The Problem With Digital Transformation

This post is in response to the writings of Simon Norris on The Problem with Digital Transformation on the Nomensa blog.

In his post he writes with a heavy focus on his opinion that businesses are failing with digital transformation projects because they don’t have ‘design’ in their board rooms, or that the business isn’t building things with a customer-centric focus.

I have to confess that I am not sure I’ve fully understood some of the things Simon has written. I’m not sure who his intended audience for it was, but I don’t think it was me and that’s OK. Regardless, I have some thoughts on this myself and you should of course read Simon’s post too.

Please, accept that design is not the answer to everything – thinking about what you’re doing, is.

Many digital transformation project failures can be attributed to the partners they engage with – digital agencies and platform resellers primarily. In my experience the majority of these suppliers believe digital transformation is another description for selling in systems and site redesigns using the ‘customer experience stick’ to drive their point home.

This is an element of the process, yes. We want to ensure that our services from a digital perspective are meeting the expectations of the people we want to use it and there, in that statement, is my problem with Simon’s post.

I have worked across the IT sector. I’ve built networks; physically run cables, fitted racks, configured server arrays and maintained stable bridged WANs, upgraded desktops and laptops through three generations of Microsoft Windows operating system because a mandated software ran at 1024×768 so you couldn’t use the 800×600 monitors anymore so why not replace the lot?

I’ve rebuilt form-fed dot-matrix printers because of a software dependancy with an attached dumb terminal with a blinking DOS-prompt, migrated dumb switches and routers to fully remote managed kit accessible from Barbados or space regardless of the fact nobody was further than 10ft from the cabinet at all times.

Spent years swapping over mini-din keyboards and mice with USB keyboards and mice only to replace them again a year later with wireless bluetooth keyboards and mice that never really worked properly and had to be replaced again, with new keyboards and mice with wires.

I’ve installed, configured and rolled out Windows networks and defined groups, roles and permissions in Active Directories, Linux networks, Citrix, VPNs for travelling salespeople to access spreadsheets, mail exchanges of every flavour, Sharepoint, Sugarcrm, Salesforce, bespoke intranets, bespoke logistics and shipping systems, CAD suites, security alarm systems and ethernet based security cameras to replace VHS tapes only to discover the hard disk is full within an hour at any definition that would be of use.

I was responsible for ensuring a Windows NT machine setup on a random day in 1995 stayed on because nobody could remember the admin password if it rebooted – and it was running the entire Air Traffic Control System for the southern corridor – yeah, you read that right.

I’ve banged my head against a wall trying to get blackberry RIM servers working for one Director in a company because he got a great deal from Vodafone whilst his business partner was getting me to figure out why his email wasn’t coming to his brand new Motoral RAZR.

I Setup VOIP telephony systems in businesses with only 1 phone line and 5 members of staff, but who thought they would scale fast and ‘need the space’ only to shut down two years later with no new staff members.

And of course countless – countless transactional and non transactional customer facing websites.

All of these things are digital transformations– regardless of what their user interfaces were and most of them were done for the wrong reasons.

To start a successful transformation project you have to look inward.

Digital Transformation is about enabling businesses to be efficient, effective and by proxy deliver incredible experiences to their customers.

I have always stated that you can spot a company with negative culture, poor internal process or that are blighted by bureaucracy from the look of their website and I stick to that belief even today.

It’s not to say that a bad website means all of these things, it could simply be that the company doesn’t have the right thinking in-house to have seen the way to improve key areas in their processes and that’s OK.

I don’t expect just because somebody has a skill or a product to sell in one area that they’re also a technical genius or understand the value in having a completely wireless based network, why having machines completely locked down breeds a culture of distrust, or the lifetime value you can provide employees when they’re able to access the back-end or other internal tools from outside the physical network. That’s not their job. But it is ours.

With so many agencies out there, so many software suppliers, you’d think that they’re all walking the same line. Unfortunately for businesses and crucially for business owners that want help in driving forward, the approach and experiences from one supplier to another, whilst on the face of it seem the same can be wildly different.

