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Embracing True Digital Transformation Instead of Replicating Analog Processes

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In the golden age of enterprise content management (ECM) and business process management (BPM), it was imperative to get rid of as much paper as possible. Yet all too often, this was the beginning and end of the matter, and the only changes to actual workflows were to transition them from analog to digital. While doing so undoubtedly created cost savings, reduced turnaround times, and lowered companies’ environmental impact, replacing a purely paper-based process with the exact same digital one left a lot of potential efficiency on the table. In this post, let’s explore how the true promise of digital transformation can be realized. 

In a special op-ed for The Seattle Times adapted from his book The Road Ahead back in 1995, Bill Gates not only envisaged a paper-free workplace but also a paperless society. “On the information highway, rich electronic documents will be able to do things no piece of paper can,” Gates told his readers. “The highway’s powerful database technology will allow them to be indexed and retrieved using interactive exploration. It will be extremely cheap and easy to distribute them. In short, these new digital documents will replace many printed paper ones because they will be able to help us in new ways.”

In the 16 years since the publication of Gates’s ode to technology, companies like his own Microsoft, enterprise suites such as Oracle, and smaller-scale point solutions put what he wrote into practice. While some paperwork still endures, the office of today has largely achieved Gates’s aim. Yet as we’re exploring in our current Hivot series on the eight wastes of lean manufacturing, there are still many sinkholes into which slip productivity, budget dollars, and countless hours of employees’ time. This doesn’t just apply to industrial and construction trade but to every industry.  

Widening the Lens

Though Gates correctly predicted the advent of the smartphone and tablet in his op-ed, he couldn’t foretell that even though consumer and office technology have advanced in leaps and bounds, we’d still be plagued by the same old process inefficiencies. One of the reasons for this is that where you start and create intention, largely dictates where you end up. What I mean by this is that aiming to simply remove paper and thus turn a paper process into a digital one was noble enough, but too narrow and limited in focus. To achieve the full promise of digital transformation, we need to think bigger and then build solutions that usher in a new era of communicating and doing business. 

One way to do so is to start wielding the power of predictive analytics. For example, a platform that would ingest all the communication (data, messaging, files) that construction workers send and receive on a project and then consume that data for NLP sentiment analysis for insight predicting if the project will run behind schedule and over budget. A company could then take proactive steps to get ahead of potential roadblocks and sidestep obstacles like overprocessing, waiting, and other common wastes. 

Over time, more efficient and effective processes could be created from such AI-driven insights that cannot be gleaned from simply doing things a certain way because that’s how they’ve always been done. Unfortunately, such complacency is the norm, not least because when a company has greatly reduced its paper use and digitized most of its workflows, its leaders often think that the job is done. Actually, digitization is only a first step. 

Uniting People and Processes

True digital transformation would also involve radically changing the way that employees communicate with each other. As Cal Newport shares in his profound new book A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overloadrelying on email isn’t working and so-called collaboration tools are merely muddying the waters even further. We’re using more communication apps than ever, but the ways in which we talk to each other have never been more disparate or fractured. Rather than current technology enabling better communication, it’s arguably holding back progress. 

For example, the average construction worker uses three to six communication apps daily and nine in total. A text here, an email there, an instant message over there. Few of these platforms are integrated so information gets stuck in silos, the walls of which get ever higher. What we need to do is not only aggregate information, but also consider what employees actually need to do their jobs well, on time, and on budget. At its essence, this requires seeing pertinent, complete, and up-to-date information at exactly the moment it’s required. A solution that presents a “single pane of glass” view would achieve this aim and untangle the mess that jobsite communication is currently stuck in. If we can begin approaching product and user experience design in this way, communication, and the processes it informs will no longer be at odds but will run smoothly on the same track. This means going far beyond simply duplicating paper processes in digital form. If instead we start using a problem/solution lens to look at the real issues facing workers on the ground, we can seize the opportunity to take a big jump in efficiency and effectiveness. Ultimately, evaluating whether or not digital transformation is successful requires answering a simple question: “Does it have a real impact on people and the process outcomes they contribute to?” If so, then we’ll be a lot closer today to achieving Bill Gates’s vision of the digital future for tomorrow. 

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