The Case Against Digital Transformation

Something that’s being sold to you as more convenient may well be a lost social interaction that you’ll never get back – Ben Holliday, Convenience Isn’t Digital

Last week a friend of ours told me a story about trying to get some support for his partner who was ill. He was stuck in an impasse between the NHS, the Department of Work and Pensions, and Social Services.

He kept being told that either he, or the GP, or his employer, or her employer, had not supplied some piece of information. Two of the agencies blamed the NHS. The NHS blamed him.

The repeated interactions he was having with people and departments who wouldn’t, or simply couldn’t, speak to each other reminded me of the closing lines from I, Daniel Blake:

‘I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user. 

I am not a national insurance number, nor a blip on a screen.’

He described the slow progress he was making against systems seemingly designed to make it as difficult as possible for him to succeed.

What really made me think though was the resignation in his voice as he said – “They just don’t seem to listen to what I’m saying – they only believe what’s on their screens.

Myth #1: Every part of an organisation should digitally transform.

Not every company, process, or business model requires or is benefited by digital transformation.

Perhaps it’s time to pause the relentless cheerleading for transformation and consider the cost of digitising everything.

What does society look like when each and every interaction with citizens has to be digitally verified?

Today in business it’s heretical to suggest that it’s sometimes easier just to pick up the phone and have a conversation with someone. Big consulting has been very quick to point out the inefficiencies of talking to people – the implication being that everything is cheaper and easier online.

Are we allowed to mention that cheaper is not always better?

The digital revolution has meant lots of things but there’s precious little evidence it has improved customer service. On the contrary, as Gerry McGovern writes in his latest post, customer experience is flatlining. Organisations have often used technology to boost short-term profits with none essential expenses (like people) being reduced, outsourced or replaced altogether by machines.

The rush towards technology implies everything can be made better when the meddling influence of people is minimised.  Even if that were true the data systems we replace them with are designed by people – and inherit many of our human flaws. We rarely ask to get a second opinion on what our data is telling us.

A better starting point might be considering the case against digital. Which part of your customer experience are you unwilling to automate and make more efficient?

First Direct – one of the UK’s first and arguably best online financial service – have deliberately made their telephone service easier to use than any other bank. That’s conscious design, deliberately adding cost to the business with the trade-off being improved customer experience.

A couple of years ago we did an experiment where we sent two colleagues out to meet with customers – devoid of any technology. What we perceived would be a huge barrier to the test turned into a net gain – the colleagues told us it enabled them to have a better conversation by not having to repeatedly look at screens. We liked the results so much we built an entire service around it.

Ultimately we have to change the leadership model, not the technology. Customer experience isn’t all about efficiency, systems and protocol. It’s letting people do what they do best — knowing customers, personalising service, surprising people with the unexpected.

Being a leader in the digital era means resisting the insistence for efficiency at all costs – and deploying digital methods where it actually improves the outcome and experience.

Rather than the continual celebration of change and transformation, we should spend more time considering its social cost.

What we are really transforming into – and why?


14 thoughts on “The Case Against Digital Transformation

  1. Hi Paul, I think all clever strategy involves insight and nuance. Making everything digital is a crude and hugely expensive approach. It’s important to use some skill to pinpoint where and how to invest in developing effective engagement and levels of response. That’s the reason I’m focusing on Interaction Value mapping with clients, you might want to check it out.

  2. Hi Paul. I completely agree BUT…. and it’s a big BUT. Often in our public services, austerity means automate or lose the service all together, and too many managers dither about making the move to automation until it is too late to save the service. Yes, keep people in the transaction wherever possible, but always be aware that you might be about to walk off the edge of a cliff.

    1. With you completely John and as ever – it’s a balance. I imagine a lot of the dithering has resulted in rushed solutions with little service design or empathy for the end user. Additionally, the austerity at all costs message has driven behaviours reinforcing silos. Each player looking at their piece rather than stopping to consider how people navigate systems in the real world.

  3. It is interesting to watch trends over time, how people get excited, peak, then the wane of the realisation that the initial promises are not the actual outcome.
    In the public sector in particular, managers get battered by all sorts of trends. I have just returned from one authority that has e-enabled a service from a front-end service – it is now slightly less efficient then it was, and little take-up.

    If we look at the causes of cost in the public sector we find that the majority of that cost – over 50% cannot be attributed to something that can be automated. In fact, examples ofter example has shown that greater human interaction is key to getting efficient and effective workflows – maybe once that is complete, then consider digitalisation to support those workflows.

    First Direct were clever, they studied their demand and workflows first, then used the evidence gained to make decisions on how to proceed. A good example for anyone.

    1. That’s a fascinating comment and I wonder how much of this is because the demand is only understood inside-out rather than the – sometimes complex – reasons for the interaction. For instance, I read your post about loneliness being a factor and don’t think most organisations even consider this level of nuance when making decisions.

      Thanks – you made me reflect some more!

      1. It is interesting how people on LinkedIn and other places debate pros and cons, what they think, etc. The realist is what actually happens, and the only place that I have found is to find out what happens in the work.
        When I work with a service, this article title about digitalisation is a good example, it becomes very clear quite quickly what are the value steps in the workflow, and which ones are best automated, and which best are left to human interaction.
        Mapping out the workflow identifying value and waste, and other elements of the flow is my most effective tool to create a great learning space for front line and especially managers to get their head around the end to end workflow. And then they start to see purpose and how that is carried through, or not, in the workflow.

  4. Thought provoking as ever. For housing associations like mine with charitable objectives the question of how we deliver services can be determined by more fundamental questions of our purpose and what services that leads us to provide to our customers as well as engaging with customers with very different preferences and needs. As a bank customer I want very different things from my bank than I did from my housing association when I was a housing association tenant in my youth. But what is similar is that for routine interactions I want something quick, easily accessible (ideally in evenings as well as day), which works and gives me choice over appointments or follow up. As soon as it gets more complicated, I want some human interaction – phone or even in person if it’s getting more sensitive/personal. As a senior manager it’s all about fulfilling purpose, having positive relationships and interaction with customers and achieving a balance between costs and quality in how this can be achieved. As a first direct customer I think they have got it right but my parents struggle with anything other than the one to one personal service they get from their local bank branch. Let’s continue the debate…

    1. You’re right and customer service in the digital age is really about customer comfort. How comfortable is someone dealing with you via the channels you have set out?

      Ultimately as customers, we switch between hands-off, automated self-serve and high-maintenance, personalised service. Any designer of services has to cater for both.

      Thanks Sasha

  5. The problem your friend has experienced between various departments putting up barriers may pre-date digital and can’t be blamed on that entirely, in my view. Remember the drive for ‘joined up government’? It was recognised before digital was a thing and was never really achieved.
    As a result, problems start with different organisations who don’t talk to each other and have different processes and information. Silo working is built into ‘the everyday’. It will take more than digitisation or making everything electrocnic to solve that!

    1. I agree Ben. The problem with the digitization of everything is it just means we rebuild today’s failure in a new form The main obstacles for businesses seeking rapid digital transformation relate to company culture, complexity and the lack of processes that enable people to engage, collaborate and innovate. That’s not a quick fix.

      PS sorry for delayed response – I was on holiday when comment came in

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