When I decided to move to agencyland, having spent 5 years working in-house on a digital product, it was in part to be able to learn faster, learn new things,  experience many industries in intensive short bursts and to be able to take that learning into the next business with new insight and knowledge. After 7 years working for agencies I saw the same mistakes repeated.

Agencies have a difficult time selling and designing for more than one audience opting to focus solely on the user, the customer, user experience, customer experience – you get the gist. They’re not equipped to work on anything other than an ideal scenario and part of that is because decisions are being made before that engagement is even out to tender.

The failure from them in that case must be not acknowledging, considering and designing for their own customer – the one that’s engaged them, that’s paying them, that’s looking for help.

Some projects I’ve worked on that have had an initial high failure rate have been the result of decisions in platform purchasing for what appear to be customer facing platforms i.e. e-commerce or the CMS. I say they appear to be because the customer facing element is an extension of the data entry system that is actually being sold and that should be an extension of the business behind it and so on and so on.

With larger organisations the trend is to split the pots. Somebody, usually from IT is responsible for procurement of a new platform, whilst a pseudo product manager; often a marketer, are left with the task of looking for a design/build agency to make the thing that sells. Here’s the first mistake.

Almost every time I’ve been in a project that has a requirement for a new platform it is because the platform currently in use is obsolete, become too expensive, hasn’t been updated or doesn’t do what they want it to do now; even though there’s a good chance that it did exactly what they wanted only 3-5 years ago.

The motivation is technically driven at this point, which I do agree with Simon on and he has detailed heavily the pitfalls in being bound by the constraint of technology and making poor choices in this area.

In the past options were limited and ultimately questions around platform procurement fell into a few small camps.

  • Does it run on Windows or Linux?
  • How big is the local installation, what specs do our servers need?
  • How much is the maintenance contract?

These are for the most part obsolete questions today. We don’t really see many people hosting their own servers whether in their offices or at an exchange. The entire model for that has been surpassed rapidly by virtualisation and services like Heroku, Amazon’s AWS, Digital Ocean, and just about every web host going.

We have a far better culture for API development and appreciation that interoperability is what makes or breaks any given service meaning for the most part, we’re not writing anything to use these services in machine code. Instead we return a JSON request never needing to see what architecture is in place or the hardware being emulated underneath.

And then there’s the maintenance contract. These acknowledge that whatever platform is being supplied has high complexity that cannot be handled and cared for internally. There are always companies that will want to outsource this and that’s OK too, but you could be taking responsibility for the account itself and payment, having ownership of the contract with the host, most people don’t even realise this is an option.

The reality is, 5 years ago there were few people in these organisations who had a mentality that acknowledged technology evolves rapidly, that high cost upfront investment in technology platforms is high risk and maybe there’s another way. Maybe we can scale slower.

When it comes to the needs of the marketer as a case in point, their goals are entirely different as are their needs and again most of the time the site doesn’t perform they way they expect, or that compliments their skill set or the teams capabilities.

They are crippled by overly complex CMS’s that are based upon configs, instead of content, inhibited with a lack of simplistic flexibility that allows them to create new ideas on-the-fly and worse yet, they usually fail to report on the fundamental things a marketer wants to understand about their audience.

The problem internally is that there’s a broken chain of custody across departments rather than a collaborative effort which means department targets and goals are biased towards decisions made on procurement.

The problem in the agency is the sales pitch. Agencies will promise you solutions and answers to all of these things as if they’ll never need to be dealt with again. It’s like that day you’re going out to buy that one coat, that next coat that’s going to be the coat, the one you’ll always wear and that people comment on all the time. Next year you’ll buy another coat, it’s not waterproof, you decided you want something longer, shorter, the buttons have fallen off, there’s a hole in one of the sleeves and you don’t know how to sew.

Why does this keep happening?

Firstly, because nobody taught you how to sew. Having an understanding of how to make those small fixes amasses over time; how do you think all these designers got good at their craft, by going to General Assembly for 8 weeks? It was through trial and error, practicing over and over.

