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The Cultural Side of Digital Transformation

Technology is changing at an exponential pace, and so are the consumers expectations of having products and services to come with a digital experience. Perfect example, our Benekiva team recently rented office space and were shocked by the request of our future landlord to mail them two signed copies of the contract. As we were discussing this crazy request and wondering why they aren’t using technology to solve this simple problem, another startup contacted me to complain about the same. Did we get the space – Yes. Did we have a bad taste in our mouth about the process – Hell Yes.

One of my most memorable projects that I led earlier in my career was when I automated cash processing from a manual screenshot print activity that took a team of 15 individuals taking turns printing mainframe screens to a searchable database where they had the data in their fingertips. Before I started digging into this issue, I was advised – “You are working with legacy technology – data is not accessible.” “Mainframe replacement project is almost approved. Wait another year.” (I thought – yeah right 😊). If I hadn’t taken the time to observe what was happening in the cash department and rolled-up my sleeve to dig into available data feeds, this problem would have continued until mainframe replacement project which occurred 3.5 years later. This project yielded immediate benefits of 1 Full Time Employee and not including the money and trees we saved by not printing paper every morning. You may be wondering – how did I learn about this problem and why wasn’t this solved earlier. It didn’t dawn to me until several years later when I came across Center for Creative Leadership’s Direction, Alignment, Commitment (DAC) model that made it clear and why I still remember this project.

Here is a synopsis of the organization I was working for at the time:

  • Innovation was encouraged at the very top of the organization, and it didn’t stay at the Senior Leadership level. Employees across all salary grades were invited to participate.
  • Culture of celebration – If employees found a better way of work, they won awards and were recognized.
  • Embedding technologists throughout the business. I was one of the first hires of this kind which paved path for others. My role was to learn the business and find ways to improve processes and automation.
  • Data-driven decisions where tasks, people, managers, etc. were measured, which allowed bottlenecks to be determined quickly with a course of action.
  • Most importantly – There was a strong sense of DAC. Direction was articulated and communicated to ALL levels of the organization by the senior most person. This individual would make his mission to get out of his office and walk the floors – get to know people and share the vision. There were clear alignment of goals and initiatives. If it didn’t meet our key objectives or targets, it wasn’t a priority. No sneaking in projects. Finally, there was a strong sense of commitment at all levels of the organization.

How did I learn about this problem?

  • The cash processing leadership team tried for years to find a solution and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
  • When I got hired, this was one of the initiatives the team asked me to investigate. I was new and started “poking” around data availability.
  • I started discussing with my IT peers about the manual process the business was doing to apply cash and had to be a better way. I got introduced to a mainframe analyst, and when she found out about the issue, she started to find data feeds that were already produced (no work for mainframe developers).
  • Eureka moment - found the data set. Collaborated with other IT teams to find the best process to store the data while I created a tool to allow for data to be accessible to the team.

Success Criteria

  • Developing relationships is critical to success. You don’t have to be best friends or go out for drinks but having a good working relationship can make or break initiatives. I was new in the organization but already had started to form a peer group. I also involved all levels of the organization – from the cash processor to leadership. Whether you are a startup working with an organization or an employee – learning the organization and the key players (not every key player is a C-Suite executive) is critical to your success. Don’t get fooled that if you have upper-level buy-in that you get the golden ticket. Success is involving essential stakeholders at all levels of the organization.
  • Culture of the organization. As you can see in my example – this organization took risks, tried new things, and were open to explore the possibilities. Technology is often the easy part and where most failures occur is on the “soft” side of project management. Is your team equipped with the right people to navigate beyond the tech? Digital transformation initiatives are hard – if you are a tech startup working with organizations on their digital transformation initiatives – ensure you have the right people on the team that can handle the change management side of the house.
  • Ask Questions. When you hear a no – the attitude you have is the “yes” is around the corner. Ask questions various ways to collect data and information. Don’t be afraid to “poke” around – what is the worst that can happen? I’ve never seen anyone get fired for asking questions. If you have, then you were working for the wrong organization.
  • Collaboration. I involved various teams and departments to solve this problem. First, soup to nuts, we implemented this solution in less than 2 months – from discovery to implementation. Second, we had so much buy-in and excitement that we won a teamwork award for this project. Finally, it was fun to get to know others and collaboration allowed other problems to surface that some of this team were able to solve quickly.

If you are an employee of an organization managing digital transformation initiatives or a startup going in as a vendor, don’t ignore the culture side of your projects. Go in with an open and collaborative mind. As Covey states, “seek first to understand then to be understood.” Keep building relationships and asking questions. Finally, seek to build DAC – Without Direction, Alignment, and Commitment, no matter how much money or resources you throw at the problem, it is like getting your car stuck in wet mud, the wheels are turning but no forward mobility.