Why is digital transformation disruptive?

I’ve found that other functions struggle with innovative technology when:

  1. They don’t know their processes particularly well. In this scenario, discussions about a mere port to a new platform get stuck on basic process misunderstandings.
  2. They try to jam existing processes on a new platform without considering new opportunities the technology brings. It’s a reasonable implementation strategy to simply port processes, However, if one doesn’t account for new cases — e.g., using mobile form factors to present demos or quote and approve in real-time — one may inadvertently foreclose those opportunities via short-sighted design choices.
  3. They deploy new process cases without a organizational change strategy beyond training. Take my CRM example above: if one’s sales force is made up of “order takers”, will they be able to leverage the new capabilities without intervention? If nothing else, one must ensure that debriefs of the top performers in this new capability happen and are passed along (via training, coaching, etc.).

Adapted from a comment I made on LinkedIn on this ZDNet post by Sven Denecken, noting some concrete reasons why digital innovation is disruptive:

How can cloud computing help transformation projects?

I commented on a LinkedIn post re: cloud and “innovative” financing models. My take was that:

I’m wary of getting too close to full capacity on any potential constraint, as it means we can’t respond quickly enough to a potential business requirement. Zero slack often becomes a rationalization for a zero change or “we can’t do that” mindset.

Also, per David Kerr [a fellow commenter], the idea that the cloud will solve “speed bumps” driven by topics external to the project is dubious. If nothing else, you have to have this specific contingency in place during the project contract discussions. You’ll then have to navigate the flood of change orders that will cascade from invoking that contingency mid-project.

HR and Commitment-phobia

Josh Liebner, Gershon Mader, and I ended up on an interesting tangent about the role of human resources in driving strategic commitment (previous posts here and here).  Both authors shared my frustration about HR’s inertia when it comes to transformation efforts.  In no small measure, this frustration comes from believing that HR should be in a unique position to drive change because they often know “what is really going on” or “what people really believe/think”.

We kept coming back to one question:  Does the human resources field attract people who can’t or don’t want to lead?  Our answer was “too often” and the discussion identified three drivers:

  1. The reputation of HR as a leadership backwater is an on-going barrier to attracting risk-taking leaders.  Many people recognize that HR could be more, but ultimately…
  2. The transactional nature of many core HR functions shapes its own org design.  What parts of HR must be done?  Well, they are the compliance, recruiting, and benefits administration functions.  Therefore, there is something about the work that attracts…
  3. Gatekeepers.  Compliance-heavy functions require formal and structured lines of authority, which are quite easy to hide behind or to substitute for business decisions.

This last point highlights the position that HR has gotten itself into: gatekeeping may give it formal authority, but strategic imperatives don’t respect formal authority.  Emergent and adaptive systems will almost always find workarounds.

To that end, Josh and Gershon both suggested that a coaching and mentoring model is the best way for HR to engage in strategy.  This approach leverages the strength of HR — knowing the lay of the land — with a softer, less rules-bound style.  Acknowledging and shaping emergent behavior will be more fruitful than trying to ban or control it.

PM Quote of the Day — Heraclitus

Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony.

To this day, I still initially recoil when I sense impending conflict.  Luckily, I’ve had enough experience with organizational and personal change to realize that transformation only happens after resistance.  In fact, strong opposition is one of the surest signs that a breakthrough is imminent. 

Cheerful and immediate agreement to a change program means there’s a lot of hard slogging ahead.

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