Transformation but not as you know it...

An article by Kieran McBride 23-01-2017

User centred transformation or UCT. In an industry obsessed with distilling semantic meaning into digestible soundbites, it’s a wonder this phrase hasn’t come into the business vernacular. But there’s a reason it hasn’t (quite apart from the fact that #wecoinedit)...

Few people realise that user centricity is the crux of the cultural change that everyone talks about at the heart of ‘digital transformation’. The term ‘digital transformation’ itself is a ridiculous one, incredibly misleading it's a wholly insufficient representation of the thing it’s attempting to define.

We’ll soon be publishing a whitepaper that goes into more detail around the need for cultural and operational change, and the steps necessary to begin (sign-up to be the first to receive it). For now, here’s a summary of the problem and why the industry has it all wrong.

The crux of the problem

To begin, it’s worth highlighting a recent blog - #YesAllSociety by Jason Caplin, a progressive guy and the new CDO at Barnardos. Jason talks quite candidly of the significant challenges in implementing change during his time working in central government. He is very much aligned with our summation of the challenges in implementing cultural change, and re-designing organisations.
What is glaringly different about #YesAllSociety and the rest of the content out there about ‘transformation’, is that Jason talks explicitly (and almost entirely) about the need for powerful senior stakeholders to change their behaviours and ways of working. He also talks about the significant problems associated with doing so in a central government environment, encountering: bullying, personal attacks, sexism. Changing ingrained behaviours of not only the highest paid person (HIPPO), but HIPPOs stalking the political corridors of power, is no easy task.

Houses of Parliament with a hippo


Changing behaviours of empowered individuals is the primary task that needs undertaking when designing cultural change. To varying degrees there will always be difficult personalities and conversations in any established organisation. This is the crux of the challenge we see time and time again and goes to the heart of the transformational agenda. It is why an experienced external consultancy partner can be so valuable in effecting change. They can circumnavigate the internal political landscape, and are empowered to have difficult conversations, supported by a rigorous evidence base of internal and external user research. 

Adding to the problem, we’re semantically challenged

Highlighting the central challenge around behavioural and cultural change illustrates just how woefully inept and misdirective the phrase ‘digital transformation’ is. ‘Transformation Directors’ are employed often because of their digital (or IT!) expertise, but this is about leadership and influence before anything else. 

Is transformation an overhaul of systems and infrastructure? Is it optimisation and innovation within product and service delivery? Is it the integration of digital services with the wider ecosystem of service delivery. Yes, in part it is all these, but these are all very operational. And are all irrelevant if the right leadership isn’t in place. Systems and infrastructure can support and nurture a cultural shift, but they can’t create it.

The secret to success

Transformation begins (and can end abruptly) with an organisation’s people. From the board to front line delivery, you need to take everyone with you. Only with the right leadership in place can this happen. You need a digital native, you need an influencer, a doer and an educator. You need to have empathy. Empathy for the rest of the leadership (so you can influence), for the user research process (so you can understand it - and deliver it) and for the people who rely on your services (so you can deliver in the right way). Empathy is the core principle that underpins user centricity.

Why the current misconception about 'digital transformation'?

The misconception that this is all about ‘digital’ has come about, because it was digital teams that originally employed user research and data to inform their delivery. User research has become more extensive over time. Where once: heat mapping, heuristics, analytics, surveys and remote usability were enough to inform digital development, now ‘discovery phases’ have broadened. They've broadened into: ethnographic studies, call centre shadowing, diary studies, environmental and behavioural data - big data. Indeed discovery includes anything that can yield data to forecast against and understand user behaviours (not simply digital user journeys).

The breadth of research we now undertake gives us unique insight into, and influence over every part of an organisation, not simply digital.

This is the reason digital teams have become change makers. Not because they are digital, but because they apply user centred design thinking to their work. The application of user centred methodologies and the subsequent research outputs, gives digital leaders powerful insights into markets and operational reality. Something that is constantly changing - and something that is defining the fate of enterprise. Hence the need for an ongoing R&D programme to inform every area of service delivery and organisational strategy.

Designing change

Next time you hear the term ‘digital transformation’ - challenge it. Challenge those using it, as to it's definition, and as to what exactly their roadmap to delivery would be. Just how would they implement the necessary change to adapt to the changing market context. Digital is just a delivery medium. If you want to really effect change, you need: the right leadership in place, an understanding of what it means to embed a user centred culture and the expertise to deliver against the methodologies that go hand in hand with a lean, user centred approach. Only then should you look to systems and infrastructure to support that delivery. It’s not easy designing change. 

Further reading: #YesAllSociety, Techniques for developing a user centred culture, Blockchain and our utopian future.

Contact Kieran McBride, Strategy & Planning Director

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