Employees on the front line are essential stakeholders in digital transformation

Digital transformation projects today include the augmentation of front-line workers with machines to improve productivity and working lives. In this model, digital technologies enable people to become more productive and enjoy enhanced well-being. The best approach to change is to work closely with your front-line employees from the very start as you develop your digital transformation plans. Sam Waes, Industry Lead Business & Innovation Consultant and Zane Smilga, Managing Consultant, Innovation and Business, provide some insight into this.

What do you want to achieve?

“In all previous industrial revolutions, humans were underestimated. Excessive automation has, for some companies, proven to be a mistake. Industry 5.0 will re-value humans in the production process, focusing on value-added tasks with augmented technologies that can deliver more intelligence to make smarter operational decisions, hyper-personalized products, and increased customer and employee experience,” says Sam Waes.

McKinsey claims that around 70% of digital transformation projects fail. There are many reasons projects fail, but a lack of clarity of purpose is one you can resolve with better internal collaboration. The disconnect between what tech can achieve and how swiftly organizations can adapt (always slower) even has a name: The First Law of Digital Innovation.

“People don’t want a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole,” said Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt. This marketing aphorism demonstrates that it is not your perception of need that matters but what that need actually is. It’s the same when you’re attempting a transformation project – you must identify what the real needs are if you want to succeed.

Collaboration between your digital transformation experts and front-line teams can yield the insights you need to define goals and opportunities. Communication may help companies assess the impact of each digital change to mitigate against unforeseen down- or upstream consequences. The solutions themselves may generate unintended problems elsewhere in the ecosystem.

“It’s not one technology that will solve the problem. Sometimes you must redesign processes because new solutions don’t fit in the old environment,” Zane Smilga explains.

First to experience problems

Front-line employees are often the first to experience problems. Talking with them, seeing what they do, and how they have innovated existing workflows can help to guide successful digital transformation. After all, those with problems to solve should always be the most motivated to solve them, hence the phrase “employee-driven innovation.”

“They may know a lot about what they do but don’t always see the whole picture. But when managing change, our task is to remove complexity from those different touchpoints to see the big picture of what is to be done,” says Waes. Many enterprises create internal groups to identify opportunities for change.

The potential for employee-driven digital innovation is impossible to calculate, but according to IDC’s Worldwide IT Industry 2020 Predictions report, the world’s enterprises must create some 500 million new digital solutions by 2023—more than created over the past 40 years.

Fast followers

Even in the race to digitize, not every business needs to come first. It’s a perfectly acceptable business strategy to become a fast follower, adopting solutions that already work for industry peers. “But even then, they need to be re-evaluated for the specific context together with the key employees. The success depends on employee adoption at scale and seamless technology integration,” says Smilga.

Managers should spend time with stakeholders from across their business to identify weaknesses and opportunities that may be reconciled with better processes. Recognizing the inefficiencies, spoken and unspoken frustrations within existing processes is a great place to start when visualizing and developing a project. That’s why 58% of companies across every sector are already experimenting with co-innovation schemes.

Beyond ideas boxes and focus groups, there are multiple approaches to engaging with employees. Digital transformation experts can observe and assess the production at a factory, for example. They may work closely alongside workers, organize internal exploration workshops and experimentation spaces, or identify other approaches suitable to their unique situation.

Unleashing employee-driven innovation

When beginning any project, recognize that transformation is not a game you play alone. The sheer quantity of innovation any business needs can best be realized by harnessing the power of teams across every business function. It won’t be realized by small groups of technologists and data scientists.

Users must be included in the core transformation team to safeguard user-centric value. MIT’s Eric von Hippel advocates that front-line users should take a central role, “joining agile teams that dynamically coalesce and dissolve based on business needs.”

The converse is that there is also a need to create feedback loops to help identify whether or not a new system or process doesn’t work on the front line. Fixing a broken system with another broken system generally yields poor results. To build an optimal solution, it is essential to take time to iterate, experiment and test. Change in one place may impact other parts of your business.

Think holistically

What impact will any change in working practices and new efficiency have on other parts of your business? Will logistics, procurement, or customer satisfaction teams keep up if manufacturing yields increase? What bottlenecks exist that may limit the positive impact of change? Your front-line staff must play an important role in identifying potential future risks or challenges.

“Design thinking and innovation activity is a good way to meld technology together with user and business thinking,” says Smilga. “If you start thinking from a user’s point of view, then you reach more easily adopted solutions to deliver the expected improvements.”

“It’s important to go through the journey rather than just expect a quick technology fix to improve things,” says Waes. “If you don’t walk the process, it can become costly due to the wrong focus or technical solution.” Of course, when new processes are implemented, this user-centric approach must continue.

It’s important to note that while involving people is essential to success, it isn’t straightforward. People in your teams have different motivations, agendas, emotional connections, specializations, and other factors which must be considered when designing new solutions.

Tomorrow never comes, so think ahead

When designing new processes, it’s essential to consider the future. “It’s a continuous journey because technology keeps evolving, and more will be possible, but we still must focus on human needs to make jobs easier and generate better high-performance results,” says Waes.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously created a product design culture in which the company would allegedly “sweat the small stuff.” The reality is that failure to consider the impact of design decisions can generate consequential problems.

Moving an entire company to a new ERP solution during peak business is the kind of decision front-line staff may warn about, just as they may share deep reservations about adopting new core processes while also assimilating a newly acquired company. Even something as simple as an unnecessary three-second process within a component ordering system will greatly impact productivity across a large company. Hundreds of employees must follow that process many times daily. With that in mind, it should be clear that the most successful transformation will always emerge when you enable your people to solve the problems they face, rather than generate fresh ones.

Need help with defining your innovation strategy? Read about our approach to co-innovation, and discover our global innovation capabilities here.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.