Who's Really Transforming in Your Digital Transformation? (Hint: It's Your Employees)
This piece was originally published in EXP Magazine, 2nd Ed. Download your copy here.
Failure for digital transformations seems almost unavoidable. Where defined as “not meeting original objectives,” failed digital transformations happen at a rate that ranges between 70 and 95 percent.
This kind of universal difficulty does not mean businesses will stop attempting digital transformation. Declining to participate is really not an option, as any business caught without a plan for digital transformation in 2020 would tell you. Organizations with digitally-sound operating models leapt ahead of their unprepared competitors during the overnight, global plunge into remote-work , remote-school, online-everything.
Any company left standing does not have the same digital posture it did before the pandemic. So, congratulations! If you’re still a business, you’ve indeed made some kind of digital transformation. But what transformed? Were you able to get ahead of the need? Or did you simply catch up? Like our athletics coaches and music teachers all liked to remind us when we arrived to a practice session, “If you’re on time, you’re late.”
Chances are good you’re still working on getting ahead of your digital transformation needs. And one thing is a near certainty: Regardless of the stated objectives for your digital transformation, the business transformation you’re looking for will not occur without a plan that accounts for your employees.
It’s so easy for digital transformation plans to focus on the technology: the roadmap of software purchases and development, the rollouts and implementations, the user trainings. But so many digital transformations manage to forget the humans. The vision building, the change management, the training for the skillset shifts—all the things that inspire and enable transformations in people are often overlooked. Digital transformation plans must include these, too, if there is to be a technology- enabled transformation of how people work and how new, better things happen for clients, constituents, and customers. Otherwise, it’s just a huge project about an internal buying group deciding to purchase and install new technology, end of story.
Case in point: a global tech and ecommerce company spent millions on new analytics tools, fed by a newly-wrangled, consistent stream of data in all forms. Amazing. Technology was integrated, processes were hammered out, trainings were delivered worldwide. Millions of dollars spent, thousands of hours… and nothing changed. Everything had been built from the point of view that users already held a value for doing things differently than they did them today and would be eager to use these new tools. In truth, no one touched them. All the imagined business outcomes evaporated into thin air.
Project leaders had been asking, “What’s the right technology and data we need for the business outcomes we want?” No one had been asking, “Do our internal teams understand why driving new outcomes is necessary? Do our people believe these new business outcomes are possible? Do they know how to spend their days differently, equipped with these new insights from data?”
Your people are the key ingredient. They plan, they intervene, they escalate, they advocate, they embody the possibility. They sell the transformation to customers, to partners, to other employees. No matter what new customer experience or operational model you’re building with new technology, in the majority of businesses, those experiences don’t fully function without employees who are ready to facilitate transactions and interactions differently. Whether a technology evolution or revolution, treat employees as an afterthought and you will fail to yield desired business results.
But how should we plan digital transformation projects differently so that we know we’re designing for our employees, our most critical component of success? We help our clients and partners plan against four critical components for employee success: vision, enablement, ability and culture and results.
- Vision – the “why now” story behind the need and decision to deploy new technologies and experiences.
- Enablement – the communication and leadership activation that creates the critical link between company vision and employees’ day to-day work.
- Ability – the skill building that allows people to adopt new ways of working or living up to the new expectations that drive a transformation.
- Culture and Results – the goals in behavior and measurable outcomes—the evidence—that will reflect actual business transformation.
Let’s look at each component in greater detail, including who should be accountable for it:
Who’s accountable: leadership team
Successful digital transformations are not owned by IT – or marketing, or customer experience teams, or any department that may have initiated them. More often than not, when they are successful, digital transformations are led and owned by the organization’s leadership team as a whole. And when leadership does not advocate for the transformation consistently across its leaders, the work is suboptimized.
Leaders hold the accountability for vision, defined outcomes and the plan for realizing the vision. It is essential that leaders can express the transformation’s value story consistently from leader to
leader. If your leadership is misaligned, they simply must do the work; agreement is not required but alignment is.
Alignment is knowing the value of the transformation and prioritizing accordingly. The value story should include what prompted a change to be made—and why that change is essential now. That nod to urgency will help employees understand the prioritization and why some will feel the changes before others, and some may not feel much real change at all. People will avoid change if they can. Too often we see all levels of employees do the wait and see approach—awaiting new leadership or for the business to change its mind. So, if the transformation requires the organization to move with purpose, set that expectation and why urgency is needed.
