Transformation - the enigma explained

An article by Kieran McBride 04-08-2016

Semantics are important in an industry surrounded by spin. Themes are frequently re-imagined, re-purposed, re-branded and re-labeled. New phrases come into existence to represent old and new practices, processes and tools. 

Some individuals use new terminology to show they're market leading, often without a real understanding of what those terms actually mean. Sometimes that's because the terms themselves mean very little. Sometimes it's because those individuals are self aggrandising buffoons (gurus). 

Other times there is a consensus as to what a particular phrase means, but that collective understanding can be restricted within a single organisation or group of peers. One thing is clear - without a collective understanding of shared terminology, we become semantically challenged. The words we employ to clarify meaning and simplify, only prove to muddy the waters and create confusion. 

A term that currently dominates the lexicon of not just marketing but cross departmental management teams and every boardroom is - digital transformation.

Digital transformation what is it?

The ongoing process of developing an organisation's ability to evolve in line with the changing market context and audience needs. 'Digital' simply represents the catalyst or facilitator of this change.

Digital methods speed up communications (internal comms tools, organisational data sharing, external audience communications). Effective communications speed up knowledge share and learning. Evidenced knowledge provides the insight needed to action strategic organisational change.

Why not just organisational change?

Why not indeed! Actually, this is what we call it. 'Organisation' and 'change' are two unilaterally understood terms (conveying meaning should be after all, be the main aim). The only reason it is not more widely referred to as this, is because 'change programmes' or 'business change' have a bad rep' - having been terms employed by business consultants since the 1980's. Often these terms have negative connotations as they related to the scything off of organisational departments or resources (people) with the objective of cost saving.

So is there a difference?

Yes. To understand why, you need to look at the drivers for change. As I say, change programs were often initiated purely to create cost savings and operational efficiencies for the business, for operational efficiency, for profit margins.

What's driving a ubiquitous need for change now? In the commercial landscape - the rapid development of start-ups. Start-ups with new user-centric propositions (user-centric and therefore widely adopted) create a new level of competition. Start-ups are by nature smaller and more agile/able to pitch and change their products, services and propositions in-line with market forces. 

If the start-up is not smaller - they are certainly newer to market and therefore not built on legacy systems, processes, ways of working and thinking. Again, they are able to pitch, change and adapt in-line with the market. Either way - they erode the more established organisation’s market share. This is the 'disruption' you often see juxtaposed with the words ‘digital transformation’. The disruption of established commercial, operational and economic models. 

Not seeing the difference?

User-centricity is the difference. Start-ups can't compete with larger organisational spend, brand awareness, resource, scalability, etc. They compete and gain rapid adoption by coming up with a proposition that meets user needs. Give people what they want and need and you do not need to sell them on the idea. 

To develop a user-centric proposition, you have to be of a certain mindset. You have to be empathetic towards the needs of the people using your product or service. You have to understand the user-centred design process and you have to have the right organisational culture to embrace this understanding. 

What you can't be is; driven by internal organisational objectives and stakeholder opinions, by profits and margins. This is a not a culture that will flourish in the changing economy. 

Get it?

Large organisations are clamouring for 'culture change'. This is another term that everyone refers to when identifying the crux of digital transformation. Cultural change can appear quite intangible, but culture is simply the collective nature of an organisation driven by its; people, processes, capabilities and technologies.

Got it? Cool, what can you do?

When you break down and assess the component parts of an organisation’s; people, processes, capabilities and technologies - you can start to apply methods to approach and improve each area. For example;

Experience maps to benchmark organisational performance, set a development roadmap and KPIs around organisational change. 

  • Capabilities audits to forecast future resource and training requirements in-line with your development roadmap. 
  • Development of new governance structures, cross disciplinary product teams and effective workflows to break down siloed working.
  • Technology audits to assess how better to facilitate systems efficiencies, integration, knowledge sharing and data analysis. 
  • Ongoing training in user-centred design thinking, lean, agile and emerging ways of working to deliver products and services quickly, efficiently and iteratively.

Why user-centred design agencies are best placed to drive change

The culture best suited to delivering user-centric propositions, you would suppose, is best embodied by user-centred design agencies. Those who have been instilling user-centred thinking since it became a known discipline.

There is a current trend however for those same global consultancies well known for delivering the change programmes of the 1980's (Deloitte, KPMG, Accenture, PwC) to be delivering ‘digital transformation’. 

These consultancies are developing agencies internally, and more specifically, user-centred design/digital arms to do this. The following snippet from an article in Forbes demonstrates this rather well;

"According to Ad Age, all the top 3, and 8 of the top-10 ad agencies are not those legacy names that might visit your home nightly with their TV commercials. Instead, they are consultancies like Deloitte, Accenture, KPMG and PwC. Even McKinsey is slowly building an agency arm. Tech companies like Adobe, Oracle and Epsilon have added a service component in the form of an agency to their core product offering."

It is through acquisition that these behemoths are developing the capabilities to deliver the 'cultural change' everyone now wants.

Why big gun consultancies are not the answer

The problem with global organisations telling global organisations how to effect cultural change is that the consultancies themselves suffer from the same systemic failings, bureaucratic culture and institutionalised behaviours. They do not understand and have not always employed a user centred ethos - which is why they buy in the capability. Simply subsuming an agency will not integrate it into the wider business, nor will it create change and learning through 'osmosis'. 

Those agencies that are acquired will no doubt remain specialist units, only operating effectively if left that way, autonomous and independent. In which case, you are now simply paying over the odds for user-centred design specialists. If not left autonomous and independent, they will likely be stymied by an encroaching, process heavy, innovation averse, corporate culture and an inflexibility to simply get things done.

We’ll soon be releasing a paper that open sources our methodology for implementing change and embedding a user-centred culture. If you want to chat through anything discussed above, get in touch. If you want to be one of the first to receive our paper, sign-up

Contact Kieran McBride, Strategy & Planning Director

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