Back to the future: from people to tech, and back again.

There is a lot of debate around digital disruption in business and how that is changing the nature of work. What I find missing in those debates is the importance of understanding what work people will still be doing. While I think that teams of people will still be driving activities, they will also be driving any operational improvements and innovations, including automation.

Although a lot of the work has changed, a lot has also stayed the same. Were we not convinced that printed books were a thing of the past? Did we not think vinyl records had gone the way of the dodo?

Here are 5 factors to consider when balancing the role of people and tech as we race to embrace digital disruption:

1. Know what your systems – and your people – are doing

Over the years I have seen the focus change from the manual work people were doing, to the work that could be done by computers or machines. And rightfully so, as mundane or dangerous activity is often better done by machines - faster, more accurate, and more safely.

But the machines are, for the foreseeable future, dependent on people driving them, programing them, operating them, and fitting them in the right place in the process at the right time. And let’s face it, machines are replicating people-based activities, so if the people don’t know what they’re doing, how can the machines know?

As a business, it is imperative to have a view of what it is your people do, certainly as a baseline. Documenting that work, including interactions with the systems you have, is crucial to understand how well they use them and what impact any changes in systems will have on productivity and the quality of their work.

I have worked with clients to actually map each of their systems as a role into flowcharts (swimlanes), so that those interactions are seen at the activity level. This is particularly useful when data is manually transferred between systems, as is still the case in many organizations. I classify Excel spreadsheets as systems too, since they are widely used as such in many organizations, particularly by SMEs.

I usually start by identifying who owns the system, who uses it, what it is used for and what inputs or outputs it generates. That way you get a very good understanding of the processes involved. A lot of time gets wasted reinventing the wheel because a system was too difficult to use, or did not do what it was meant to. It is very worthwhile to map those processes, including the system interactions, prior to deciding what systems to connect, move, change, update or swap out.

Although this way of mapping is not necessary for business-as-usual processes where systems can be tagged, it can be revealing for improvement and automation projects.

Learn about the role of business process management in digital transformation.

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2. Build a culture of improvement


In my 20+ years of working with policy, process and procedures I have seen that many improvements and innovations come from the small things, the daily things, the things that make the working day that little bit easier. Human nature is largely geared towards the status quo. Major change is not happily embraced universally, but small incremental changes will add up over time.

Some call it continuous improvement, some call it common sense. However, the only way it will happen is when you allow it to happen. You need to build a culture that encourages people to come up with improvements for implementation in a structured and controlled way.

In the absence of this sort of culture and structured approach, people will continue to make changes but you won’t know about them, and you won’t know whether they are compliant, or whether they have an adverse impact on other parts of the organization. They will be undocumented, local and not measured against the overall business goals.

3. Be intentional about how you manage change

Obviously, there is always a push for the big changes. Most major system overhauls bring with them the opportunity for ‘digital disruption’ for the people in the workplace, but with none of the excitement. It pays to understand and manage how much change you put your organization through.

I see a lot of ‘change fatigue’ in teams. Change management seems to be a buzz word without much substance in a lot of companies. The leadership team should play a critical role in change management, but I see a big gap in that area too.

I have seen a lot of trust eroded by undelivered promises from ill-conceived and poorly executed change projects. You need to be very clear on where you want to end up, why you want to end up there and how you think you are going to get there. Bringing your people with you is an absolute must.

4. Set the standard

As a rule, teams don’t come to work to do a bad job. However, what a ‘good job’ is, is often in the eye of the beholder unless you can identify and document a good process standard. Without it, variations abound and they can cost you money unless you know what caused them.

W. Edward Deming, the father of quality management, said that in order to control an organization, you need to know its basic processes. He was talking in the 50/60's of course, and his focus was on manufacturing at the time. And although a large part of our global economy is now focused on service delivery, that still holds very true, if not more so.

Managing process variations remains a huge problem for many organizations. Process variation management is still unnecessarily complex, costly, and inconsistent. To be effective, processes need to be simple and they need to engage your teams.

5. Involve your people

Delivering a quality service is entirely dependent on the teams of people delivering it since, even if it’s been partially automated, there are no other ‘manufacturing machines’ involved that can be tweaked and adjusted. That makes it even more important that those basic processes are understood and documented. Service products are completely dependent on people knowing what they need to do, how they need to do it, and when they need to do it.

Nowadays, there is often much higher levels of staff turnover. People are very mobile and no longer stay in jobs for decades. What this means is that unless there is clear process documentation captured and available on what needs to be done in each job, your corporate process knowledge walks out the door with every person that leaves.

The bottom line.

For me, digital disruption is people doing what they have always been doing, except faster and with better processes and better tools. That doesn’t remove their need to know what is expected of them, where they fit in the bigger picture, and the value they bring to your organization.

Find the opportunity in disruption by striking a balance between systems and people, and keeping it as simple as you can, actively managing change and building a culture of improvement.

And remember, the first step to supporting and fast tracking operational improvements and innovations is making sure you have a solid, clear understanding of how and what teams do today.

Guest blogger bio.

Marjolein Towler has over 30 years’ experience as principal consultant and director of Consultas Pty Ltd, with a client base from both the corporate and public sectors.

She is a certified Nintex Promapp implementation consultant, a qualified information designer, qualified facilitator, certified project management professional (PMP), certified process professional champion (CPP, level 8), and certified Lean Six Sigma - green belt practitioner. 


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