You can’t communicate people into the digital world

People often think of the digital world as being about technology topics such as speed, ubiquity and data, but the critical shift takes place from the human elements: what people do and how they communicate. Going digital means changing the way we interact with each other, the way we spend our time and the very nature of work.

In our personal lives we have been adapting steadily. As the world around us has changed, we have changed many aspects of our lives, including the way we buy, bank and keep in touch with friends. At home, most of us choose the pieces of the digital world that we want to use, but at work it’s usually the organisation that will benefit most, not us.  This means that organisations need to plan consciously for the human impact of their digital transformation, taking account of inertia and habit.

People tend to view habits as negative, but they are actually about efficiency. If something works every day for years, why change it?  Organisations often think they can achieve change with lots of communications and good training, but neither of those makes a difference to “what works.”

In the end, the environment determines “what works,” not the organisation’s goals. The environment consists of a mix of tangibles and intangibles, the most important being how leaders behave, particularly an employee’s own direct leader. And it’s not what they say, but what they do, particularly under pressure.

The human aspect of digital transformation needs substantial, active management.  It also must be sustained, or the old habits will slip back. Here’s a checklist of how organisations can manage the human side of digital transformation.

  1. Be really clear what you want people to do. If I attend a meeting where I am told my organisation wants to move away from siloed thinking to a collaborative approach, when I get back to my desk I need to know what, specifically, I need to do differently when I plan a project, work with a client or write a document.  Who do I collaborate with, about what, when and how?  
  2. Align all the factors in the environment and the management systems to the new model. This includes the key business metrics, HR and other policies, rewards and recognition and even the physical environment. If you want agility, don’t leave all the decision-making power at the top.  If you want to move from competition to cooperation, change your rules for bonuses to reflect that.  If we are going to engage with our customers through social media, don’t restrict access to Facebook at work.
  3. Get leaders to adopt digital ways of working, starting at the top. People respond to their leader’s example. If top leaders don’t collaborate with each other, neither will their teams. If leaders don’t use the new technology, it becomes peripheral. If board meetings continue to focus on finance, the organisation will not become customer-centric.
  4. Choose the “hot spots” that will have most effect. Focus on the processes that everybody uses and that will act as a visible sign that the organisation has changed. For example, if the organisation wants staff to use a new smartphone app, start with information they use every day, such as customer details, price lists and phone numbers.
  5. Pick up on problems quickly and fix the root cause. If we want new ways of working to become habits themselves, they must be reinforced. This isn’t about carrots and sticks – it’s about changing “what works.” This requires some understanding and planning beforehand, and vigilance and fast action afterwards. One key element consists of taking away the old machinery: If I can walk over and talk to tech support, why would I use the new chat service?   If they are moved to another building, maybe I will.  If I still have my old customer database, why would I use the cloud CRM?
  6. Build intrinsic motivation. Essentially, this means inspiring people to willingly embrace the digital world for its own sake. The key elements are autonomy (for example, defining their own ways of using technology to serve the customer better), competence (confidence in their skills and in their ability to use new tools) and connection (feeling that they are part of a network that is contributing to the digital world).

Managing these human elements can be very difficult for organisations, but there are very clear steps they can take.  Whatever the digital transformation your organisation embarks on, it’s not enough to set broad goals, tell people what’s happening and give one-off training. You have to understand and change the elements in the environment that created and sustain the behaviour and help people embrace the future.


Val-Wathen-headshotVal Wathen is an organisational change consultant working in DXC Technology’s Consulting Practice.

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