Of late, there has been considerable push for something called the ‘digital transformation’. The goal is bringing businesses into the 21st century through the use of technology. And that’s admirable, but I’ll suggest that it’s misguided. The transformation we need isn’t about the tools we use, certainly at first. Thus, the transformation is not digital. It’s more fundamental.
To be clear, I’m in support of using technology. There are powerful things that technology can accomplish. Most importantly, doing things our brains don’t do well! Our brains are powerful pattern-matchers and meaning-makers. The flip side is they’re really bad at doing things repeatedly, and they’re bad at complex calculations.
However, I want to suggest that transforming organizations to be more successful depends on lots more than the digital transformation. So, what am I talking about?
What does digital transformation mean?
At core, the digital transformation of the workplace is about using technology to augment our business processes. And, as suggested above, there are rich ways to do this. We can automate processes for reliability, unleash the power of data for intelligence, and access the power of networks for communication. It’s also about bringing it together from a user perspective, an ecosystem approach.
Tools like machine learning are allowing us to take rote tasks and automate them. Things that people used to do manually can be replaced in many cases. To the extent that they are well-defined, we can train systems to do the tasks. And these systems aren’t affected by fatigue or bias (assuming our training data isn’t biased), and are more consistently accurate.
With the ability to link disparate systems via APIs, we begin to be able to link data and see bigger pictures. When things are digital, we can track what’s happening, collect data, and connect it between systems. For instance, we can look at the outputs of people in their work and compare that to their performance in learning. We can go beyond learning as well, and look at what separates success from failure.
And, we can tap into the power of people. We can observe our customers more accurately, and our employees as well. We can link our suppliers and customers into a complete communication flow to ensure that we’re supporting the success of our inputs from upstream and optimizing the solutions downstream.
All this sounds good. And it is. But it’s premised on some underlying assumptions that evidence suggests aren’t being met. And to the extent they’re not, you’re undermining any benefit from the digital initiatives.
Why isn’t digital transformation the solution?
We’re seeing lots of evidence of inefficiencies in organizations. And, importantly, it’s not about the implementation of business processes. Increasingly, it’s about people: our expectations, our communications, and our values. And digital can facilitate these, but they’re a separate issue.
For one, we see lots of evidence of unengaged employees. The proposed remedies include providing meaningful work, freedom to accomplish the goals, and support to succeed, as Dan Pink’s Drive suggested. It’s, as Amy Edmondson tells us, about finding the intersection of accountability and safety. Either one alone is problematic (and the absence of either is non-functional).
We need to communicate that purpose as well. People need to know how their particular role contributes to the organization, and how the organization contributes to society. When you close that loop, you’re helping people engage. And you need to support them to success. Another important form of communication is coaching. It’s no longer about telling folks what to do, but instead challenging them and scaffolding their success.
And, ultimately, it’s about how we treat people. When we’re tracking employees and customers, what are we doing with that data? Are we using it to help them be the best or are we using it to get the most out of them? The difference is important. If you don’t trust your workers, you don’t get the best outcomes. And if your workers don’t trust you, it’s worse.
The step before digital
Thus, the problem with digital transformation is that it has to be enabled on top of an effective foundation. Implementing technological solutions to exploitation aren’t going to achieve the desired outcomes. When folks recognize that they’re being used, not supported, you lose.
Thus, focusing on fixing the organizations culture is, to me, a prerequisite. If you show people you care, then you have credibility when you introduce technology changes. If you’ve got a broken relationship, the technology changes will be viewed askance. And, ultimately, the outcomes will be less than optimal.
And this isn’t just hazy cosmic California jive. While Jeffrey Pfeffer may rightly debunk much of leadership training in Leadership BS, the value of a learning culture is real. As shown in work like McChrystal’s Team of Teams, the right environment with communication and meaningfulness drives the necessary continual learning.
And with collaborative tools—a refined perspective on learning to include extending ‘beyond the course’ and enlightened leadership—this shift can happen. Creating a learning culture first, opens up the space for the digital transformation to take hold and create the desired advantages.
What might technology hold beyond what we’re doing now?
It’s been said that technology isn’t living up to the promise. And I’m not talking the lack of flying cars (which I feel deeply), but instead how computation was supposed to do more than just replace us. There are, indeed, things that computers do better, but there are also things that people do better. For instance, there really isn’t true artificial general intelligence. There are tasks that computers can’t do. At all. So we look for the synergy.
The question really is whether computers are doing all they can do. I feel like there are still some missed opportunities. For instance, I’m frustrated by the lack of tools to do good collaborative work. We have different tools for different formats, which is awkward. And we struggle to do synchronous well. And there are examples from the past that mean these aren’t fundamental flaws, it’s just a lack of imagination or will. Or, of course, business models.
Thus, we’re missing out in two ways. One is ensuring that the people part is right before we get the technology right. The order matters! If you put in technology and then change the way you work with people, you’re likely to then have to change the technology again! And we’re still not getting the support we could and should be getting from the tools to hand. But it’s getting better.
When we get this right, we’ll be optimally leveraging the power of both the people and the technology. The goal is a whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts. And that’s the promise we have. But, what we need to understand is that the first transformation is not digital. When we get that, and act on it, we open up a brighter future.