Founders' Fireside: A Digital Transformation Is also a Cultural One

How does the culture you build around a digital transformation impact its success?

By its definition, “digital transformation” skews towards technology. Hear the term, and your mind fills with exciting words like data and innovation, automation and — whisper it — AI. 

But there’s another side to every business this association doesn’t touch on: its people. Even the most sophisticated AI solutions available on the market today still require a human touch: users and operators. Any kind of business transformation needs to factor this in if it hopes to be successful. Because on its own, technology doesn’t automatically transform anything. 

  • What role exactly do your people play in a digital transformation? 
  • Which should you lead with when considering adoption and onboarding? 
  • And how can you implement a solution in such a way that your people want to use it? 

The answer, according to our principal consultant, co-founder, and director Eric Murphy, lies with your culture. As he sees it, “any kind of digital transformation is also a cultural one”.

Over the long years of his service, Eric has led digital transformation projects for many of our largest clients. I sat down with him to find out more about the process, what he means by a “cultural transformation”, and how you can plan your implementation for the best success.


Language as the building blocks of cultural transformation

The way we talk about something directly impacts what we understand by it. Language also shapes how we feel about something. Looking again at the way you define phrases like “adoption” and “implementation” is the first step towards understanding what a digital transformation actually means and the different roles your people will play along the way.

“The word ‘adoption’ is thrown around all the time but it’s difficult for people to describe what it means and what it is as a process,” Eric explains. “Being able to break this down across several recent implementation projects and go deeper into it has been really interesting.”

By digging into what adoption actually means and how different organisations approach it, Eric has been able to create a new, more effective language for it within these businesses.

“In particular they were having a difficult time internally understanding the difference between onboarding and implementation. Do these words mean the same thing and how does adoption fit into it? In my experience, they’re very different processes. I’ve heard from many prospects that they’ve had terrible experiences in the past. They thought they were getting a fully managed implementation when in reality they received a couple of ‘onboarding’ calls and access to a library of self-guided steps to carry out the implementation themselves. These projects invariably failed and caused headaches for a long time afterwards.”

In any given digital transformation project, onboarding is effectively the activation of, and training on, the tools involved, whereas an implementation is driving adoption of the tools. This includes onboarding but it also involves utilisation. Are the relevant teams actually using the new platform, or have they parked it in the drive, never to go back to it again? 

“If we think of onboarding as 'activation plus training', and implementation as both of those things plus utilisation, actually proving this is now the primary way for our people to perform the job at hand. In other words, the end result of implementation should be the users saying ‘I don't know how I could do my job without this’." Eric Murphy, Principal Consultant, Co-founder and Director, BabelQuest


Creating a culture of utilisation

“Failed adoption: we hear of it happening so often,” Eric reveals. “Nine times out of ten, when it does happen, it’s because there wasn’t a culture to support the adoption of the tools. Follow the basic rules of forming a habit: your people have to use the tool or platform daily. They have to recognise small improvements in the way they use it every day. And they have to keep this up for at least 28 days, statistically speaking, for the new habit to stick.”

One of the advantages of building this kind of culture is that it doesn’t end with the implementation. Cultural continuity can promote a long, healthy platform adoption. 

“When a user drops off or they break this habit, it’s important that you can get them moving again. This can happen at any time, long after the implementation project itself has ended. Adoption isn’t a one-time event. It continues for as long as the platform’s in use.”


Adaptability increases the effectiveness of change

Every digital transformation project throws curveballs: steps or aspects of the project that require more time or effort to complete. Your adaptability toward these changes and the culture that influences is dependent on the way in which you manage your implementation. 

“In one project we’ve recently completed, we hadn't anticipated how much time the client would want to spend in user acceptance testing (UAT) and to what degree of the basics they’d need that testing to cover,” Eric explains. “UAT is really important to adoption, especially when it extends right down to basic platform functionality. Can users log in? How does the portal look on their screens? When they're looking at a contact record, can they find the link to jump to the company record? These are really basic tests but if the business had been unwilling or unable to adapt its transformation and prioritise them, it would have been constantly firefighting or resolving support tickets and its adoption would have failed.”


Accountability, the backbone of cultural transformation 

In any process where change is observed, an accountable person or team of people is key to effective project delivery, project controls, and a culture of responsibility. 

“When we work with a client on an implementation, their project delivery system and the rigour of the project coordination from their side is hugely influential in terms of how the project moves forward,” Eric says. “A culture of accountability is key to keeping a project on track. It necessitates design principles — and enforces them. When necessary, this culture can be leveraged to condense phases and improve project efficiencies, if not doing so would lead a project to fall out of scope, over budget, or extend beyond its deadline, for example.”

Without a culture of responsibility, gateways can become dams, delaying a project timelines or blocking progression indefinitely. Decisions can die a death by committee as senior leadership wrestle with rules or processes with which they have no day-to-day interaction.

“The solution to this is to establish your design principles at the start,” Eric reveals. “These become the rules you refer back to when faced with a decision. With design principles in place, you can delegate even the most complex decisions to the people in the room. This is a big concept and one I’d love to chat about with anyone considering an implementation.”


A culture that breeds passion for your new platform

One client of Eric’s recently described how much she “loved working with a group of people who’ve all got the same drive to create something that works for the wider business and each user while being led by experienced and approachable subject matter experts.” 

This was a large implementation for a billion-pound company yet still she noted “how refreshing and exciting [it’s been] to see a project of this size come to life and roll out across such a diverse group knowing that each of us has played a vital role in its success and adoption."

For the project in question, Eric and the Expert Practices team planned how to split up the groups of users and how to deliver training to multiple groups from different time zones around the world. At one point, they were delivering two training sessions a day. New platform implementations are renowned for being exciting but the passion coming out of the client’s business because its people understood their way around the platform, and how to use it, and what a difference it was going to make to their working lives, was palpable.  


Key takeaways

  1. Create a new, more prescriptive language around adoption and onboarding.
  2. Encourage daily habits around utilisation that will long outlive the project itself. 
  3. Adapt your project phases to keep the implementation moving forward. 
  4. Assign accountability to keep your people responsible and the project on track. 
  5. Through training, replace doubt and fear with passion for your new platform.


Every digital transformation is also a cultural one

A digital transformation unlocks new functionality across a business. And with new functionality comes new capabilities: the ability to work faster, to collaborate better, to communicate more clearly. But it’s not your new platform working, collaborating, or communicating more effectively. A business is the sum of its people, not its systems. 

In this way, every digital transformation is also a cultural transformation. The trick, as I understand it from chatting with Eric, is to ensure your cultural transformation is a positive one. To bring out your team’s passion instead of stifling it. To distance accountability from blame. To define from the outset what you understand by phrases like “implementation” and “onboarding” so everyone is speaking the same language. Our cultures define us; what is your cultural transformation saying about your business, your people, and you?

There’s so much more to talk about here. To keep the conversation with Eric going, click the image below and get in touch today.

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