*This article first appeared on Brink 10 September, 2019.
While the digital revolution is already underway in most organizations, it is yet to have the kind of impact, positive or negative, that many predicted. As such, most organizations have not yet adopted any design or implementation strategies that would truly leverage the digital revolution by increasing productivity and work outcomes.
To bring about this much-vaunted transformation, organizations need to fundamentally change their outlook toward digital technology. This means a shift from the perception of technology as a cost center that supports other revenue-generating activities, to an investment in the future and a competitive advantage that drives organizational growth. Worldwide, The Mercer Global Talent Trends 2019 study indicates that 59% of companies surveyed are planning to invest more in automation this year.
Don’t leave your workforce stranded
Organizations need to wake up to the fact that their employees – and their workforce – are the biggest stakeholder to be managed in the process of the business transformation.
As the technology juggernaut continues to move forward, companies find themselves at different stages of dealing with such transformations. From business leaders and technology vendors to frontline employees, everyone has a crucial role to play in designing and implementing solutions for the future. However, the exponential pace at which things are changing can often end up leaving the workforce stranded.
Research suggests that unpredictability in the business environment can result in more stress and less creativity, which, in turn, can significantly impact work outcomes.
Data collected by Mercer-Sirota also shows that only one out of six employees tends to agree with the way their organizations are responding to the changes in the external business environment.
For example, when Prudential Hong Kong automated its office systems, the company was surprised to note that it did not lead to anticipated cost savings. It was only when the management conducted an exercise of employee surveys and interviews that it was able to identify the pain points with the system in the first place. The insights led to better-informed decisions on work designs that enabled more efficient allocation of resources.
A new model of workforce design
Traditionally, a sequential approach has been the norm, wherein a linear path is taken: starting from vendors who develop products through to the sale of the final product to the chief technical officer.
This top-down progression, however, puts the onus on managers who end up struggling to integrate the technologies in their workstreams. A new approach to this development strategy is a circular integrated process.
First, the continual upskilling of the workforce is an integral part of a transformative process. Most firms adopt a reactive stance, often waiting until a new technology is introduced and then training the workforce for it. Often, that is too late.
A more proactive way would be to continuously educate and upgrade the skills of workers so that they have the required analytical and social skill sets to work productively with new technologies.
In Singapore, the SkillsFuture initiative emphasizes learning for current skills, as well as potential skills required in the future for large industries. This helps both employers and employees to jumpstart the process for learning new skills, as and when the need arises.
Collaborative technology design is another way for organizations to be more proactive. Organizations that involve the employees in the process of work design from the development stage can reap significant benefits.
Not only is interactivity with technology vital, but research also shows that an increased emphasis on relationships and expertise reduces the chances of work becoming transactional and unidirectional. There is a strong business case for involving the workforce in such design needs. A solution will only productively fit the needs of the business when the end user is part of a collaborative design process. This also means that an overarching technological design strategy needs to be in place for the above exercise to have any positive impact. Otherwise, the result can end up being piecemeal, with technologies that do not work in harmony.
Automation should be about augmenting human input with artificial intelligence, rather than eliminating or replacing human input or labor. Artificial intelligence, which relies on machine learning, would not be suitable as a substitute for decisions that have inherent subjectivity and require human judgement. There needs to be a shift in the approach to using AI to support and supplement human tasks.
Tasks that are structured and frequent and that involve a lot of data points can leverage the self-learning nature of such technologies. In such cases, AI can be very helpful in providing data and analysis that will support human decision-making, thus making it more efficient.
The integration of technology into workflows is critical. Disruptive technology and innovation are transformative only when they are integrated into the entire organization. Too often, technology is taken as a piecemeal tool that changes a single component in isolation, rather than all of the processes of an organization. Hence, innovation remains additive, rather than holistic. Human resource professionals and technology vendors tend to see technology as a way to automate existing processes, but never really as a paradigm shift in how things are run.
Finally, strategic alliances at the top leadership levels should set the tone.
Senior management and the board should work together to achieve the strategic goal of digital transformation. Having a chief digital officer (CDO) whose mandate is to design and lead strategic digitization initiatives in organizations would provide a focus for the company. While the roles of the chief technology officer and chief information officer may overlap, the CDO can exist independently or in conjunction with any of the other two positions. But wherever that may be, the roles performed by a CDO are critical in times of digital transformation.
Successful transformation of organizations is about making them more digitally enabled and more human at the same time.