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“Digitizing forms are like turbo-charging caterpillars — when what you want are butterflies.” 

Still having trouble getting your arms around digital transformation? You aren’t alone. 

According to Google Trends, the term continues its 5-year long growth trajectory — but confusion still exists. Is it about digitizing forms — while still making people fill out a slew of them? Is it about coming up with a smart thermostat and suing everyone who attempts to offer the same rotating selector

When smart people work for companies with uninspiring leadership they tend to leave and take their ideas elsewhere. I had the good fortune of leading a roundtable discussion of nine CIOs and CISOs in Phoenix last week and the conversation was enlightening. 

Friction, upheaval, and lack of empathy were the three themes of the group. Companies with a pedigree of decades tend to have lasted that long precisely because they have managed to routinize every single process. That makes it hard to cultivate a culture of innovation. Polaroid and Gibson Guitars had really smart people working for them — but couldn’t see where the market was heading. 

Digital Transformation Defined

It’s the collision of the way we have been doing things vs where we need to go. And it’s the collision of customers learning the art of what is possible in much of the consumer world — only to be aggravated with stale processes in less glitzy industries like education, public services, and much of B2B.

How is digitizing forms helpful when a mom bringing a sick kid to the doctor’s still has to fill out 14 forms, asked one participant from a large hospital group. “Digitizing forms is like turbo-charging a caterpillar,” the hospital exec quipped. “When what you want are butterflies.”

On the other hand, he added, we have privacy issues, and when the regulators come into audit — it’s easiest if the relevant form can be provided. Another CIO of a large university offered that Generation Z, the largest cohort since the boomers, selects colleges by how easy it is to apply online. 

Digital Transformation Disrupters

At the other end of the spectrum, Boomers don’t necessarily want everything moving to digital as they don’t know how to manipulate the technologies. And it’s not just boomer consumers who don’t necessarily know the technologies — an older workforce pushes back too.

All of these instances provide insights into the challenges of implementing technologies.

Of course, technologies are only a third of the consideration. Processes and people are the other two legs of the stool. 

Employees are terrified of automation, explained another participant. “They think it is shorthand for ‘we are taking your job away.’ We need to explain to them that they will be able to focus on higher-value work.”

That carrot doesn’t necessarily motivate in government jobs, said a city executive. But, he added, “I can’t recruit Millennials into these lower-paying jobs if we haven’t kept up with technologies.”

Regardless of whether it’s the people we service or the people we manage, “we have to think like they are consumers,” another CIO said. “Can an app make things better — even in the waste management business?” 

Well, it can if the app has an Uber-like experience — letting you see where the truck is on the route. Do you have time to get dressed or must you (again) run out in hoodie over pjs? Or how about, can it provide an alert that yes, tomorrow is recycling day?

Reducing Friction and Emphasizing Empathy

As you seek to define it for your organization, here are some more of the top ideas that came out of our group: 

  • Think like a consumer. Can an app make a difference?
    Suggestion: Delve into customer complaint logs — what is it that people most complain about. Can a technology or change in process help?
  • People inherently don’t like change. Bringing in technology usually means changing up processes, which may create a new burden for employees.
    Suggestion: Make sure new technologies can adapt to existing processes.
  • Looking forward can collide with just getting today’s job done.
    Suggestion: Create two teams — one with run-the-business capabilities and one with change-the-business capabilities.
  • The departments that are flush with cash can afford to explore transformation — but don’t have the motivation to do so.
    Suggestion: Create a competing subsidiary that will cannibalize its sibling. Better to be cannibalized by your own than an upstart competitor.
  • Don’t go it alone.
    Suggestion: Find a revolutionary change partner who will help you ideate, socialize, and implement ideas. 

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