Business Post journalist Jason Walsh sat down with Greg Lehane, Director of Technology Delivery at BearingPoint Ireland to discuss the importance of putting people first.
Everyone agrees: businesses are either in a process of digital transformation or they are in the process of being gazumped by competitors. It’s a nice turn of phrase, but what does it really mean?
The truth is, said Greg Lehane, director of technology delivery at international management and technology consultancy BearingPoint, that the first thing to do is dispense with the buzzwords and jargon and focus on the real meaning.
“I think it’s important to note that there are two words in the term; one is digital and one is transformation,” he said.
Typically, we think of digital transformation as the process of making better use of data, but even this can be a little vague. Behind the data mantra is a business case, whether that is using data to speed business, simplify or automate processes, or to create new revenue streams.
This requires a focus not only on technology, but on people, said Lehane.
Data is certainly a fundamental part of it. After all, all of our interactions are about some kind of data exchange. So, yes, it’s about data and what you do with it from an outcome point of view, but, fundamentally, digital transformation is about changing how people interact with one another,
These interactions may be between customers and the business or they may be internally within the business, something that, naturally, is growing in importance with the rise of distributed workplaces.
It is at this stage, after the human needs have been considered, that the digital side of the equation comes into play.
“Obviously technology is becoming increasingly important as that medium of communication and exchange: how can you capitalise on that and make better use of the data that you’re capturing?
“On the transformation side, a lot of it, for us on the consulting side, is not really about tech per se: it’s about how you organise yourself in the face of digital technology. The skills and training aspects are equally as important,” he said.
Of course, change can be painful, and it can also be daunting. Working with its clients, BearingPoint uses ‘agile’ methodologies, finding that a good way to introduce change.
“Gathering all requirements upfront and designing an entire solution at the time when the least is known, change is delivered incrementally allowing an organisation to learn and pivot as needed and achieve value along the way,” he said.
Key to this is getting user feedback into the process, which can only be done because it is a step away from the monolithic and top-down IT projects of the past.
That [agile] is a better approach because it is not possible to know everything up front and waiting for a long time for everything to be delivered is no longer practical from a people, economic or business value demand perspective,” said Lehane.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the coronavirus pandemic, which has ripped through society and business, with sheer necessity driving change at a faster pace than even the greatest tech booster ever expected.
“Yes, people have had to pivot, frankly. It was a catalyst for change,” said Lehane.
The time has come, however, to move past ad hoc approaches that kept the wheels on in a crisis.
“Back in April, May everyone really bought into that, they said ‘OK, we can see what’s happening’, and they started to move. But now companies are coming to that sticking plaster and asking how things can be formalised and, indeed, secured,” he said.
BearingPoint’s annual Digital Leaders Study, which looks at how mature businesses are from a digital point of view, has revealed that it is not so much a case that some industries are ahead of others as it is that some businesses have forged leadership positions.
Invariably, these businesses are ones that have considered the human side of the equation first and foremost, but there nonetheless remains a job of work to do when dealing with crucial legacy systems.
Lehane said that no single approach will suit every business: some will be better off replacing old systems, while others will be better served by integrating new digital services into legacy systems via application programming interface (API) access, in other words building the new to work with the old.
“What we do a lot of is, you’ve got that core back-end order management system, or whatever it is, and now you have to put all of these digital channels on top of it.
“You might say to yourself something like, ‘This ERP system we had in-house is now being exposed to the outside world’, from the website or whatever channel you’re making available.
“That is a challenge, as it has to be available 24/7, it has to be more able to scale, it has to be secure as it’s customer facing and it has to have a faster change cadence,” he said
With digital transformation today, of course, the future of the working environment is an unavoidable topic and BearingPoint has developed a framework to help guide its clients through what has been a sudden and often wrenching change.
“It looks at things like how employees should work in the future, what are the processes, and so on,” said Lehane.
IT can help with this change, and in fact has been instrumental in it, but in the end there is no silver bullet, and the IT systems deployed will depend on whether remote working is something a business can facilitate.
Again, individual human preferences should be placed at the centre of the process.
“When you ask employees ‘What do you want to do?’, the answers come on a bell curve. The majority are looking for a hybrid, with relatively few looking at the extremes of going back to the office permanently or working from home all of the time,” he said.
“In every case, though, staff wellbeing is top of the agenda.”
In today’s environment, organisations also need to consider the workplace from the point of view of recruiting: one survey found more people are changing jobs than ever, with those who can taking advantage of the pandemic to chase dream jobs.
Businesses also need to beware that interactions between colleagues are now focussed on the job at hand, with psychologically important side chat disappearing.
“The cons, from what I’ve seen, include people feeling isolated, and, even if they’re working as part of a team, a loss of culture.”
Lehane said that, as a result, burnout is a bigger factor than ever.
“Some people just are extroverted and really are struggling with this. The others are enjoying it, but the burnout is because work is becoming hyper-productive,” he said.
This is at its worst in the very IT teams who have done so much to keep businesses moving.
“The pressure on CIOs and IT departments has been unreal since the pandemic kicked off. Companies have realised how dependent they are on IT, and it’s not just about doing what IT was doing before, it’s digitalisation of large sections of the business. And to be honest there’s no end in sight,” he said.
With all of this in mind, approaching the future will mean taking a 360-degree view of the business, said Lehane.
“The change will be permanent; we’re not all going back to the office, but it’s unlikely to be a 100 per cent remote. The reason for this is not just the tech, it’s also a question of doing the right thing so that you can harness the benefits,” he said.