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Digital transformation, with empathy - a change management view

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 17, 2018
A change management expert tells me why success in digital transformation projects depends on a keen sense of empathy for the people affected

People use ladders to work in cloud graphic © jesussanz -
One of the recurring themes we constantly see in business technology projects — especially those that fall under the general heading of 'digital transformation' — is that it's never just a technology change. Success in such projects depends on getting the organizational change management right. That means showing empathy for the people affected, as one experienced practitioner told me earlier this summer.

Carol Tyler is Global Senior Practice Director for Organizational Change Management at Infor. It's her job to advise businesses undertaking digital transformation projects. Most often, these take the form of a roll-out of a cloud-based replacement for an older enterprise application suite. But although technology is the enabler, Tyler has some home truths for those who focus solely on that aspect:

You’re looking at this from an angle that might not be as effective as it could be. You're thinking IT, you're thinking blockchain, bitcoin, all the cyber-like pieces and parts that make a big project, an IT project.

But what about the people? The last time I looked, computers were run by humans. Yes, we are moving towards AI, but at the end of the day is your project an IT project or is it a people project?

Thus when I ask her to define digital transformation, her answer focuses on the outcomes, not the underlying technology:

In order to truly digitally transform, you can have the best mobile apps, you can have the best cloud strategy, but really you're trying to get people to think differently. You're trying to get people to innovate and think about what could be ...

My personal definition is the shift in culture both internally and externally. I should probably say, well it's all about the cloud — and it is about the cloud, and everybody needs a digital strategy. But to me the definition is, shifting from the current state to a more interesting future state that can face both the customers and the internal people.

The technology is the platform on which we can stand — and if we don't get people to stand up, what's the point of the platform?

Getting creative with digital transformation

Change management, therefore, is about encouraging people to open up to new possibilities, she believes. People have to make a big leap of faith when you replace the old, familiar work routines and equipment with new-fangled digital tablets and robotic assistants. Instead of just imposing the new technology, organizations must help their people think through how it can help them achieve more:

When I go into a project like this, I want to create a collaborative environment that lets people be creative — that starts that innovative thought pattern that doesn't put boundaries on what people can create by saying, 'Well, here's the package of digital and you have to fit into it.'

So while retraining is part of the picture, there must also be a conversation about the new possibilities that open up, she says:

You might be a 35-year veteran of the finance department. So yes, you have to be retrained to a certain degree and that's part of change management.

But how do you feel about that? How do you feel about switching from a GUI screen to design thinking? How do you feel about the fact that you're very used to your little code block [of] four digits here, 15 digits here, six digits here, and all of a sudden you've got this data cube that you can manipulate in all kinds of different ways, and there's data pouring in like crazy [and you're thinking], 'What am I supposed to do with all this?'

So retraining is only the beginning. The next steps are how am I going to deploy this? What's the best way to deploy this? What kind of data do I want in the cubes? And expanding people's minds to go there and then start change managing from there.

Change management needs practical empathy

People often feel threatened by change or feel that technology will make their job less secure. As well as empathy, there must be a practical response to those fears too, advises Tyler:

I am lucky to be a very empathetic person, but when I sit down with somebody and they're in tears because they're afraid they're going to lose their job because they can't keep up, to me, that's the risk factor of a change where you can say, 'Okay, how do we address that? Is it training? Is communication, is it repositioning that resource?'

So I have a two-prong strategy. There's the empathy part of the strategy, but then there's the compartmentalization of what needs to be done next. It's the ability to lift out of empathy and go into strategy thinking. How do you take what you've learned and put it into a project plan that an organization can digest?

The rapidly shifting nature of modern digital technology means that project plans need to stay flexible within the overall goals, she adds.

I'd rather say, I have a vision. Let's go with a two year [plan] and then at six months let's re-plot, and just keep re-looking at the end goal, and how do we follow that path? ...

If you have it all written in marble, here's what we're going to do, that's not an innovative path. If you really are claiming to be a digitally transforming organization with innovation, you have to iterate — because you have to fail. You learn more from failure than you do from success, and you have to create an environment where failure is acceptable. Not catastrophic, 'I lost $100 million' failure, but let people create [and adjust]. That iteration allows creativity and innovation.

Her final word of advice is the importance of communication in keeping projects on track:

Make sure that you have a communication strategy that is as choreographed as any campaign you can think of, because if you don't communicate, your project will fail.

My take

Wise words on an important topic that we often revisit on diginomica. Too many technology projects fail because they don't accommodate the human and organizational factors. Digital transformation and organizational transformation, as Tyler puts it, should be "partners holding hands to transform their organization."

Next week, my colleague Jon Reed will be at the annual Inforum conference, from where we hope to bring some more stories of how Infor customers have handled their transformation projects.

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