Transformation depends on people, not technology

“They’ve done it again!”, said a recent client we interviewed. “They’ve sold us on promises about brilliant new technology and streamlined processes, and they’ve ignored the fact that success depends on people.”

In case it’s not clear, the “they” he was referring to are consulting firms. With two years of digital transformation under the industry’s collective belt, clients are starting to ask for hard evidence of results (a point I covered here). They’re also complaining that consultants aren’t engaging sufficiently with what they have increasingly come to believe is the main obstacle to delivering genuine transformation in practice: changing people’s behaviours. And they’re worried that, as robotic process automation becomes embedded in transformation work, more and more investment cases will depend on reducing their workforce in some areas, and redeploying people in others. “I want to know how consulting firms are going to help deal with the collateral impact of new technology and processes,” continued my irate executive, “but no one is talking to us about that.”

New research by Proudfoot suggests that this client, and all the others who’ve talked to us in a similar vein over the last few months, are right to be concerned. Bigger organisations are more likely than mid-sized ones to see transformation as a route to greater productivity. Moreover, it seems that the longer a transformation project lasts, the more probable it is to end up being focused on simply cutting costs and jobs, irrespective of the aims it may have started with. Long-drawn-out timescales and changing goals erode confidence at a grassroots level: Only 38% of the middle and junior-ranking managers surveyed in this research believed that the transformation programmes they’d been involved with had been, or would be, successful. Other statistics make even more salutary reading: In big organisations engaged in transformation programmes, only 40% of middle managers and front-line team leaders said they’d been briefed about what was happening. Only a third described themselves as satisfied with the level of communication generally, and less than half thought that things had changed for the better. Yet these are the same people who are relied on by senior managers to galvanise the bulk of the workforce. The views of people who’d been involved in long-running programmes were noticeably more negative than those who were just starting out. More work needs to be done, the report concludes, to engage people emotionally and to inspire them.

It’s tempting to say that that’s why consulting firms may be struggling. Consulting has always been a supremely rational activity, as all those PowerPoint decks and spreadsheets bear witness to. Bigger datasets and more sophisticated analytical techniques have only served to reinforce this. Emotional engagement may also be something that consultants shy away from in cultural terms: They’re rational, and they’d quite like everyone else to be as well. But I do wonder if the problem is rather more insidious: Dealing with the human consequences of digital transformation is messy and difficult. It requires consultants to deal with organisational pain, not just cause it.

It’s not surprising that the client we interviewed was so frustrated.