Explaining the process of digitalisation

A look into the day-to-day role of a DT consultant

In this issue, I thought I’d offer a quick look into the role of a Digital Transformation consultant during a project and try to highlight their value and the clarity that they bring from what seems to be impossible to untangle.

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Social distancing from Digital Transformation

I recently recorded a podcast episode where we discussed the state of Digital Transformation, the ongoing COVID crisis and ultimately, how we felt business in the Caribbean should react. In the podcast, I mentioned that I was taking social distancing the phrase Digital Transformation, and I wrote about that in the past in an issue simply titled “Digital Transformation”:

The phrase Digital Transformation, and why it is misused

I understand the lure; honestly, I do. It’s a snappy phrase and something that evokes moving forward and resolving problems, but boy do I dislike the phrase Digital Transformation! Odd indeed for a consultant that has created a business solely to help companies with their Digital Transformations!

Why do I dislike the phrase then, when it’s contributing to feeding the family? Surely I should embrace the phrase, lean in and exploit its use the maximum amount of advantage to my business? That would be the most obvious thing to do os course. But I’ve never been simple, or standard. I’m an Englishman in the French West Indies for Christ’s sake!

I have no liking, nor affection for the phrase “Digital Transformation” because of what it has become and what it means to most people. I'm a little melodramatic of course, but let me explain…

In that issue, I went on to argue that Digital Transformation is too broad of a term and can mean anything you want it to, as long as you include some “digital” stuff in your definition. More recently, It has been hijacked by marketing to mean how a company can use digital technologies to communicate and ultimately, market and sell products. Virtually all of the Digital Transformation companies I see in the Caribbean are focused on using the various platforms and social media systems to promote and influence buyers decisions. And that’s great and is sorely needed right now, more than at any time in history. But that is not what Digital Transformation is limited to. So I’ve decided, I’m going to campaign relentlessly to change the meaning of Digital Transformation the whole world over and won’t stop until its done… I’m kidding. That’s a fool’s errand. (1)

The question came up on the podcast about how I would define Digital Transformation, which is a great question and one I get asked often. I always give the same answer, and it’s one I went into some detail about in the second issue of the newsletter. TL;DR: “Digital Transformation is the methodology in which organisations transform and create new business models and culture with digital technologies” - Ray Wang, Constellation Research

We got a little further into the weeds to try to examine what it looks like for an organisation that has either just started or is thinking of starting. It’s not easy to describe, but I’ll show it visually. For the curious, it’s based on something called the Newman Design Process Squiggle:


Source: The Process of Design Squiggle by Damien Newman, thedesignsquiggle.com

In a Digital Transformation engagement, the very first step is to embark upon an audit of the company, its processes, its people and its culture, I mean its business culture. Culture is vital to understand at this point as it is the key to not only understanding why a company does something but also how. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Only until the process of a complete audit is finished —which I’ve discussed in this newsletter previously (LINKs)— and by observing each element of the businesses value chain, can we prioritise the candidate topics for further work. And that is where the above model comes in to play.

As I progress over the following days and weeks, we (my client and I) arrive at a consensus of how things operate, why they run that way and what things we can start to change to achieve a better outcome. Typically it takes several days/weeks per subject give or take, and depending upon scale and complexity, of course. To clarify, when I say subject, I mean the topic of focus for digital transformation. For example, during the initial audit conducted at the start of an engagement, the client and I identify areas of interest to look deeper into to choose candidates for digitalisation. Take, for example, a warehouse that wishes to accelerate and optimise operations. Simply replacing humans with robots designed for warehouses will undoubtedly lead to an expensive failure. But by observing how and why the warehouse operates the way it does, not only can we clearly define what needs to be introduced, but also how it should be undertaken to provide the best outcomes. In some cases, the business owner or project sponsor will have a clear view of what he or she would like to achieve. I take those suggestions on board and add them to the list of candidates for further study.

Getting back to the overall process, you can see that at the start, there is a lot of noise, uncertainty and difficulties in trying to understand what is required to embark on a future process. It starts with an abstract notion of the problem we’re trying to solve and then using research, prototyping and small-scale tests, we end in clarity and crystal-clear design of the required solution. This is the part of the process I find the most enjoyable and equally, the most challenging. It is also the part that returns the most reward for me as a consultant. Once I have started trying to understand your business and your processes, always looking to view at them from a different angle than you can, I start building out that knowledge with copious amounts of research and summarisations of the information and data collected. At this point, the need to interview and shadow-follow people is key to gaining deep insight into the current workings of an organisation. This almost always allows the writing of a detailed report that includes suggestions on the way forward in practical steps (including those made by the client and the clients’ employees). 