Who’s accountable: people managers
Prosci Change Management research shows that when a change happens in an organization, though employees want to hear the business need from leadership, it’s their direct or line managers that they prefer to deliver news about personal ramifications. The manager is the link between company vision and employees’ day-to-day work. The manager knows the employee’s role and work best—and can translate the intent and expectations of the transformation to how it impacts the employee. And most importantly, when given the resources, managers can connect their teams with the enablement that will help them most.
That’s a critical, unforced error we often see in transformations: assuming the manager knows enough about the transformation (From an email? From a single all-hands meeting?) to make the right connections between vision and enabling their teams to do the new work and thinking afforded by their new digital capabilities. But it’s important that an activation plan acknowledges that managers are employees, too. They need to understand the initiative and feel confident to represent it to their teams—well before they are asked to do so competently.
Building that ability and confidence requires leaders to engage with managers. This is a two-step process: leaders activating the vision with managers, so managers can engage employees. Provide managers the messages and tools to realize the benefits of the change—equipping them to live the transformation with their teams day after day.
Who’s accountable: key users
We’re defining key users as those who are directly impacted by the transformation, that is, they have a new workflow or technology. And yes, it’s okay to say they’re accountable for making the required changes to their workflows. But only when you’ve taken the time to be clear about those expectations. When identifying key users, it’s important to map what the transformation is asking them to do differently – and if they currently have the skills to do it.
The ability gap often appears when employees are being asked to do something that they don’t know how to do—and training either isn’t available or is deployed in a one-and-done fashion. Admittedly “user” is a bit of a limiting term and inherent to what we see as the shortcoming of transformation training. Employees are trained as a “user,” not as a key facilitator of a new way of doing business that will bring about transformation for the organization. Employees who are impacted by the transformation need to understand their new technology or workflow in the context of the initiative’s vision. Skill-building that is connected to the broader value story, the bigger promise of the transformation, is far more effective than user training.
Value stories should be considered and treated as iterative, updated as the narrative is refined by new insights and experiences. Transformations that are built to receive feedback, especially from your key users, will provide those lived experiences that will empower you to refine and optimize thus making the transformation more potent.
Culture and results
Who’s accountable: leadership team
Where it really happens: all employee teams
It’s not revolutionary to say that an organization’s leadership team is accountable for its culture and its business results. The market holds leadership accountable. Investors and customers do not blame employees for poor performance, they blame CEOs and their teams. Additionally, leaders are accountable to their teams for providing the ongoing support needed to sustain the culture and drive the results inherent in the vision. This can feel like the big squeeze for leaders, but success comes to those who see this relationship clearly.
If you’re a leader who feels overwhelmed by this, there’s good news about the true nature of culture. It’s not the monolithic thing we often think of, a sort of puppet that a handful of leaders must keep animated at all times, tugging and pulling its strings to appear full of life. In fact, culture is lived uniquely, intuitively at smaller team levels.
When leaders share a clear vision with managers and employees, when teams have the support to make it real for themselves—even if they do it in vastly different (but not harmful) ways from other teams—and when the desired results and innovations are recognized, the intended effects of a digital transformation can be seen and felt through the entire organization.
Improved customer acquisition, increased customer and employee satisfaction, operational efficiencies—all will result in competitive advantage. Even if all employees aren’t being asked to change how they work, they should know about the transformation and why it’s happening. Teams can be fueled by a clear vision in ways you couldn’t imagine and should be encouraged to create their own context.
Your employees directly interact with your customers. They facilitate the operations for how the company works. They also have a front row seat to whether changes are working. Seek to understand their experiences and don’t shy away from their feedback. Few transformations are perfect out of the gate. Plan for iteration and encourage the data
collection and dialogue to guide those actions.
Steady on and keep talking
A digital transformation (or any kind of transformation) is a test of an organization’s endurance. That’s why it’s important to build in ways to generate and draw energy from the process itself. Plan how you’ll take opportunities to celebrate successes as you go. Don’t fall into the trap of waiting for perfection to talk about how it’s going and reinforce why it’s all
Reinforcing why a change was necessary is part of the change adoption process. Track your improvements, capture your success stories and share them with the company. Demonstrating proof will encourage employees and support them in sustaining new behaviors. And who doesn’t like to celebrate?
As we’ve seen over the last few years, digital transformations aren’t a “nice to have.” For most companies, they represent the difference between survival and failure for a business. But true business success, true ROI, cannot be achieved by one visionary or owner, or even a few dedicated, passionate teams. It must be nurtured from top to bottom, made possible largely by the employees who have made you successful thus far.