Oaklin: ‘Put people at the heart of digital transformation’

24 April 2023 Consultancy.uk 9 min. read
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Despite all the investments flowing to digital transformation, executives across the globe are wrestling with how to “digitally transform” their organisations. To find out how digital transformation can be implemented successfully and sustainably, we caught up with Mark Croucher and Simon Mould, leaders at management consultancy Oaklin,.

To start with, what does digital transformation actually mean?

Simon: Digital transformation is best defined as the strategic and tactical exploitation of technology to solve a business challenge, be that to underpin a drive for efficiency, effectiveness and/or disruption. And it’s nothing new, despite the hype, organisations have been transforming digitally since the advent of the word processor.

At Oaklin, we define digital transformation as, “how can my business use this new wave of digital technology to improve the way we interact with our customers, and enable our people?”

Oaklin: ‘Put people at the heart of digital transformation’

Mark: We are seeing exponential advancements in five core technology enablers: mobile, IoT, cloud, big data and artificial intelligence. These underpin many of the emerging “disruptive technology” applications we see today, threatening to challenge the status quo in many businesses.

When applied to solving a specific business problem, each has the potential to completely revolutionise the way individuals and organisations buy, work, learn, and communicate with each other.

At Oaklin we help organisations to understand and embrace these technology enablers, to unlock the maximum business value for those embracing the change. From our perspective, that value is almost exclusively related to the impact on the people involved – the customers and the employees.

Can you elaborate more on the impact of digital transformation on people?

Simon: In short, digital transformation has enabled people to be much more flexible in their work location and patterns. Many organisations are struggling to adapt to this new “location hybrid” which became cemented during recent years, but which has been maturing for much of the last 15 years.

Alongside this, the recent acceleration of artificial intelligence has highlighted the increasing opportunity to use machines to do more of the heavy lifting (for example as we’ve seen with the rapid improvements in optical character recognition, and more recently with drafting content), allowing people to focus their efforts on tasks better suited to their brain’s creativity and problem-solving strengths.

We see this as the emergence of a new “human plus” intelligence hybrid, a digitally-driven step-change in the way we work which directly impacts the people at the heart of our organisations.

Mark: Digital transformation has also created a new battleground for customers, where organisations that are able to meet and exceed customer expectations will thrive. We are deep into the “age of the customer”, in which digitally-mature disruptors, including household names such as Airbnb and Uber, have driven customer expectations to new heights.

Customers demand that organisations are always available, whilst providing a consistent, convenient and personalised experience. Customers have more choice (the global market) and information (instant access to product reviews and price comparisons) than ever before, and customers who receive a bad experience will not just tell you, they will tell the world. Social media has amplified the voice of the customer, and opinions from friends and peers hold huge influence.

Meeting and exceeding these expectations by delivering relevant, seamless personalised experiences has never been harder. Customers have so many channels on which they can interact with brands, and they are taking complex, non-linear journeys to achieve their goals. Organisations with out-dated technology and siloed operating models are simply struggling to keep up.

And how are you helping organisations to respond?​

Mark: At Oaklin, we help organisations become customer-centric. Organisations must accept that customers don’t buy in a vacuum or in single moments, but within complex chains of inter-connected interactions. By centring around the customer, they can consider all the interactions they might have. This shifts the perspective from an internal organisation or product, outwards to the customer.

We support our clients using proven techniques such as service design and design thinking, helping to build empathy with customers and to design experiences that customers will really want and enjoy.

It doesn’t stop there. Not only must organisations increase their understanding of customers’ needs, designing front-end experiences that meet their expectations, they must also exploit the underpinning businesses and technology platforms that can orchestrate these experiences.

We’ve recently supported an automotive startup to develop an innovative direct-to-consumer retail and service model. Our team was central to the first customer milestone, enabling customers to specify and reserve their vehicle online. We utilised our end-to-end service design approach to deliver a leading experience for customers, resulting in a successful, award-winning launch which went above and beyond all expectations.

Simon: There has been a seemingly endless debate across social media about whether professional workers should return to the office or retain the increased flexibility that many have enjoyed in recent years. This, coupled with the ChatGPT-led a step change in the appreciation of how AI might impact the way we work, strongly hints at the tremendous opportunity organisations have to change the way their people and teams work and interact.

Getting the right formula can have transformational results. Here at Oaklin, we’re supporting organisations to navigate a pragmatic path through these opportunities.

Most business leaders know implicitly that a blanket return to five days per week in the office for everyone is neither practical, nor likely to yield real productivity gains. Transforming the way we all work requires a far greater degree of granularity than this, appreciating when the work to be done requires collaboration (most often more effective in an office) and when it can be best performed in isolation (for example at home).

Whilst advances in AI are showing us all how machines might replace many of the human-led tasks today, the winners in the future of work will undoubtedly be those organisations who enable the most effective collaboration – between employees and customers directly – and between people and machines.

Oaklin is supporting numerous organisations to consider how the fundamental architecture of their business can adapt to this need for a more nuanced collaboration-led working environment. Technological innovation must certainly play a part, for example creating and maintaining an integrated core of secure, contextualised, accessible, and reliable knowledge from which to enable this collaboration.

Businesses also need to look at new tools to streamline processes and interactions and put in place the next generation office environment to better enable the location and intelligence hybrids. However, without parallel changes to the culture of the organisation, and the skills and capabilities of managers at all levels, any investment in this new digital technology may be in vain.

Enhancing productivity when individuals are more empowered to choose when and where they work, and when machines form part of that productivity chain, requires a shift in every individual’s relationship with the knowledge that powers collaboration. This is a shift from information flowing around the business, to the business flowing around the information.

Beyond this, the transformation of the workplace must also include the wholesale transformation of the way we manage people and teams. Providing the next generation of managers with the policies, skills, tools, culture and confidence to shape and steer the work being done will be essential.

Mark, is the business change also as important as the technology change when adapting to meet customer expectations?

Mark: As Simon has just alluded to, getting the technology to work is perhaps the easy bit. To truly deliver for customers (and indeed employees), an organisation might need to change processes, hire individuals with different skills or completely change how they operate. We are working with some clients who are completely re-organising their operating models to achieve true customer centricity.

This might mean evolving to a product and platform operating model (where teams own a product or service end-to-end and have all the skills required in the team to deliver), or organising around the customer journey (with senior leaders and teams taking sole responsibility for the customer and the metrics at a particular stage in the journey).

A recent example required a single team to own the “conversion” stage of a purchase journey, with all their effort being focused on increasing conversion rates and minimising drop off rates, drawing on cross-journey teams to ensure brand consistency throughout the journey.

Finally, any last tips for organisations on their digital transformation journeys?

Mark: Change is hard. Digital transformations, whether to deliver a new business model or open new revenue streams, ask people to change how they work day-to-day, and result in a change to the cultural fabric of an organisation. Any such complex transformation requires incredibly strong leadership, and a longer-term view of the change to be managed.

In our view, it is vital for senior leaders to create a clear and compelling vision, and to be active and visible in embedding it within the organisation. Consistent communication of the emerging messages is vital. The vision, the “why” and the “what” of the transformation, must be communicated in the language of the business (not the boardroom), empowering teams, managers and individuals to shape changes to their work that will deliver the organisation’s overall goal.

In this way, senior business leaders can shape a change-ready environment, trusting the business to adapt to deliver the transformation.

Simon: Alongside this, it is increasingly important for leaders to adapt a more agile mindset, becoming more willing for their organisations to be early in the adoption of new digital technologies. They must be comfortable with a “fail fast” investment regime, and put in place the required collaboration and knowledge-centered cultural changes to ensure enduring success.