tool, having more visibility around all the different nodes of work, and allowing employees to conceive of new collaborations and ways of doing work. This is creativity through more engaging, playful experiences, including gamified and recognized learning experiences – the creativity that comes from improved employee experiences overall, with happiness driving engagement and more investment from across the workforce in ideating new ways of doing things.

Given many of the technology changes discussed so far, we are seeing a growing focus on agile outside of software engineering work scenarios, what (from a technical point of view) we term WorkOps. This, we anticipate, will put more emphasis on the utility of thinking about employee-created experiences as processes, and not just end-state-focused, as well as the rise of new nontechnical power users in the workforce recognized for the degree to which their soft skills ultimately birthed new technical solutions to business problems.

As a category of technology increasingly consequential as the bedrock for the transformative new working styles, processes and interactions underpinning the emergence of digital-native businesses, productivity software is able to tell grander thematic narratives than has historically been feasible. Workforce transformation represents a more tangible version of digital transformation, of the potential for self-actualization through work, and of a new 'contract' between employers and employees. Vendors stand to benefit from market and mindshare by understanding the interplay of these technical and messaging shifts.