Technology wagging the dog?
Working in the world of technology has often tested the limits of my ability to uncover inferred meaning from some of the industry’s most overused buzzwords. If “digital transformation” is not at the top of that list, it is certainly close. Regardless of how you find digital transformation being defined (good luck), it is undeniable that more and more companies are allocating resources in pursuit of it. At the risk of being radically redundant, lets borrow the definition from the article linked above:
“Digital transformation marks a radical rethinking of how an organization uses technology, people and processes to radically change business performance.”
So, assuming we have pinned down this unicorn, it appears that digital transformation is all about improving business performance by appropriately leveraging people, processes, and technology. Notice I did take some liberty to rearrange the components of our given definition, opting to show technology as subservient to people and processes. This is key, as I submit that many digital transformation efforts fail because of their focus on technology over and above transcendent business cornerstones – people, and the processes they perform.
Why is this so? Is it possible that the word “digital” is skewing the way individuals view transformation? See this WSJ Blog interview with Box Inc. CIO Paul Chapman where he argues that “digital” is a word used to contrast the modern way of pursuing transformation with the historical, “manual” way of pursuing transformation. The example Chapman gives of people today not saying things such as “look at my digital pictures” explains plenty regarding how “digital” has become an appropriate presupposition for pretty much anything in our modern time. Therefore, adding “digital” as a prefix to “transformation” can unknowingly distort it’s meaning.
This can lead to organizations putting an undue emphasis on technologies without a clear understanding of the business problems they are seeking to solve for. After all, if we are pursuing “digital transformation” as opposed to plain-old “transformation”, our focus should be on the digital aspect, right? Not exactly... Healthy and effective transformation strategies do not change with the advent of a new widget. They always start with an understanding of the organization’s processes and the people who perform them. Afterall, if we can’t visualize how the work is performed – say, in a process – and how that process relates to other processes both upstream and downstream from it, how can we reasonably expect to identify problems and opportunities for improvement, and then act upon them?
So, what happens when organizations jump the gun on implementing new technologies without an understanding of the work structure those technologies are intended to support? At a minimum:
"… significant time and money is wasted when organizations attempt to make improvement without a clearly defined, externally focused improvement strategy that places the customer in the center."
Unfortunately, poorly planned transformation efforts often result in more than strictly monetary consequences. Employees can become disillusioned with new technology, experience significant change fatigue, and write off future technological advancements as the “flavor of the month” or the “shiny new object” destined for next quarter’s trash heap. As if this were not bad enough, this type of transformation strategy risks the automation of poorly designed processes, resulting in defects that will need to be reworked and corrected by already fatigued employees.
My guess would be that many of us have experienced these pitfalls first hand. But how do we avoid this? I propose that all successful transformation efforts need good, fundamental business process management (BPM). Let’s define BPM as the practice of improving company performance through managing and optimizing business processes. If our business processes are clearly documented, kept up-to-date and managed by the people who know them best, we are then in the position to pursue optimization through, dare I say, “digital transformation.”
Effective and efficient business process management (BPM) practices and solutions are essential for achieving operational efficiency and business performance excellence and ensuring successful digital transformation initiatives. BPM is no longer an optional add-on but an important component of the digital transformation.
I’ll address HOW an organization can set itself up to successfully implement BPM in a subsequent blog post, but our immediate point is that allowing technological advancements to drive our transformation efforts is not good enough. To paraphrase the great Dr. Ian Malcom, “we were so preoccupied with whether we could implement this new technology, we didn’t stop to think if we should!” BPM helps us answer not only the question “should we?” but also “where, how and when?”.
Many organizations forego this critical component because, quite frankly, doing BPM correctly is hard work. But, hard work or not, we must recover BPM if we are to create a work culture where processes are properly designed, clearly understood, and intentionally analyzed for improvement opportunities. When this takes place, we ensure the investment in supporting technologies is made purposefully and responsibly, opening the door for successful digital transformation.
Technology wagging the dog? Part Two
Technology wagging the dog? Part Three
 Clint Boulton. CIO. https://www.cio.com/article/3211428/what-is-digital-transformation-a-necessary-disruption.html ( accessedMarch 4, 2019).
 Tom Loftus. The Wall Street Journal. https://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2018/12/26/cios-to-everyone-please-stop-the-digital-transforming/ (accessed March 4, 2019).
 Karen Martin and Mike Osterling, Value Stream Mapping: How to Visualize Work and Align Leadership for Organizational Transformation (McGraw-Hill Education, 2014), 2.
 Jorge Garcia. Process Excellence Network. https://www.processexcellencenetwork.com/business-transformation/articles/using-bpm-to-accelerate-di... (accessed March 4, 2019).
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