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Why Your People Function is Key to Successful Digital Transformation

Insights 30th September 2020
Why Your People Function is Key to Successful Digital Transformation

COVID-19 has spotlighted the urgent need for Digital Transformation. Plans that originally had 2-5 year timelines are now being pursued with dramatically accelerated focus and intent.

We hosted a round-table discussion to provide support and guidance to our community on this topic. Senior People leaders from Vodafone, Publicis, Swiss Re, KPMG and Suez shared their insights in this fascinating discussion, summarised below.

If you’re not thinking about digital transformation now, you never will

If it has traditionally been challenging to persuade leadership to invest in transformation, the events of the last few months have provided all the evidence required for why this topic should be front of mind. Even once Covid-19 becomes a distant memory, the changes precipitated by this episode will live long. Many of these changes were already underway, but a global pandemic has given us an invaluable window into the consumer and working behaviours of the future. Businesses that don’t adapt to these macro developments will be left behind by those who do.

Be clear about the objective

The urgent need for transformation must not preclude clear thinking about the matter. Leaders must be crystal clear about the objective(s) of the transformation before they embark on the journey. Will this process result in greater customer satisfaction and/or employee wellbeing? Precisely what metrics should be used to define the investment required and understand the return on that investment? It is entirely acceptable (and even advised) to start with modest ambitions, but the ambitions must be clear and agreed by all stakeholders.

Give your people the “why”

Countless transformation processes have become expensive failures where leaders have pushed forward with grand plans without getting buy-in from their people. It is your people who will be impacted by this transformation; it is they who will be learning new skills, implementing new processes and working with new technologies. Take the time to paint a picture for your people of what your organisation will look like in 10 years. If you provide them with the “why” behind the transformation, your people will be more willing to adapt their skillset as required, and commonly end up the driving force behind the change. When a transformation is adopted and driven forward by the people, it saves leadership significant amounts of time and energy in the implementation.

Remain receptive to feedback

It is leadership’s role to define clear objectives and a clear framework for the transformation, but they neglect the feedback loop at their peril. Things will always shift and change in the implementation. Even the best laid plans can never take into account every little knock-on effect and inadvertent by-product once the plans start to be rolled out. By giving your people the “why” behind the transformation, you are entrusting them with your vision. If you deprive them of the chance to feedback on the plans, you are undermining this trust and cutting off a vital source of data. Not all feedback will be useful, of course. But your people will take comfort in knowing that their opinion has been taken into account. One CEO referenced in the discussion described their role as “30% listening”. That feels like the minimum it should be.

Transformation might just be the new normal

According to the World Economic Forum, the world created around 250 exabytes of data in 2007. By 2018, we were creating that same volume every single day. Well over 90% of the data the world has ever created was created in just the last 2 years. Those figures make clear the electrifying rate of change that we’ve witnessed in just the last 20 years – and with the growth of AI and the Internet of Things (IoT), this rate shows little sign of slowing any time soon. Against this backdrop, conventional thinking about transformation programmes taking a fixed period of time and delivering a fixed benefit might well be outmoded. As the change becomes the only constant, the organisations that survive and thrive will be those who can incorporate transformation and agility into their very DNA.

Be aware that there are many different versions of “Agile”

While the tech giants have provided clear evidence of how potent Agile can be when implemented correctly, this does not mean that there is a single version of it that’s suitable for every company and every occasion. Where organisations have deeply embedded processes that depend on certain flows of information and decision-making hierarchies, a shift to Agile requires careful consideration of what will change and who needs to be onboard to ensure it happens. Much as leaders need to clearly define the objectives of the transformation, they must also clearly define the objectives of implementing Agile. If the implications of the shift have been deeply understood, and it is deemed a necessary means to a clearly defined end, Agile remains a powerful solution. But where Agile is blindly pursued as an end in itself, the process can easily lead to disaster.

Be ready to invest in hiring AND reskilling

The skills that you require in your organisation in 10 years are likely to be different to those required today. And those required in 20 years are likely to be different again. By painting a picture of how your future organisation will look, you will help your people to understand what skills they will need to thrive. But this reskilling will require proper investment, and will need to be complemented by a carefully-planned hiring programme. Too often companies leave it late to think about this and are left with a significant skills shortage that can only be filled through a costly influx of new hires, the absorption of whom into the company culture can create issues for both the new arrivals and those who are there to greet them. There is value in engaging a partner to assist with this. Companies who have helped others to articulate their skills shortage and build a workforce plan to address this will save a significant amount of time and money (not to mention blood, sweat and tears).

Covid-19 makes all of this more difficult

Transformations are challenging at the best of times, but Covid-19 not only makes them more urgent, it also makes them much tougher. When your people aren’t all working from the same physical location, it becomes tougher to communicate with them, tougher to gauge their response to ideas and tougher to implement new processes. We are living through very unusual times. Covid-19 won’t be with us forever, but while it is, we need to adapt to the realities it has imposed. That means over-indexing on communication with your people, over-indexing on requesting feedback and over-indexing on defining really clear plans, with really clear objectives and a really clear rationale for everyone to buy into.

If your People function isn’t already deemed an enabler, it should be

The discussion made clear precisely why the People function must be deemed a vital enabler of transformation. People are the lifeblood of every organisation and, however much attention is placed on the technology and process elements of transformations, it is ultimately your people who will determine whether these transformations – and the organisations relying on them – will be successful.

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