Digital transformation: Three technology aspirations to help change work execution culture

Just two years ago, the World Economic Forum was reporting that the average lifespan of today's Fortune 500-size corporation is only 40-50 years, and that almost 50% of the Fortune 500 from 1999 had disappeared from the list just 10 years later. Competitiveness is much harder to maintain now – even for enterprises with long-standing incumbency in their own industries. The role of enterprise technology in this more uncertain future is not often discussed.

One of the principal reasons companies are struggling to become or remain competitive is the lack of differentiation in their own corporate structures and processes – the skeleton and organs giving shape to their organization do not easily yield to change. Most companies, broadly, consist of the same kinds of front-, middle- and back-office departments, are staffed by the same kinds of roles, are mediated by the same kinds of internal process, and are governed by the same compliance and regulatory considerations – all based on publicly available technologies.

As a result of this lack of differentiation, most companies accrue 'strategic debt' – the differential between changing market requirements and the ability to create a distinct and differentiated culture of work execution in the thinking, decision-making, practices, workflows and processes to address those requirements. This makes it very difficult to develop, defend and build upon intellectual property. It easily leads to a disengaged, unmotivated workforce that impacts corporate culture, staff retention, talent management, innovation and the quality of work throughput, just as digital transformation requires these things to be looked at through new eyes.

The role that traditional enterprise technologies have in giving shape to that work culture is not often enough considered. The majority of incumbent (and plenty of challenger) productivity, communication and collaboration technologies appeal to often very discrete buying centers, and focus on standardizing usage and enforcing controls. The interplay of modern consumer devices and social media, however, is growing the expectation that workplace interactions should be more social, adaptive and intuitive. That this is not commonplace in enterprise technologies is setting up a rude awakening for many companies. They either don't realize that they need to, or are struggling to (or can't), adapt their tools to differentiate a culture in how they execute on tasks, projects and programs of work.

The 451 Take

Digital transformation requires many things of enterprises, but none more so than the creation of a differentiated culture of work execution across its workforce – one that drives business agility, increases work throughout, drives customer satisfaction and workforce engagement, and stimulates innovation. For too long traditional productivity and collaboration software has inhibited companies from executing work in a way that's more than the sum of the limitations of those tools. This isn't just about making employees happier, nor is it simply about enterprise software replicating consumer experiences. What is emerging is a distinctly enterprise focus within new technologies and tools on democratizing the means to get work done by uniting workflow creation, collaboration and integration across different applications. There are a lot of moving parts to consider here, but enterprises should focus on elevating the ability to reach consensus in business decision-making, enhancing the value of their data and encouraging workforce aspirations.

Anatomy of the challenge
451 Research was recently in discussion with the French division of a global manufacturing firm. The delivery organization of this division was composed of approximately 70 individuals that reported to a VP of operations, who reported to the country division CEO. It manages over €350m ($411m) of project revenue annually. Thirty (30) of the 70 employees staff a project management office (PMO) function, with others in order, quality, and contract management in charge of fulfilment, on-site quality and customer support. Additionally, it has relationships with others in logistics, supply chain, finance and sales, as well as with subcontractors installing its equipment on its customer sites.

The entirety of the sanctioned processes providing the framework for work execution within the organization and mediating those relationships with others outside was done using Excel and homegrown web applications. However, the entirety of the 30 PMO staff rejected these tools and sourced a variety of their own. The organization was wracked with process inefficiencies – not understanding projects' status, as well as poor margins with equipment ordered and delivered, but not logged as having been, and hence not installed, but then reordered. High numbers of rejected invoices, difficulties in onboarding new staff onto projects, and myriad other challenges typified its work execution culture. Incumbent tools were too rigid to amend; created user disaffection; and lacked automation, integration and collaborative capabilities.

Tool silos, sprawl
The challenges this organization faced are typical and not new, yet are persistent and difficult to solve. They evidence the degree to which workforces are prepared to circumvent sanctioned tools, even where those tools are the critical arteries of work execution and the underpinning for business performance, customer satisfaction and organizational governance.

The implication of workflows and business processes being fragmented across sanctioned and unsanctioned tools is very serious. In the Workforce Productivity research practice here at 451 Research, we cover hundreds of vendors across structured work management, knowledge capture and communications, asset creation, content management and collaboration, immersive workspaces, business communications, and productivity management segments, providing many thousands of mostly general-purpose tools. This doesn't include the thousands of options for Expensify- and Evernote-type prosumer tools the workforce invariably uses, nor the hardware – PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones, smart surfaces, wearables, digital signs, monitors, projectors, and other meeting room equipment and devices. The 'shadow' in shadow IT isn't some shady, murky corner; in many companies, it will eclipse the sanctioned technology estate.

The scenario of rigid commercial tools that fail to engage users, who then sometimes resort to complex and unmanageable custom-developed applications or to the Wild West of unsanctioned equivalents, creates myriad difficulties for enterprises in their work execution. These include, but are not limited to: Defining, let alone having, a single source of reporting truth across multi-faceted work; workflow integrations across multiple third-party tools; having single and simple access to an application's estate; meeting compliance and regulatory requirements; creating feedback loops for continuous workflow and process improvement; bringing collaboration within seamless workflows; and engaging the workforce to draw out fuller potential.

What's the result? The absence of best practices with decreasing alignment between tools, user demands, business processes and strategy.

Three work execution aspirations
There is opportunity, however, in challenge. That users tend toward behaviors and tools that favor how they best deliver work tasks is a natural instinct, and a guide for decision-makers on what to look for when evaluating technologies. Whereas much of companies' current work execution amounts to the sum of the limitations of traditional productivity and collaboration software underpinning that work, it's clear that a differentiated culture needs to be the sum of the creativity individual employees bring to their tasks and the degree to which tools enable that.

There are three key aspirations companies should consider when evaluating technologies in order to foster a consistent and positive culture of effective work delivery.

Elevating consensus. Effective communication, collaboration and consensus across multi-faceted work delivery is typically hard to achieve. No matter how automated and seamless processes are, there needs to be the option of more open communication to relay and receive unstructured information – whether to troubleshoot, ideate, resolve, ensure consensus or something else. This is a multi-part challenge, with much of the solution requiring embeddedness or much closer and more linked proximity of communication capabilities to workflows. This will ensure communication is goal-oriented and workflows are that much more seamless. A single source of reporting truth on work status, with differing levels of permissions to ensure all have some level of visibility, is also important.

Enhancing the value of data. With the fragmentation of tools, the less visible data and information becomes, the harder it is to create knowledge out of information, and the less accurate a guide to strategy it becomes. Users need a unified, persistent and searchable knowledge repository ambient to their requirements that is filterable and contextualized to diverse metadata across people, data, content and processes.

Encouraging workforce aspiration. The less arduous and more intuitive work is, the more employees are inclined to take it on and prosper with it. Tools should allow employees to prosper using their own work styles. They should automate the context of work, forging purposeful connections across people, information, projects and processes. Finally, they should permit the extensibility of data into and out of other systems, improving the continuity of information while maintaining its context.

Chris Marsh

Research Director, Workforce Productivity and Compliance

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