Why digital transformation needs the human touch

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett March 26, 2018
We need to be thinking through the human impact of technology and how vital it is to ensure you bring your people along with you.

Brain in an open storage jar © ktsdesign - Fotolia.com
(© ktsdesign - Fotolia.com)
Most employers underestimate the ability of their workforce to adapt to huge amounts of change, much of which is driven these days by technology, automation and the move to digital.

This was one of the key findings at a panel discussion entitled ‘In Conversation: Creating an inclusive digital revolution’ at Changeboard’s Future Talent conference  in London at the end of last week.

Moya Greene, chief executive (CEO) of Royal Mail Group, set the tone by referring to the difficulties that many of her 140,000 staff members have experienced since the letters and parcels delivery company started on its path to modernisation in the wake of privatization in 2013:

We hadn’t modernized and it held the company back – we hadn’t made a profit for a decade. So we’ve changed our operations completely, but it’s taken its toll on our people. We’ve rebuilt the technology backbone, but there’s not one job that is the same as it was eight years ago - and that will continue.

The problem is we were overconfident about the ability of the company to change as change takes place at an individual not a company level. It’s very hard for people to learn new things and do them differently….we overestimated the ability of our people to adapt - and it was the unions that brought it home to me.

Amanda Mackenzie, CEO of Business in the Community (BITC), a UK charity that promotes responsible business, likewise warned organisations against charging ahead with technological transformation while failing to bring their workers along with them or thinking through the implications.

For instance, she cited the case of cleaners who are placed onto zero hours contracts. This situation means they may not be able to afford a mobile phone contract to keep them in touch with their employer, which ironically could end up excluding them “from a non-digital job”. As a result, Mackenzie pointed out:

If we’re to be serious about diversity and inclusion (D&I), we have to feel rather than think, so that means we need to pursue the ‘app of humanity’ in the face of technological advances.

Lack of understanding

While Peter Cheese, CEO of The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, acknowledged that technology has already changed the world irreversibly, he also pointed out that transformation was happening faster than ever before as we move into the era of the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’:

It’s the speed with which it’s all occurring - and many CEOs don’t understand that. The history of technology has squeezed much of humanity out with its focus on standards and efficiency.

But it hasn’t created ‘good jobs’ and staff wellbeing is often low. So the question is how do we design organisations and jobs that have the right attributes and make the best of people? We then need to up-skill and re-skill them so that people don’t end up being excluded.

Chris Jones, CEO of vocational education provider City & Guilds Group, agreed. In his view:

We have to become more human. There’s too much emphasis on technology, but if people aren’t going to lose out in future, we simply have to retrain and re-skill them. The problem is UK employers spend less on training at the moment than any other part of the European Union so we have to invest more.

But training should not just be about learning new skills. Instead it should be about enabling staff to live up to their full potential, according to Elizabeth Fagan, senior vice president and managing director of pharmacy-led health and beauty retailer Boots. As a science teacher 35 years ago, she said it was clear that:

Mixed ability children all have something to contribute and as a teacher, it’s about helping them to be the best they can be. Your real successes come when you help make the team work better together and it’s your job to facilitate that…People in any organisation have different skills…but it’s about being community-centred as being the best you can be is no less important now than it was 35 years ago.

But in the face of data abuse scandals such as those engulfing Facebook and Cambridge Analytica,  Royal Mail’s Greene also believes that it is not just vital for organizations to exploit the benefits of technology, but also to understand its potential downsides and learn how to exert control over it. She explained:

Technology allows us to do lots of things, but it’s we who should decide what’s permissible. Facebook started off as benign but is now being used as a tool to fabricate stories and skew election results, so we have to decide what technology can or cannot do.

We’re fast to reap the benefits, but we also have to look at the impact and get our arms around what’s happening. Consumers are sleepwalking into this situation, but the reality is if you’re not paying, you are the product - and we’ve been slow to think about that and how our data is being misused.

My take

Since time immemorial, technology has been thrown over the wall with very little consideration having been given to either the human or societal impact. While it is generally packaged up as being all about “progress”, this carelessness about the long-term repercussions has let to problems at all levels ranging from epidemics of repetitive strain injury to identity theft.

So if Artificial Intelligence and automation is really going to have as high an impact as many pundits claim, it would seem imperative that we find ways to grasp the nettle right now, before it is too late and we sleepwalk into a world over which we have very little control.

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