We’re living in an age of experience, extreme consumerization, and very rapid change. Just keeping up is a major challenge for companies. What is good today may not be relevant tomorrow, and a new service or product line today could be cannibalized by something much better depending on what comes next. But brands must do more than just keep up. They must rethink how they operate to better anticipate consumer needs. As a result, companies need to rethink the relationship between operations, people and technology.
Historically, a company could consider sudden market shifts as “black swan” events, but today such events (think natural disasters, pandemics, etc.) seem to happen more frequently. Businesses must adapt as quickly as markets change, and intuitively deliver experiences based on new-age product lines and services. To achieve this, they must cut across old silos. And they must build frictionless, seemingly invisible work processes that reflect the new need for greater operational agility and fluidity.
Enterprises have invested heavily in technology but little attention has been given to the processes sitting on top, which tend to be choppy. Many of these processes are, at best, inconsistent. And they often are completely broken. Leaders need to think about processes as the end-product of their technology work, the end outcome that serves customers and the market.
But even in a highly-automated age, processes will still be driven by people. So, thinking about how you motivate, train, and develop them will be the best path to better serving customers. Several key approaches will help guide your strategy. First, think of the outcomes you want to achieve. Second, consider that those outcomes will best be driven by having the right kind of people in place. Finally, take advantage of the new ways technology enables you to turn any businessperson into a programmer, or put more \\simply – engage in “citizen coding.”
Optimizing operations with outcome-oriented thinking
We need to rethink the relationship between business operations and technology. Many leaders think their companies have been digital for the better part of a decade. However, the pandemic exposed critical gaps in between how digital they thought they were and how far they still have to go. Now they aspire to a state where “everything is digital,” but it’s unclear what that means and what companies should do to get there.
To paraphrase author Stephen Covey, start with the end in mind. Digital transformation must begin with a clear sense of the brand’s purpose in the market, which then should lead to reconfiguring work processes to achieve your purpose. First, identify the problem you are trying to solve and the value you are trying to deliver. From there, consider the kind of customer experience you want to create, the one that best reflects the values of your brand. Only then can you decide how best to render work in a digital manner that brings modern workplace efficiencies and differentiated convenience to customers.
Getting there requires a radical rethinking of the relationship between IT and business functions. In fact, the lines begin to blur, and that’s good. Technology needs to be considered in the context of what you are trying to deliver to the market. When we talk about process transformation, or even enterprise digital transformation, technology should not be the first thing we think about.
The Threat of Digital Sameness
As nearly every company in recent years has found itself both inspired and intimidated by Amazon’s astonishing capabilities and the often-cited “Uberization of everything,” a dispiriting haze has afflicted the digital experience of brand after brand. Many pundits call this “digital sameness,” a too-formulaic customer experience that fails to convey the unique feeling and value of a specific brand. This sameness can be avoided by taking a resolutely customer-centric approach to work processes. It means knowing your customers and what they value about your products or services, and ensuring that their digital experience with you uniquely reflects that.
To avoid the cookie-cutter approach, it’s critical to create a new empowerment in two ways—among employees and across your entire corporate ecosystem. Allow and encourage employees to focus on customers in all they do, and reward them for creatively doing so. And find every possible way to coordinate the supply chain, too, to concentrate all its efforts on customers. Brands that work fluidly with their employees, suppliers, vendors, and partners will better be able to give customers a differentiated and memorable experience.
“Intelligent automation” is what we call the collection of technologies that combine to transform your processes to create exceptional experiences for customers. It is a lever to create fluid and adaptive business processes that are critical to building and delivering innovative products and services.
Take, for example, an international agricultural company that sought to streamline its largely manual and fragmented order fulfillment, financial reporting and customer care processes. We worked with the client to take an end-to-end approach using intelligent automation. This allowed them to improve how they served customers while reducing unit cost and cycle time, from procurement to final delivery.
