Digital transformation in a crisis: It’s not just about the technology

Businesses think that technology will save them. Yes, but…

The pandemic has seen corporations across the world become even more dependent on technology, whether that’s shifting to online sales, restarting processes that had stalled simply because they were office-based, or ensuring that people can still work productively from home. After the first few weeks of chaos, our ongoing research into the impact of the crisis on the consulting industry showed that four-fifths of firms were seeing strong demand for digital transformation; suggesting that companies are still investing in new technologies, and still looking for support from consulting firms when it comes to figuring out how to make the most of those technologies. Our real-time forecasts of the financial impact of the virus on the consulting industry have consistently shown that while demand for technology consulting is likely to shrink somewhat —there will always be some discretionary projects that can be cut when times are hard—it still looks set to be one of the the best-performing parts of the market.

But that doesn’t mean that consultants can afford to take that demand for granted. Even before the crisis, we were hearing complaints from clients. Digital transformation, they said, wasn’t delivering the expected benefits. Their diagnosis was that consulting firms and other suppliers were putting too much emphasis on the alluring promise of technology and weren’t paying enough attention to the people who used it. Workers, who felt alienated and marginalised by implementation programmes that increasingly looked like old-fashioned “big IT”, carried on doing what they’d always done. New systems went underused; sometimes unused. Now, in the midst of this unique crisis, people have become the problem. If we can use robotic process automation to do more of what people used to do, the thinking goes, we’ll not only save money, but build the ability to scale up and down our operations as market conditions change. Before the crisis, organisations were circumspect about cutting jobs as a result of automation; now, they’ll be lost in a crowd of businesses doing the same. Before the crisis, people were the solution to the flagging momentum around transformation; during it, there’s a real danger that they’re seen to have no role at all—that the ultimate transformation will be a shift to peopleless work. 

Which, of course, is ridiculous. There are plenty of types of work that can be more automated, and which will become so over the next decade. Even without the crisis, jobs would have been lost; with the crisis, that doesn’t change, but unfortunately it does accelerate. Without the crisis, new jobs would have been created to replace those lost—this is how work and the labour market have evolved historically. But, with the crisis, jobs will still be created, as history suggests that there will always be types of work only people can do. Those jobs may be created more slowly in the short to medium term, because of the crisis. But, if anything, it will become more important for organisations to work out where people fit in—what they’ll do, how they will create value for customers, for the business, etc. 

Unless we can weave into the process a much deeper consideration of the nature of work and of how people can operate best in a highly technology-enabled environment, then organisations will do the same stuff, just more efficiently. Only when you add people into the mix do you get genuine transformation.