Digital Transformation Is Dead, Long Live Digital Adoption
Updated: Oct 29, 2021
I have been working and advising in the digital transformation space for 3 years. If there is one thing I have learnt, it is that in business organisations 80% of people throw around the word digital transformation as if it implementing technology is a magical panacea (i.e. medicine) that will solve any and all problems. This is simply not true.
It is my humble opinion that digital adoption is more apt a name for the kind of work that is being done. People and processes more so than technology form the crux of what we do and where focusing efforts can more readily guarantee success. Technology must build on existing organisational features. Features must augment and improve existing usage. Further, the implementation must be a managed process that introduces the new paradigm of existence in a way that it is eventually championed by every individual from top to bottom.
Transformation Is An Illusion
The Cambridge dictionary defines “Transform” as “to change completely the appearance or character of something or someone, especially so that that thing or person is improved.” It sounds great in theory, in practice, successful digital transformation never results in a complete change in organisations.
The reason is inertia. Some of you may recall Newton’s first law from physics class stating that an object that stays at rest or constant motion remains in that state unless acted upon by an external force. The larger the object, the more time and effort it takes to shift it from its current course, a lesson well illustrated by the Titanic and its inability to shift course from crashing into an iceberg at short notice.
For digital solutions this is also true. It is impossible to pull off a digital transformation that does not align with existing features of an organisation. This means the organisation’s vision, its core competencies, its culture, its existing software and data infrastructure, its people, its expertise and 101 other things that give organisations their identity and their advantages. Put another way, unless you account for these things and manage the process of implementation you are likely to fail.
That is not to say, technology cannot bring about improvements if it is just digitalising or optimising existing processes. However, improvements will be marginal in comparison to the alternative. Instead, successful implementation of disruptive and innovative digital solutions, otherwise referred to as the digital adoption process in this article, always take into account 3 key components. First, how well aligned is this with the organisation’s vision and core competencies. Second, how well designed is the solution. Third, how well run is the implementation.
Alignment Of Vision & Competencies
The first step of digital transformation always starts from the understanding of management vision for the future. They must also align with and make use of existing competencies to ensure a degree of compatibility and a greater possibility of creating sustainable competitive advantage in the easiest way and quickest time possible. A detailed discussion of technology in relation to greater business strategy is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that digital adoption in a completely different direction as business strategy is more likely to result in failure simply due to a failure in meeting business objectives in a suitable timeframe.
Given that most digital transformation efforts occur over months and even years at times, ensuring there is sufficient management willpower through timely and visible results to see through the challenges is critical. An about-turn or changes in direction will hurt more than taking the time and effort to iron out issues at an early stage.
Management buy-in is not simply important from a management willpower perspective but also from a mandate to proceed perspective. In other words, management must be involved in the implementation of new technologies in a visible and manner to shift the organisation along. Relying on the implementation team to convey the message and champion the cause is not sufficient.
Designing Systems For Digital Adoption
For digital solutions to quickly and easily be used by users in organisations they must fulfill 2 objectives.
Designed for user outcomes
Software is not magic and software developers are not mind readers who know instantly what users want. A recognition that problem solvers and problem experts are different things is critical but somehow often overlooked in this area.
For developers, they understand requirements only on a surface level in terms of the articulated requirements before them e.g. build me a chatbot. On the other hand, what the organisation requires is certain outcomes e.g. enable customers to self-help to relieve pressure on customer support resources. Communication in feature set terms is a good way of getting exactly what you ask for but not what you need e.g. your users may benefit more from a good search tool to comb through existing manuals.
In analogous terms, you would not tell your lawyer how to run a legal defence because they know best how that should be done. You should however tell them what outcomes you want from the case as well as your understanding of the background context to enable them to craft the best solution possible. In most cases, litigation is the worst resort despite it also being most people’s impression of what lawyers can assist with.
Similarly, when working with developers convey the outcome desired and the surrounding context of workflows and user patterns. You will often be surprised that what you take as common knowledge is something they have never considered. This results not from ignorance but a lack of in-depth familiarity that you can only obtain by working with something day-in and day-out. Let them come to you with solutions to resolve your problems but also know that the time taken to bridge this gap will lead to a lot less heartache down the line.
Designed for ease of use
Designing for usage by users is critical if you want champions. 40 years ago, computers were the realm of experts using command line interfaces to generate value. The personal computer (PC) only gained mass market adoption after the development of Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs). This made it substantially easier for your average user to navigate and make use of its capabilities because it became much easier to navigate.
User Experience/Interface (UX/UI) design has since always been a central feature of designing systems. Certainly, you can develop difficult to interact with systems which people eventually learn to use, but that requires either
A feature that people cannot live without; or
Long and expensive re-training and re-hiring
Additionally, one cannot assume that no issues will arise here because your developers have done an implementation for another similar organisation. The type and background of users may differ and the exact workflow may also differ. Even minor tweaks like renaming buttons to align with user expectations can go a long way in driving usage.
Management Of Implementation
The scale and success of solutions will also depend on management of its implementation. The worst experiences with digital transformation come from teams that assume successfully carrying out training sessions is the marker of success. A 100% completion of training sessions is utilised in these scenarios as completion. In truth, this is but the tip of the iceberg.
Instead, this may require re-training, implementation of supporting infrastructure and personnel, process redesigns, organisational restructuring, and more. Below we cover some key tips.
You MUST track your user usage of systems. Implement some sort of tracking on user usage patterns to see how they are using the system. Tracking of activation events such as completing their first steps, signing up etc. are important to help project managers pre-emptively offer support and discover issues. Discovering power users who may be turned into your product champions in every team at every level will make adoption much simpler.
Be under no illusions, training IS a central part of digital adoption. But beyond just the mechanical carrying out of such exercises consider also how those sessions are held.
Large groups means slower learners get left behind and different classes of users covering irrelevant material. Most users in any case do their actual learning during actual usage. Designing your training to simulate or allow users to do their actual jobs is likely to be much more successful. Offering on-demand virtual refreshers is also a good idea.
It does not matter how good your UX/UI is or how good your training is, your support channels must be present to support users through their first few weeks. An overreliance on personnel is never a good indicator. Users should be supported with self help material which can come through FAQs, manuals, in-application guidance (like UserTip!), chatbots and more.
No one likes waiting on the line for half an hour for a 5-minute chat with a customer support officer. If you enable them to self-help, they will have a much more pleasant experience. As with most things ease of access and ability to find relevant information is key.
Management must be open to supporting the efforts beyond just vocal means. Examples can include:
redesign of employee KPIs to include digital usage in performance goals
redesign of workflows and job roles
retraining of staff in new skillsets
being involved with the design, planning, testing and rollout of features
Adoption Means Making It Your Own
We started this article with the definition of transformation and it is only appropriate we end it with the definition of adoption. Cambridge defines this as “choosing or taking something as your own”. If we are truly determined to ensure organisations are successful in taking on technology, this is what we need to aim for to drive widespread use. Not for users to begrudgingly use it but hate it; but to take it as their own and champion it’s usage to all users old and new.
Digital transformation is dead, long live digital adoption.