sq - digital transformation

August 30, 2019

6 ways to engage your employees in digital transformation

By Natalie Howells

Digital transformation in business - it's a trendy term, but what is it, why does it matter, and how do your individual staff members contribute to its success?

What is Digital Transformation in business?

Digital transformation is the process of integrating technology into all areas of your business to achieve your strategic goals. It's not simply the adoption of one or two new pieces of software, but a larger, more robust and integrated approach to your tools and processes. It's about creating a connected workspace, where your systems streamline how you work - it's technology being used to enable collaboration, automation, communication, and business growth. 

As with any significant change, digital transformation includes a cultural shift, moving into a technological landscape and being willing to embrace and adopt new technologies and step away from a traditional 'we've always done it this way' mindset. 

While the technology element might seem like the most vital part of the transformation, its success is also heavily dependent on the people involved - focusing on the people element is critical to achieving your digital transformation goals. 

If your teams aren't on board, any new technology will be limited in its use and application. People will either not use it, or use it incorrectly. You need everyone in your organisation to be engaged with the transformation. 

So, how can you get your employees involved, engaged, and interested in digital transformation? We've talked before about increasing employee engagement through technology, but what about when you need them to engage with that new technology and widespread change?

1. Communicate

Communication is a key part of any business, especially when we're talking about employee engagement. It's even more important when you're undertaking any kind of change or transformation. The quickest way to lose the goodwill of your staff is to keep them in the dark. Communicate early, and communicate often. 

According to research conducted by McKinsey, businesses with senior leaders who communicate with employees at all levels of the organisation are 8 times more likely to achieve success with transformation. So, senior leaders need to be talking to everyone - not simply telling their direct reports and leaving it to them to cascade the message to everyone else. 

You should communicate through actions as well as words. Modelling the behaviour you want to see from your employees is important - it's hard to get people on side with a change if they see senior leaders not following it. Lead from the front and show your staff that participation is expected from top to bottom. 

Don't stop communicating after the initial launch of your transformation programme. Ongoing communication allows you to celebrate successes as the project progresses, which is another important tool in engaging employees. Showcasing achievements throughout the process lets your teams know that the project is important, and that their involvement is noticed and appreciated - and appreciation is a hugely significant element in employee engagement. 

This ongoing communication also allows you to add more context to the story - rather than overwhelming people at the start, a consistent and regular comms plan will help build up the insights and excitement as you move through your transformation. 

2. Educate

It's important for every individual to understand how the process is designed to help improve their roles - if anyone is actively resistant to the changes, that can diminish or even eliminate the effectiveness of what you're trying to achieve. 

Therefore, part of your communication plan should focus on education. Change is something most people don't enjoy, so you need to ensure they genuinely understand what's happening - both why you're doing it, and what it means for them. 

Even the most engaged employees will wonder what impact a transformation programme will have on them as individuals, so education is key to adoption. And, once those employees truly understand, they can become advocates and champions, helping to roll out that message to their colleagues. 

The reason behind your digital transformation may not resonate with everyone - you might be changing because your competitors are leaving you behind, because legacy systems cost to much to manage, or because you recognise that efficiencies will help profitability. But these reasons don't connect as strongly with employees as a story that considers their needs. 

Your fundamental reason may be one of those above, but how much more compelling is it to explain how that translates to the staff on the ground? Those legacy systems cause headaches for IT because they have to keep them running. Outdated software frustrates frontline staff who have to use different workarounds because the systems haven't kept up with changes to the way they need to do things. Those workarounds make collaboration more difficult, so the support team don't have a full view of what the sales team are doing, and so on. 

What are the person-centric issues your transformation is designed to solve? That's the story you need to share with your staff. 

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3. Empower

Communication is a two-way street, and empowering your employees to provide their input will go a long way towards easing the process of transformation. You need to know what your employees think, what tools would make their lives easier, and what ideas they can bring to the table.

They've got plenty of experience of the day-to-day, so their insights will be invaluable when planning your digital transformation. And, just as importantly, employees who feel that they have contributed, and been listened to, will be more proactive in adopting and promoting the transformation. 

While you can't involve every single person in making the final decision, you should seek input from a wide variety of people. Frontline employees are critical to the success of any change programme - McKinsey found that companies without input from line managers and frontline staff reported 3% success in their transformation, whereas those that engaged and empowered both saw success rates closer to 28%. 

Every member of staff matters and should be empowered to contribute to, or participate in, the digital change. 

4. Upskill

Often, the process of defining a digital transformation programme will identify skills gaps within the business. In order to fill these gaps, leaders have a choice between hiring in new talent and developing internal staff. 

Upskilling, though learning and development, can be a significant contributor to employee engagement. Employees who feel that their organisation is willing to invest in them and their abilities have been found to stay longer, work harder, and become more productive in their roles.

The McKinsey research found that organisations that develop their people to achieve and surpass their performance expectations were 4 times more likely to have a successful transformation.  

As the costs of recruitment can be considerable, and the influence of known peers rather than new staff is often more persuasive, upskilling internal teams is an approach that many businesses find effective. Of course, ensuring that you have the right people in place, who are able and willing to increase their skills, is essential to this process - there's no sense in investing time and training where it won't be used or valued. 

The implementation of your digital transformation might require existing staff to learn new skills in order to fully use the new systems you're implementing. New technologies require different approaches, and training should be an essential part of your project plan from the start, to ensure your new systems and processes are used and adopted successfully. Misconceptions and misunderstandings can kill a transformation project if people aren't all working the right way. 

Documentation and ongoing training and development will go a long way towards successful implementations, engagement, and adoption of new technologies.

5. Identify

To help roll out your transformation project, you need champions. They're the members of staff who are passionate about what you're trying to achieve, who believe in the change, and who will promote it to their colleagues and reports. 

Identify these people across the business, in all levels and across departments. Help them understand the story behind the transformation - the why as much as the what and the how. Maintain communication with your champions, help them educate and empower their colleagues. Hearing the business message from multiple people and perspectives will help bring other members of the team along with you, improving the success of your project. 

You should also identify people who you feel might be risks to the transformation. Maybe they've been with the business a long time and are set in their ways, maybe they're a negative influence in general, or maybe they're disengaged and skeptical about anything really changing. 

You'll want to spend some time working out why specific individuals might be a risk, and come up with a strategy for tackling that. You might need to provide extra training, coaching, or support. You might need a champion to intervene if they hear or see behaviours that would be detrimental. In a worst case scenario, you may need to consider how damaging a person's negativity could be to your transformation efforts, and have a frank and difficult conversation about requirements and consequences. 

Ideally, you'd have very few (if any) people who pose such a risk, or a simple and straightforward way of re-engaging those people with the programme. But ultimately, you need to be prepared to ensure no individual can disrupt or damage your transformation's success.  

6. Continue

A digital transformation is not a 'set it and forget it' situation - especially in the early days. You may have communicated and trained your staff at the start of the process, but it's important to continue these approaches throughout, and beyond, the project. 

Systematically identifying, sharing, and improving upon best practices was linked to a 4-fold increase in the likelihood of success. 

Maintaining communication and support, especially in the early months following the change, is critical. Many businesses have started to implement changes and stalled, for various reasons, so employees may be cynical about the commitment to this particular transformation. Reinforcing the permanence of the change, and the business' focus on it, will help to avoid backsliding into old ways of doing things. 

Once your transformation is complete, you ideally want to make further improvements. At a minimum, you want to avoid stagnating - or worse, regressing. Continual communication, education, empowerment, and development will be key to achieving this goal. 

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