Digital transformation for the masses

As I sat on the train this morning, I saw my first of what will surely progress into a flood of “Top 10 trends for 2017” articles as we approach the end of the year. This particular example was focused on digital transformation, which is something close to my heart, so I thought I’d give it a read.

Unsurprisingly it was bursting at the seams with buzzwords. Reading that article (or seemingly any of these annual thinkpieces) may lead you to believe that by this time next year everyone will have ’transformed’ their business so that all staff are working remotely alongside AI in AR/VR-enhanced worlds, receiving cups of tea via drones, with IoT devices and APIs generating a firehose of data in the background. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but my sadness around these articles is that they don’t reflect the reality of priorities for the majority of organisations out there.

I met a high-powered individual recently whose organisation has a perfect use case for VR, but the current cost, the lack of adoption (or interest) within their target audience, and waiting to see what will happen with things like WebVR meant that their take-up is currently on hold. Others out there simply aren’t wanting to shoehorn these technologies into their core offerings, and some just don’t have the budget or resources. None of these camps identify with 2017’s space-age world that these tech-focused articles would have us picture, and as such can often miss out on the underlying messages being absorbed.

Whenever I talk about the work to do, I’m loathe to use terminology that invokes connotations of big bang approaches and the latest shiny thing. Transformation and change are hugely important, but rather than focusing on the global stampede for new technology, let’s instead focus more locally on the improvements that we can bring.

In 2017, I’d ask that you don’t read these articles and start trying to work backwards from the innovations everyone’s shouting about to the benefits that they might afford your business. Instead, let’s focus on the real meaning of transformation – “a marked change in form, nature, or appearance”. This can be anything from fundamentally changing how your business operates to take advantage of opportunities, to improving efficiency, or simply having a better culture for people to work within.

Does your website require you to enter the same text in multiple places when you create a new post? Everyone hates the paper-based process for submitting expenses, but has cameras on their phones? Do you always have a queue of 10 people for a single kettle? Do performance issues with your site changes always get found too late? Is your company exclusively young, white, and male? Some of these can be solved by digital, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the rest, or assume that digital solutions will fix everything on their own. If you have existing frustrations, perhaps creating a new VR environment for your workforce to do the daily standup in shouldn’t be your priority. Technology and digital updates can bring huge benefits, but without the strategy, staff, and processes to support it, your change may be very short lived. Meaningful change doesn’t end up with you reverting to your previous form, and likewise, you haven’t truly transformed simply by adopting new technology and digital systems.

Transformation is something that we should all be aiming for on an incremental, ongoing basis – let’s keep making our businesses better for our staff and customers alike, and not lock it away into individual digital projects. It needn’t be expensive. It shouldn’t be a culture shock (unless your culture is broken). It mustn’t be on a whim. It can be small. If you can see an opportunity to remove friction, share it – not everyone may have the same knowledge as you, and may not know that there’s an opportunity there. The single most important element that we should focus on is to understand what needs to change and why, with solutions materialising from here – not the reverse. Digital can facilitate much of this, and can be an extremely useful enabler, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that technology means automatically solving all of our problems.

Next year (and beyond), let’s try not to view transformation as a buzzword-laden domain for those with huge budgets, resources, and expertise, and for it to imply moving towards a world that prioritises technology above all else. Let’s think instead how we can be better as a whole, using digital technologies to improve our own small corners of the world, but not forgetting everything else that goes along with it.

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Back in time:
Monthly round-up: November 2016

Forward in time:
Monthly round-up: December 2016

Posted by Sally Lait

Sally is the lead consultant and founder of Records Sound the Same, helping people with digital transformation. She's also a speaker, coder, gamer, author, and jasmine tea fiend.