From education to employment

Digital transformation is happening: What can we do to make this a lot less painful?

The Future is/going to be digital

The majority of people now use technology on a regular basis for completing a variety of tasks and activities in their private lives, to the extent that to remove it would render them feeling somewhat dispossessed.

Yet, those same people using similar technology in their employment will often experience barriers to its use and, inevitably, feel challenged when new technology is introduced.

Despite the lack of apparent differences to these two scenarios, the fundamental point is about choice – in the former we make our choices and either work with the foibles of the technology functionality or reject it.

In the latter setting, our choices are limited to those made for us, which in the context of working environment constraints, is likely to cause more pain than pleasure.

We cannot escape the eventuality of new technology appearing in front us at work on a basis beyond our control, so what can businesses do to make it a lot less painful and, as a result, enable people to use the technology more harmoniously, leading to staff satisfaction, customer satisfaction and productivity?

Having seen the uptake of technology across the public sector as the government introduced the Government Digital Service (which replaced alongside the government Digital First initiatives ten years ago, there are insights to gain from how others have un/successfully embedded tech across the workforce.

With healthcare being one of the more intransigent players, it’s a useful place to identify how the education sector can avoid the pitfalls which still mar the ambitions of the NHS and its service provider pool.

This is best presented as a series of situational insights, which I’ll elaborate on how they can be overcome:

1: Digital and technology strategy shouldn’t be fuelled by a three-line whip

Nor is it the Chief Exec’s App – a common syndrome which railroads a highly directive and costly ambition through any due process senior management are expected to adhere to.

If the underlying decisions to deliver a digital transformation programme in a business is not grounded in fact, it will ultimately be seen early-on as a vanity project, quickly rejected by the organisational cognoscenti and require a mountain of sticks and carrots to implement.

Success may only go as far as closing the project down before it costs too much, when in fact relevant measures should be demonstrating the benefits to staff, the organisation and the customer / end user audiences.

2: A strategy sets out the roadmap to success, which requires championing

A good strategy can be understood at a high-level and in detail by anyone.

A classic digital transformation strategy follows three phases:

  1. Tactical change: Low impact and low risk activities, possibly pilots of new technology which the organisation has evidenced as being beneficial. This is a time to generate cultural buy-in, determining the barriers and enablers for more challenging changes. Fundamentally, these baby steps will not break the system, but will identify the internal entrepreneurs whose enthusiasm can be used advantageously down the road.
  2. Strategic change: Having justified the more substantial investment from the pilots, the real work begins. Initially, this will involve understanding how things currently are done, why they are done in these ways and what benefits are possible with new technology or process improvements. This wealth of data, explained below, helps define the technological changes, which will sweep across the system. For the most part, it’s likely that the technology will ensure existing practices continue with a modicum of productivity gain. This will increase if the underlying workflows are redesigned, but that’s a substantial step to conduct in parallel.
  3. Systemic change: With the new technology, employees will begin to discover new ways of doing their work – it might help fix old issues as well as cause new ones. But once the tech is embedded and confidence with it’s use is stable with the majority using it as desired, there is the option for wholescale improvement. This is most effective when conducted using needs-based research methods (which is beyond the scope of this article). But be warned, having taken the culture through one significant change – which may have taken 12-18 months to conclude satisfactorily – to immediately launch a new initiative needs to first be tested for appetite. It may be wise to let matters be until the technology changes have fully bedded in.

3: People | Process | Technology

Businesses often cite their employees as their most important asset, but one suspects this is more to do with the salary bill than a deep love for them.

Technology and culture are intertwined, so when embarking on a journey of change, there is a simple investigation and design framework to complete

As shown below:

As-is (how it is right now)
To-be (how you want it to be)

 Essentially, you need to know what people are doing, how they are doing, how they feel about doing it and what they think could change.

This is where employees can be seen for their value as this sort of investigation really helps to identify how work is being done and how satisfied they are. (And research attached to a purpose such as this is much more enlightening than the annual corporate staff survey.)

Processes: Those workflows and activities staff undertake to get the job done every day. Thus, processes will have daily, weekly, monthly or ad hoc frequencies and this is useful to know – would you spend a five-figure sum on some software that enabled your organisation to complete a task which only occurred once a month?

