The language of change: what is digital transformation?

Words are powerful. They can be used to articulate and communicate ideas and visions for the future. But equally our ideas and ambitions are shaped and potentially limited by the language that we use.

Language is constantly evolving. However, words that have ambiguous or unclear meanings or that seem to be an exercise in sales hype tend to frustrate, alienate and irritate rather than inspire. Digital Transformation is widely talked about as a radical disruption that companies must adapt to in order to survive, but many would struggle to explain beyond generic platitudes what it means for their sector or their business.

Agilis have just completed an 18 month assignment leading a digital transformation initiative for a major greenfield energy project in a frontier remote location. Here’s what we learned about how to explain digital transformation in terms of benefits, changes to people, processes and systems, and about using language that will bring people with you.

The Hype Cycle

The last few years a virtual storm of digital buzzwords seems to have been unleashed: digital transformation, 4th industrial revolution, digitalisation, digitisation, digital twins, machine learning, artificial intelligence, augmented reality. A huge bow-wave of marketing has pushed various technology products as magic bullets for increased productivity at reduced opex, or even just as a minimum requirement to keep up with competitors. An abundance of conferences has sprung up, each with claims of digital enlightenment and shared visions of a technological utopia.

Gartner’s Hype Cycle expresses this brilliantly in picture form.

Moving beyond the hype to be able to define and deliver something tangible is a challenge.

What we have learned

Our experiences leading a digital transformation initiative for an energy mega-project was a ground-breaking opportunity to consider how digital technologies that are currently targeted as interventions to operating assets or business models could be applied and incorporated into a project from the very outset. Our starting point was an enthusiastic brief from the project director, a passionate advocate, that was very much a vision built from digital buzzwords. We finished with a clearly costed implementation plan at a suitable level of definition for Execute phase that both the contractor and client teams could make sense of and were strongly committed to. It was a significant journey to get from one to the other. Here’s what we learned, in everyday language, about digital transformation.

1. What are you trying to achieve?

You need to be clear on where your organisation or project can get most benefits, this needs to drive your strategy, recognising that it may change over time. Where is the value in what you are doing, where are the opportunities? Adopting new technology in isolation will not bring significant benefits – the real value is in considering the interplay of people, process and tools, and how you can use technology to transform the way you work. Put together a benefits business case – this may consist of a mix of risks avoided or reduced as well as opportunities gained. There need to be mutual benefits for all contracting parties, these will only be achievable by working collaboratively, contracting strategies need to recognise this.

2. How are you going to achieve it?

You need to be clear on how you are going to turn your vision into things that can be bought, built and used. The people, process and tools framework can be a useful starting point.

a. Process: be agile but rigorous

Set out the requirements for each new system, technology or work process at whatever level you can, recognise that this is an iterative and collaborative process that needs to be focussed on users (who are they?) and use cases (what users want to do, when, where and why) while keeping in mind at all times the benefits you are trying to achieve. Your requirements are likely to develop and crystallise as you talk to technology providers, this could be formalised as a Request for Information process. A hybrid project management approach where an initial agile working style is used to develop requirements that can transition into more traditional procurement and delivery models can work well.

b. Technology: undertake a clear analysis of market offerings

Use defined ranking and weighting criteria that cover all aspects (including for example cyber security, data portability and ownership, reference projects, connectivity with other systems) and relate to the benefits you are after. Always ask for demonstrations of software or tools and consider setting trial tasks as part of a final vendor selection process. Ensure you are comparing like for like, and allow for additional services, licenses or hardware if this is needed for a fair comparison. Don’t be sold at, be a pro-active consumer. A single system that attempts to cover all possible requirements may not be the best solution: consider that with API or other equivalent protocols, getting different systems to exchange information is no longer a huge IT project. The new marketplace that is emerging enables you to buy a suite of apps that do exactly what you want, at the time you want it, without being bound to a single supplier – if you set up your systems to enable this. A collaborative data platform with plug-in apps for analysis and a user interface is not unique to any one supplier. Stay focussed on your current and possible future requirements (regulatory or market driven). Remember that your data is a valuable asset, curate it and safeguard it accordingly.

c. People: find people who care, get people to care

Build a network of like minded people both within and outside your organisation to support and share what you are doing. Don’t forget that people and process are key to actually being able to realise any benefits. Information needs to lead to action. Make sure contracts and contractual workscopes align with and promote what you are trying to achieve, support collaborative working, and provide appropriate benefits to all parties. Walk the talk: everyday work processes should make the best use of the tools you already have in place, it’s all about making life easier. Put plenty of energy into building and maintain relationships with everyone who can make (or break) your initiative. Technology pilots can be a powerful way of showing the benefits of technology in action and building management confidence.

Getting people to care is the key to everything. You need to be bringing your whole team or organisation with you, not just preaching to the converted. You should be able to explain in a few minutes of pub or coffee machine chat what you are trying to do. Seek input and insights from a wide range of team members, both those with positive and negative views. A vision that is built collaboratively and owned by everyone is far more likely to be realised than one imposed.

High level goals need to be made tangible in some way, for example:

We are trying to improve the way people and technology interact to gather and share data in order to develop insights and take actions for improved performance. Our target is to reduce vendor site call outs for the first year by 75%. This will be achieved through enhanced remote vendor support enabled by online condition monitoring and the provision of wifi on site for augmented reality video calls (vendor and onsite technician both view the same video image of equipment, remote vendor can point at specific parts or overlay other relevant information e.g. instructions for removal or replacement of parts).

As far as possible use everyday language. If you need to convey something new or different then use the words that work for you and your teams, as long as the meaning and purpose is clear and you are consistent in use. You will encounter a variety of people and reactions from the over-enthusiastic technology chaser to the vocal cynic, and you will need a variety of approaches to connect with each: informal chats, presentations, demonstrations, regular meetings, steering groups, site visits to see technology in action. It may help to use different tools from the usual set – for example a presentation tool such as Prezi allows more open and unstructured group conversations, using cartoons or photographs can be a powerful way of conveying the use cases you are talking about and opening up discussions.

So what is digital transformation? It is simply the change you want to see in your organisation, supported and enabled by digital technologies. Using simple language to describe the changes to people, processes and systems that you are trying to achieve will make your life so much easier, and success so much more likely.