You can take that several steps further back. We forget how to think. We didn’t evaluate the needs in the business before we hired the agency to make the thing.

Software suppliers have a hammer and everyone is a nail. How can you say whether one CRM over another is right at the point of writing a pitch? You can’t they’re all based on licence costs or personal preference of the lead developer working on the pitch. At that point in time where you have no idea what the real needs and goals are other than what high-level statement was put into the tender brief who are you to say what’s going to benefit the team?

It’s all good and well designing the customer experience IF you have the infrastructure to support it.

Thousands are spent researching customers whilst completely ignoring the people who are to be responsible for the platform – they’re the ones we are designing for; at least I thought that was what we were doing. The content editors, warehouse workers, packers, engineers, accountants, support staff, designers, marketers, HR and office administrators. They’re the custodians of the system and we are meant to be enabling them to succeed, to grow and to give their customers amazing experiences.

Instead we force upon them new tools which they don’t understand and we don’t give them the time or support to learn and to find out how they can utilise them and become happier in what they’re doing.

I’ve seen people arguing at length with colleagues that they’re turning a blind eye to what’s truly important and that whatever solution is being designed is not sustainable by the people it is being created for and that instead, we should be looking into the teams capabilities and how we can support and enhance them through design and by making the right technology decisions.

Months into the project they’d realise the flag being waved wasn’t the boy crying wolf only to look at one another realising we’re all slowly watching the palace burn, wondering who’s to blame.

It was our fault.

This was replaying in my head 2015. How might we put a stop to waste? Not just the £100,000s going into projects every year that are yielding poor outcomes for everyone involved.

Feeling that the agency model was encouraging this lackadaisical consideration for its customers drove me to explore more ways that those of us who’ve spent the past decade riding this crest of change – this digital transformation – to support and aid others who haven’t been so dependable in knowing what’s happening next or that simply got bogged down in needless internal politics and grind.

a view of the lost lake and blackcombe Whistler Canada.
Lost Lake, Whistler, Canada

I was sat at the edge of Lost Lake reading Snow Crash, listening to the throngs of people partying, watching the sun go down behind the stone and wood, the almost sickly smell from the pines mixed with illegal BBQs and suncream filling my nostrils. As the temperature dropped people started leaving. Some packed their bags with empty red cups, ice cream wrappers and other detritus whilst others merely slunk away leaving a wake of debris behind.

I pretty much made the decision there and then that I didn’t want to be a factory worker anymore, just another UX Designer churning out wasteful design artefacts to justify a cost and slinking back to the dressing room after my speaking part in the play was over. I didn’t want to be part of the gang leaving their trash behind them sat on the edge of paradise. I wanted to be responsible to myself, my surroundings and the people that inhabit it.

For the world economy and the digital economy to continue this insane velocity and become sustainable requires some responsible thinking.

This was my motivations behind forming We Are AFK. To create an organisation that would be focussed on supporting the change, growth and evolution of businesses by sharing what knowledge I have and in time my partners in order to help those who haven’t got those skills and experiences to become more responsible, more socially aware of their actions and to become meaningful in the way they conduct business.

Digital transformation for a company does not mean make me a website to sell my product, an app to influence buyers, a social media strategy to generate traffic, a new CRM to replace the one we don’t use properly now and it doesn’t mean me money on my hosting bill every year.

excerpt from Homeland by Cory Doctorow
Excerpt from Homeland, Cory Doctorow.

Digital transformation for a company means – help us discover what technologies are available that can improve our capabilities as a company, to guide us into ways of thinking that aren’t solely based on budgets and targets and as a result of us being better – meet the expectations of our customers.

I hope, some of you have read this and feel the same?
Maybe you’re somebody who is wanting to drive that change in your company?
Or perhaps you don’t agree with anything I’ve written here and have had a different experience?

Whatever your thoughts as you reach these final words share it, not just with me and not because I want to meet people who I believe we can help redefine meaningful and thoughtful businesses. Share because it’s important that we all tell our stories and give others the opportunity to see points of view we otherwise would not have.

Thank you,

Andy Parker
UX Coach
We Are AFK