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A chat bot here, a learning management system there. For many companies, engaging in digital transformation means adding a few new technologies to their existing systems. But these new tools aren’t enough to truly transform a company, says business technologist Brian Sommer. Worse, according to the president and founder of TechVentive, companies, including HR officers, too often merely pile new solutions on top of already broken infrastructures. The results are piecemeal systems with technologies that don’t work together seamlessly, much less lead to a real transformation.

Sommer’s message: While exploring the latest technology is an important part of any digital transformation effort, it’s futile unless the starting point is a functioning baseline technology ecosystem.

In our Q&A below, Sommer explains why creating an operational tech foundation—in other words, cleaning up how your existing technology functions—is the first step to any transformation process and the important issues to consider.

ReWork: Can you tell us about the stages of digital transformation and where most companies are in this process?

Brian Sommer: There are four stages: dysfunctional, functional, excellent and disruptive. I was astonished when conducting research just how many companies were borderline dysfunctional. They’ve got old tech that no one knows how to patch anymore, or they’ve got one guy left who knows that obscure programming language. But companies can’t transform until they deal with the mess, allowing them to become highly process efficient and ready to lead the charge.

This requires addressing the technology already in place?

Sommer: To transform, a lot of companies first need to get their house in order. Companies are some homeowners: they’re hoarders. Over time, they accumulate lots of spreadsheets, systems, technical debt, processes, conflicting policies and much more. Often, companies must declutter before they can transform.

You have to think of it as though you’re preparing a site for constructing a building. You wouldn’t start putting new building materials on top of a  a pre-existing structure or inadequate foundation. Companies need to have a solid base of people, technology, business practices, etc.  before they start experimenting with new areas.

Recently, I chatted with a Chief HR Officer, who, because her company had gone through a number of acquisitions, found herself to be the proud owner of dozens of different HR systems around the world. None of them talked to one another. It was actually hurting her career because she could never answer the executive committee’s questions without spending two weeks to get the information. The first thing they had to do, then, was to standardize their HR technology around the world. Now that that’s done, they’re looking to add all kinds of advanced technology, allowing them to do a much better job of recruiting and engagement.

Is it advisable to take baby steps when it comes to transformation?

Sommer: If you add technology in an incremental fashion, I can guarantee you it’s not going to be transformative. That’s like adding curb feelers to the outside of your car. It may give you a tiny boost, but it’s not transformative. Given how fast innovation happens and how quickly your competition moves, if you’re still doing things in tiny, super-cautious steps, you’re going to get burned. To tackle the big stuff that really makes a difference in your world competitively, you have to come at it faster and in a more nimble way.

As companies make these transformative moves, what happens to the human side of work?

Sommer: The best-run company I ever came across followed an approach called sunset planning. They knew that every skill set, program, initiative and IT system had a best-used-by date. They knew how long everything would last and when it would have to be replaced. And it’s part of everyone’s job to take care of “sunsetting” a project while being trained to roll onto another project that’s going to be the future for the next 10 or 15 years.

When people know what they’re going to be doing, the comfort level goes through the roof. They know what the master plan is. Otherwise, people start assuming the worst.

What other technology pressures does HR face?

Sommer: I’ve been seeing some Chief HR Officers taken to the woodshed lately by the board because they haven’t figured out how to help the organization grow. But if HR is struggling just to fill open slots today, it cannot help companies grow 10 to 20% a year. They need a different approach to recruiting—one that involves different technology.

Recently, I helped a client acquire systems to get better at finding and developing talent. They wanted big data from places like LinkedIn to populate their databases. They wanted to use candidate relationship management technology from firms like SmashFly. They wanted tools to help them broaden the pool of candidates. It’s all aimed at helping them attract—and almost seduce—people into becoming job seekers at their company.

Header photo: Creative Commons