Automation unlocked 52,000 hours per month, allowing associates to take on higher value work. The client’s citizen coders manage 80% of the automation development process. To date, they have created a variety of bots from a strong pipeline of automation processes. Automating the order entry and fulfillment processes improved average handling time by 75% and saved $20 million so far, generating a 4X ROI.
The softer side of digital business
During the pandemic, company after company declared they were responding aggressively with digital. The harsh reality, though, was that they realized how reliant they were on human beings.
Technology is evolving at lightning speed, and valuable capabilities are emerging that will make a big difference in every company. However, we have over-indexed on a workplace future that prioritizes machines over people. The implicit assumption is that as business becomes more digital, employees must adapt and fit in. Instead, we need a better understanding of the digital worker ecosystem. Imagining a less “human-centric” future is misleading. The truth is, human-digital collaboration will be a key driver for how work will get done.
To drive the scale of ongoing business transformation, the key will be to unlock the talent base that already sits within an enterprise. The goal should not be only to think how to replace them, but rather how to get them to embrace a culture of digital thinking.
Many business leaders have a mindset that can be characterized as “Hey, let me skill my workforce. Let me make them a little more technically trained, and so on and so forth.”
But if you think about it as a “skilling” exercise, all you’re going to do is give people better tools to use with existing systems, and make those a little more efficient. This approach can calcify existing operations and make it harder to evolve modern ways of working. To be a fully digitally-enabled enterprise, you need to ask: What type of employees do I need within that ecosystem? Will they be cubicle workers? Repetitive workers? Or experts who can sit alongside digital workers, or “bots,” including those created by Robotic Process Automation, to focus on the needs of customers? For the enlightened enterprise, the answer will be the latter.
Bringing on more bots doesn’t mean you can get rid of humans. Technology is still far from advanced enough for that. People have the ability to think deeply, which computer algorithms don’t possess. So you need to ask: “What kind of workflow do I need? Do I have that skill profile today?” Your people must be partners to help constantly evolve your digital capabilities. Yes, they will acquire new skills, but more importantly, they will partake in a new operational mindset.
When I talk to operations teams inside companies, I’m often surprised by their lack of appreciation for technology. I don’t expect them to be coders – to be proficient in writing programs or even understanding how that is done at any level of depth. But they must appreciate what technology can do, what pathways it can create.
For those leaders trying to drive positive change inside companies, a fantastic way to drive digital transformation at the grassroots level has emerged. It’s the low-code/no-code movement. People who have no training in programming and don’t think of themselves as technologists can now begin to engineer software. I call it “citizen coding.”
Citizen coding will only increase the utility and relevance of software since the people doing the coding are more likely to be ordinary business people. Over time, citizen coding will progress across many dimensions. Consider this: – one day, citizen coders could invoke voice-enabled commands to guide the entire software engineering process.
Low-code/no-code programming tools can help drive corporate transformation at the grassroots level, and empower less technical employees to move forward without fear that technology might cannibalize their jobs. They’re the ones writing the code, and they know how to improve their work and their company. And ultimately, such an approach can take companies to significantly higher-value business models.
Some IT purists possibly resist low-code/no-code since they don’t always appreciate the value and talent that can be unlocked by empowering business teams to use such tools. Having come from the IT side, I too was skeptical of this movement. End-user software built by amateurs? That’s almost like a shadow IT organization! But I’ve gone from a skeptic to a convert. IT leaders should consider such tools, if properly selected, governed and used, can accelerate the software development lifecycle — when combined with traditional programming approaches.
In fact, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm with which teams take to such tools once we orient and train them. And the way the low code/no code platforms are evolving increasingly includes governance and orchestration structures that ensure the resulting systems are safe and integrated well with existing enterprise technologies. Other new tools emerging alongside this movement, such as “process discovery and intelligence” software, help continually monitor processes and automatically generate suggestions for improvements, which further helps accelerate the pace and scale of transformation.