Technology: Knowing your technology landscape, where it is used, how it is used, how it does and doesn’t interoperate – this is vital information to gather and when applied to the other two framework features, can be used to identify technology improvements without buying a single new software licence. (Such as helping to reduce software costs by getting rid of stuff that just does not work).

Importantly, this data will also help identify legacy concerns; this is where technology is being used in such a bespoke fashion that organisational business continuity can be at risk. For instance, consider an excel spreadsheet riven with macros which none can explain, yet ensures invoices are generated with every month. Oh, and the person who wrote it retired six months ago…

If you want a taste of the risks associated with legacy, have a chat with your bank manager and watch their face go white and strangely withdrawn.

There are some useful techniques for collecting the types of data from these three sources and a competent mind can learn them without having to pay training.

For mapping processes, Business Process Mapping is the business standard. For mapping people’s needs, needs-based research methods such as User Experience/Research are good.

To go the extra mile (and generate collateral relevant for systemic change in the future), Jobs-To-Be-Done theory is recommended.

In both instances, it’s fair to say that an experienced facilitator will draw out more detail, but ultimately, these should become standard skillsets for internal business innovators and entrepreneurs.

4: Requirements mitigate risk

With all this incredibly detailed information, you still need to do two things – combine it into your strategic roadmap and stop anyone else running off-piste because, like the Chief Exec’s App, they just had A Good Idea.

To be clear, A Good Idea is an idea, it’s rarely a business case or an evidence-based proposal. So, converting the insight into a structured set of requirements helps the actual step of procuring the kit. It should also help you get rid of some stuff which is simply wasting money. And this is where things get to be more fun.

Most tech business sales want to sell you the licence, that’s where the money is. Some will consider there’s a relationship worth having and would like to sell training and support add-ons. But if you do your homework, all that bolt-on facilitation can be achieved upfront so that (a) you’ve proven the seller is the right business to work with, (b) you are fully aware of the risks involved, and (c) your staff will have been trained where necessary before you’ve committed to the fait accompli and it’s Day One of the New Technology. (Ultimately, you want to avoid ‘rolling back’ where the new technology is so disruptive that it is damaging, and the business decides to go back to the old ways. The impact of this situation is worth reflecting on.)

5: You know everyone is different, don’t forget that point

Your mapping has taught you umpteen things about the organisation, with some surprises for sure. The period of implementation is essentially a post-natal state which requires lots of support, encouragement and guidance.

It’s like a marathon of individuals learning how to walk for this first time and often, this is where neglect kicks in; the exec have decreed the project a success because the technology is now in place, so the tick-box is ticked and the next issue looked at. In many ways, this is the time to ramp up support to ensure the technology is delivering on the requirements and the seller’s promise.

An organisation-wide technology transformation programme will deliver benefits – eventually, but one shouldn’t overlook the investment for bedding in and making adjustments. Six to twelve months is a reasonable pitch, which of course comes with its costs.

6: Implementation and change is an opportunity to influence culture

Standing at the position where the technology has been successful implemented, staff churn has not gone through the roof and customer satisfaction, like staff satisfaction, has not nose-dived. Phew. But what has also been created is a heightened cultural belief in the success of the organisation.

In this dynamic state, new rules and approaches to business activities can be successfully and overtly introduced. It’s a time to recognise the hard work as well as the new techniques and practices the organisation has achieved, with one of the most important ones secure during the bedding in period of Continual Improvement.

An organisation which (a) has the internal skilled resources and (b) has experienced successful change, will be receptive to ongoing improvement activity becoming normalised within job roles.

At the end of the day, people are a business’s best asset (I was being sarcastic earlier), since they are the innovators, they understand the problems and they are mostly sufficiently motivated to make beneficial changes – if given the chance.

So, there you have it. The education sector is already on a road of technological transformation and no doubt there are new innovations to be identified and trialled for the value they generate for organisations.

By considering an organisation through the lens as described above, the leadership and the workforce will become trusted enablers for transformation; after all, carrots are a lot tastier than sticks, aren’t they?

Charlie Young, SpiderCorp

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