Digitalization is a Team Sport

Mercy Harper's picture

Organizations are funneling vast amounts of time and money into digitalization. And while there’s a lot of advice about which tech to buy and business areas to invest in, the people side of digitalization is also important. Without a people-focused strategy, digitalization can amplify organizational silos and breed discontent in the workforce. I talked with Dr. Carla O’Dell to learn how organizations can take a smarter approach to digitalization.

Mercy Harper: Who is best-suited to lead digital transformation?

Carla O’Dell: That’s a great question. It’s one that people often ask, and my answer to it is actually a little unconventional. But it’s data-based, so I think I’ve got some ground to stand on.

The conventional answer is that the CEO should lead it. Yes, but it’s a team effort, that’s my first rule of thumb. Digital transformation is a team sport. The CEO needs to be involved in it, but let’s get real here. The CEO does not have the time to deal with the details. He or she is not actually going to “lead” the effort in the way that we normally think of that. The most important thing that the CEO can do is to pick the right players for the team.

Mercy: Who are some of those key players? Who would you put on your bench?

Carla: APQC’s research shows that 69 percent of organizations start with robotic process automation (RPA) as their first toe in the water for digital transformation. When you do RPA, you focus on the department whose processes will be automated. You need process owners or business unit representatives from that area on the team. You need to bring on HR if there’s any concern about job loss from automation.

IT should be involved. That’s my second rule of thumb: IT is involved in everything. You may not need them if all you’re doing is RPA. A lot of people hire consultants to do RPA, because it may not touch the IT infrastructure. But you want IT on your team; you need their technical savvy.

I also think you need knowledge management on the team. People are starting to notice that one of the biggest problems with digital transformation is that we don’t learn from our pilots. Pilots are often siloed. You need KM to help set up that learning environment.

Mercy: Employees are often afraid of digitalization—particularly RPA. They think robots are going to steal their jobs. How can organizational leaders get ahead of that? And how can they partner with HR to assuage employees’ fears?

Carla: A year ago, I thought [knowledge work] robots were scary too. There were early studies by the Oxford University and McKinsey claiming that 50 percent of today’s jobs—from manufacturing to service to knowledge work—would be replaced by robots. But they’ve done a re-analysis of that research, and found the reality is closer to 5 percent. It’s not going to be jobs that get replaced. It’s going to be tasks. And we hope that what gets automated are the boring tasks, or tasks that people don’t do well.

The press has done a great job scaring people, so employees are going to be afraid. But organizational leaders can do two things to assuage that fear. First, remember that people support what they help create. Get employees involved in the design and let them see what pieces are being automated. You have to understand a process before you automate it and employees doing the process are experts on how it is done now.  They are in the best position to engage with the process experts in redesign.

Mercy: Digitalization doesn’t always touch all areas of the organization equally. When certain areas are heavily involved in digitalization and others don’t get to participate, that can really amplify organizational silos. How can organizational leaders flip that around, and instead use digitalization as a way to break down silos?

Carla: It comes back to building a team. Let a lot of people in to your digitalization team. The best digital transformations we’ve seen have the largest constituency of people on their teams. Even though one area is “at bat” right now, you can bring on other areas to learn about and contribute to the effort.  It’s a big tent, and you can let a lot of people in: customer service, marketing, sales, advertising, process improvement, KM, and so on. The way you break down silos is you bring people together around a common task. 

It’s really hard to break down existing silos in an organization. But the way to do it is to bring people together around a common task. And digitalization is one that people are excited about. And it’s where the money is. Organizations are funneling most of their capital investment into digital transformation.


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