I use the diagram above often, to illustrate what the process of Digital Transformation is and to articulate its beginning, middle and end. It is a crucial component for a client to not only understand the process but also understand the value of the engagement. I say it often, and I repeat it here, “digital” is the most straightforward part of the phrase. Taking our warehouse example, literally hundreds of warehouse robot vendors exist around the world trying to sell you that magic bullet. A cursory search on DuckDuckGo listed thousands of potential companies and examples. Whatever you decide to digitalise, you will find a plethora of choice in software, hardware or combination of both, that may “fix” your problem. However, only with the expertise and guidance of an independent consultant will you feel the benefits across your organisation for the long term.

A day-in-the-life-of. A real-world example

I got engaged in a project late last year with a company that sells its services across the FWI, where a majority of the workforce is site-based depending upon the plan of the moment. I won’t go into detail about who and what they do as it is irrelevant to this example.

For this company, the owner had previously identified an area that needed particular attention and, in his view, needed it rapidly. The company had generalised the use of paper timesheet reporting for each onsite worker several years ago and used that system with success ever since. But the process was not only slow but prone to human error requiring several stages of control to ensure the data collected was correct. The importance of the data was also of concern as it had a direct influence on two factors any business-owner will sympathise with; pay and project billing. The more time spent on site, the higher the invoice and pay were, to put it bluntly. If an engineer wrongly noted the time spent, it might affect not only the projects’ solvability but also his wages. And, despite these incentives, time was often incorrectly recorded. 

Using the process of the squiggle model above, I set out to observe how and why things are done the way that way. The idea is, as I’ve noted, to gain a deep insight into the process and all the sub/pre-processes that influence or are influenced by this important and central task. After some time discussing with the company director, we coalesced on a list of objectives that he would like to achieve. Those objectives allow us to measure the success of the desired outcomes.

After observing how the timesheets were filled in and returned to head office, I looked at what processes were then employed to make use of that data. It turned out that they were used twice; once for the company ERP that eventually generated billing and a second by the accountant to generate payslips. However, along the way, there were a couple of steps that meant that project managers needed to check and amend the details directly on the paper sheets and sign-off once the verifications concluded that the planned work had really taken place onsite. This was key to suggesting a better solution.

If you read that last paragraph again, one thing should become apparent; the timesheets were nothing more than a final expression of the planning put in place by the project managers, who themselves had to sign off whether or not the engineers were present on-site and for how long. The responsibility was theirs, regardless of who pre-filled the timesheets. This might not be your process, but it was theirs. Armed with this knowledge, I then set about observing and understanding the role the project managers played in assigning work and planning. Long story short, it was a manual process and slightly different depending on the project manager or project concerned. 

Basic tools (things like paper boards, printed planning sheets and manual cross-checks, etc.) were used to coordinate the planning and the final sign-off for the timesheets we wished to digitalise. The value of the DT consultant comes in to play at this point. A simple IT technician could have “digitalised” the timesheets by merely replacing the paper sheets with a digital representation of the same using Excel or any number of tools. And sure enough, the produced data could be extracted and reutilised for the processes further down the line. But I, having understood the entire value chain involved in the time reporting, suggested a system that not only eliminated the need for the engineers to fill in forms (i.e., the time spent either out of hours or in hours) —something that none of the engineers I spoke to relished— but also reduced a 13-step process into a 2-step process.

The project managers were responsible, and that responsibility meant that a solution that would provide a distributed and real-time online planning system that also exported data for direct use in the ERP system, meant a saving of over 40 hours per month using a very conservative estimate of the time spent on the manual forms. It is more likely around 60/70 hours per month in reality. Or two weeks’ salary for an engineer, not counting the time saved for the project managers!

So you see, it was very messy at the beginning, slowly culminating in a solution that not only provided a solution for the immediate paper problem but saved on working hours, unnecessary validation steps and ultimate errors. And as a bonus, again, because I had a holistic view of the firms business, the solution could provide the platform to solve some of the other pressing problems the company was facing. Alas, Covid-19 nixed that for the time being.

I hope you enjoyed that look into the day-in-the-life-of. Let me know how I can help you with your journey; I’d only be too glad to assist. Drop me an email sometime :

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I’ll let you know as soon as I can when the podcast episode will be published, but for now my thanks again to Michele Marius for the invitation.

I was a guest on two previous episodes, you can listen here:

ICTP 054: Community Chat On Ride-Hailing Services. Can They Complement The Public Transport System In The Caribbean, And What Might Be Their Social Impact?

ICTP 080: Discovering Martinique, with Matthew Cowen of dgtlfutures

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1 A journey, task, etc., that is a waste of time because it was not necessary - https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/a+fool%27s+errand