When I hear about Digital Transformation initiatives, I think back to when people considered moving paper processes online as “digital transformation.” 

Rather than rethinking processes and considering where value was actually being created, the businesses simply changed old manual paper-based forms to web forms and converted the same workflows to electronic means. Managers would print out online applications, put them into a folder to bring home, write notes in the margins and then drop that folder onto a staff member’s desk for transcription into another application. 

The forms may have been brought on line, but the manager still felt more at home printing and writing on documents than conducting his work online.

This anecdote points to two issues: 1) no matter how well defined a process was, it was difficult to account for all of the circumstances that fell outside of the usual course — the edge conditions and 2) changing a process entails more cultural challenges than technical challenges. 

Transformation requires that people change how they do their jobs, and change is exceedingly difficult in any size enterprise.

A Holistic View of the Value Chain

Transformation of processes is often considered in isolation, without connecting them to a holistic view of the value chain. The reason for this is straightforward — it’s too difficult to address multiple complex processes. The broad scope and multiple interconnected systems and applications spanning multiple departments makes it not feasible to tackle change from this perspective. 

Transformations are therefore never complete, rather becoming evolutions of multiple initiatives that take place over a period of years. Ultimately, they encompass many different budget authorities, stakeholders, decision making groups, processes and technologies. The dependencies across these initiatives can impact the success of seemingly disparate programs.

Transforming the Customer Experience

Consider the goal of transforming the customer experience. Many organizations consider the website the focus of the customer experience. Assuming that this is the case (and there are no offline interactions), certain foundational elements need to be in place — content management, e-commerce, customer support, online account maintenance, etc. Depending on the model, this transformation might also include digital marketing processes.

A business could reasonably define the project scope from this perspective. Assuming that these systems were re-architected and re-platformed and the organization installed state of the art technologies, one would now expect to see a transformed customer experience. 

Unfortunately, installing new externally-facing technologies does not necessarily catalyze the changes needed in internal processes for a seamless customer experience.

Customer Experience Transformation Requires Employee Experience Transformation

A large manufacturing enterprise with both a B2B and B2C web presence embarked on two major transformation initiatives — one to transform the customer experience and the other to transform the employee experience. The organization is complex, with several business units selling technical products serving different markets with overlapping needs. 

The customer experience roadmap included extensive revamping of product systems, processes and data. In order to present solutions in a cross-selling context, they planned new content management applications to improve dynamic content assembly and set up governance structures for long-term sustainable decision making. The program received funding and support from executive management.

The employee experience transformation focused on improvements to search and findability of internal content. Unfortunately this project was not as well supported and consequently did not receive funding. Without improved upstream processes and improved efficiency in the supporting functions, however, the customer experience transformation will face difficulties delivering on its potential impact. 

As noted previously, it is not feasible to tackle multiple programs at an enterprise scope and scale. But tackling search as a component of a transformation is a foundational capability that can have a significant impact and return on investment.

Improving search is extremely difficult in typical enterprises because usually they have devoted very little attention or effort to making unstructured content — the documents that people create and collaborate on day to day — more findable. The fallacy over the years has been that all that is needed is a new search engine and that will make everything findable. Or business users just tell IT that they should make search “more like Google” without realizing that organizations with good Google rankings spend a great deal of money optimizing their content for search engines. If the same attention was paid to internal content, it would be more findable.

Big, Exciting, Expensive vs. Unsexy, Boring, Difficult

Digital transformations tend to be about big, exciting, expensive programs but they sometimes fail to address the difficult, unsexy, boring parts — like getting people to organize content correctly, apply metadata or simply use consistent naming conventions. It’s easy to dismiss these tasks as something that someone else has to do or assume that quality data is already in place. 

Quality data cannot be assumed. In fact, it's safer to assume the opposite.

Transformation is a dramatic concept and executives typically want to see the output of a transformation — something dramatic, new capabilities that will change how customers and competitors perceive the organization. 

A life sciences organization recently sought “transformative proposals” from a number of large agencies. Stakeholders were looking to transform how a particular service was delivered. The proposals from the agencies were fantastic — creative, innovative and well-conceived. Great concepts, great vision. 

In some ways, that is the easy part. 

The hard work that went into developing these concepts should not be dismissed, but the organization did not have the operational maturity to realize the vision. It lacked sufficient integration of marketing, content curation, content modeling data quality processes. If one of the agencies had been hired to implement their plan, there would have been no way to maintain and adapt the experience. It was not exactly static, but it was far from the finely tuned user experience machine that the transformative vision required.

A Transformed Organization is a Finely Tuned Machine

What does the organization look like after a successful digital transformation? The outcome can be considered analogous to a well-engineered, finely-tuned, efficient machine. What does that machine do? It engages customers and delivers products and services that are competitive in the marketplace and developed cost effectively and of the highest quality.

The enterprise is an information machine. It processes resources and information and creates value by applying that information to solving problems, producing goods and delivering value in the marketplace. Internal processes and information flows are the inner workings of the machine. Manual processes, lack of user buy-in, poor data and the inability to find information quickly and easily slow the machine down. It cannot run optimally and as effectively as the digital transformation envisions if information does not flow smoothly throughout the supporting processes.

Grand Visions and Getting Back to Basics

Grand visions for digital transformation get programs funded and get people excited and motivated. But they succeed only when users can work efficiently and locate information in the internal systems that support their day-to-day tasks. 

Enterprise search is one of the foundational tools that enables customer-facing processes. Effective search requires that the organization pay attention to data quality, content curation and integration frameworks to support information access across various systems. All of these programs are held together by governance and decision making processes linked to KPIs and metrics. 

Most organizations face significant challenges in many of these areas. They don’t see the problems until their transformation efforts don’t live up to their grand promises. The good news is that they are all solvable.