I get excited about digital workforces, not just because what they are capable of doing is amazing, but also because of their potential to disrupt more traditional ways of doing things.

We hear a lot about disruption – and we know that transformation is high on the strategic agenda; a 2015 study by global management consultants BCG found that 85% of companies claimed to have undertaken a transformation during the past decade. So, the question, posed by a colleague in a vendor organisation of “Where does a digital workforce fit into a company’s transformation strategy?” is poignant.

Digital workforces, just like a number of other potentially disruptive technologies, have the power to support transformational change. But they’re not always. Technology is not the transformation itself; it is merely an enabler. And reaping the truly transformational benefits of a technology comes down to – in my opinion – an organisation’s mindset around implementation. It’s all about how you adopt and bring to life these technologies within a business.

A lens to look at the differences

To illustrate what I mean by this, I’ve created a lens for looking at a business that spells out three options for change. Organisations can either undertake a refinement of the way they do things, they can reinvent themselves, or they can truly transform. I believe these to be three distinct categories that all relate to different aspects of the organisation and may or may not be considered in the implementation of a new technology. 

Pigs with lipstick: refining

Refinement takes place at the lower levels of the organisation – down in the structures, processes and procedures. Take the move to cloud computing as an example here. In this case, the business moves from a bunch of internal servers providing access to business systems, to a cloud-based solution delivering much the same (or basically similar) business functionality. This is a technology implementation that has refined the way that the organisation does things, but it’s not been transformational. In the same way, you can implement a digital workforce in only the functional aspect of a business. A digital workforce has the potential to support the transformational change, but it won’t if it’s just having an impact down in the bottom section of our diagram.

I often refer to refinement as the ‘tarting up’ of processes or ‘putting lipstick on the pig’. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and there may even be some cost savings and efficiency gains as a result, but an organisation is not going to get the transformation benefits because they haven’t aligned the implementation with their operating models.

Changing state: reinventing

You can possibly see where I’m going here. A business reinventing itself with the same technology will look at how the technology could not only improve the way that they deliver their products or services, but also pave the way for the development of new products or services and the improvement of customer experience. It will also consider the impact and opportunities that the digital workforce can have on the way they operate.

In the case of a digital workforce, the main aspect that is affected is the workforce operating model. Think about it this way: If you were going to outsource another function of your business – say procurement – your workforce operating model unquestionably changes. There would be a period of on-boarding and training. You would have to re-educate the business about how they are now to deal with procurement. You would need to put new service-level agreements in place. A digital workforce is the same story; it just happens that you’re dealing with a robot.     

Taking it to the level of transformation

Lastly, transformation takes all of these ideas even further. Transformation comes from considering the operating models that make up your business and proactively exploring the way that the new technology can positively impact these. Where reinventing is a once-off exercise, transformation includes an organisation-wide mindset and culture change that sees people continuously explore the opportunities that could impact both the market and the organisation. They adopt the mechanisms required to trial changes and continually reinvent themselves.

In the case of a digital workforce, transformation also comes with an understanding of the fact that the way people will do their jobs within the organisation will be affected, and this needs to be managed. Your workforce operating model is going to be profoundly different to how it was before, as your workforce is now augmented and made up of both people and robots. Where managers once had a team of 60, they might now have three people and a handful of robots. As an employee, where you once spent your day dealing with repetitive details, you now have electronic ‘colleagues’ taking care of the mundane. Now you only have the exceptions or challenging cases elevated to you to resolve.

In my next article, I will look further at how to engage your human workforce alongside your digital workforce. For now, it’s suffice to say that transformation comes from having an organisation that is sustainable and evolving. It’s a mindset, in all your people, that inspires thinking about how opportunities and ways to improve or innovate, as a result of your new technology, constantly.

Transformation is not for the faint-hearted

That said, transformation doesn’t come easily, and it’s not done lightly. It’s difficult to simply dream up new business or operation models, and many organisations won’t take the risks. More organisations that we see come up with a vision about innovation, or similar, and then jump in to restructuring, implementing new processes or upgrading their core systems. They’re only refining.

The same goes for significant technology rollouts. This is why organisations dip their toes in by piloting a new technology before it is considered for full implementation. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s a sensible way to balance the risk, as it allows an organisation to select a new technology, trial it on a small scale and learn from that trial. 

The important thing to note though, is that this is not yet a transformation. And, in fact, depending on how the pilot is set up, it may not even set the stage particularly well for the technology to later realise its transformational benefits.

Moving from a pilot to a transformation programme

The problem that we see, time and again, is pilots around technology that are done from strictly a technology basis. This may sound counter-intuitive, but you’ll see what I mean. We need to pilot new technologies to get the learnings, but often organisations are far too narrow in the learnings they are looking for, or in the way they measure and assess a new technology. It’s important to look beyond just the technological aspects and consider:

  • What business opportunities – both internally and in the market – are we unlocking with this new technology?
  • How will this new technology impact our people?
  • How will we need to change our operating models?
  • How will we educate people within the business about this change?

If you’re asking these sorts of questions, then you’re in the transformational mindset.

Successfully building digital workforce capability within your business, and achieving the full benefits and value for the business and your customers, depends on big picture thinking, attention to detail and focused expertise. 

Imagine an organisation-wide culture and mindset change that sees your people freed up to learn and think of more creative ways of providing value to your customers and your business. And imagine the freedom that comes from superior flexibility around your business and operating models so you can easily evolve to meet (or lead) market changes. Now that is powerfully transformative!