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  • Oliver Nowak

Evaluating Digital Readiness – The Emotional Side of Organisational Change Management

A New Mission Statement

My analysis in previous articles has brought me to a turning point. I have assessed what a digital transformation is, why it is necessary and potential reasons for failure. I then got to people, and that brought about pause for thought. It made me realise that I can talk about theory as much as I like, but it’s the practice that matters. As my blog has developed and I have wound deeper into the digital transformation jungle, I now see that call for turning theory into practice as the new mission statement behind my future articles.


I have spoken extensively about how I see a digital transformation as an organic process rather than a discrete goal, so now I want to look at the type of organisation that supports this process. Are there common qualities amongst those companies that succeed and those that fail? If so, how do we turn those failing qualities into succeeding qualities? In other words, what should companies do to be successful at turning that theory into practice?


Starting with the basics

So, what is digital readiness? To start off with some more theory (sorry), digital readiness assesses the propensity for a workforce to adapt to new technologies. The better the workforce adapts, the more easily that theory is put into practice.


As human beings, we experience constant change. Some are small and insignificant; others significantly impact our lives. As we have evolved, we have become physically and emotionally trained to cope with the challenges of change that come from everyday life. You could argue, it is our ability to change that has marked us out within the animal kingdom. In fact, our single species is so adaptable that we are able to survive in pretty much all conditions the world has to offer. Even if we are not biologically capable of survival, we have found ways to apply technology to give us that capability.


I see that in the natural environment, but at the same time, when I look at the business environment, I see a world of rigidity and an inability, or even, unwillingness to change and adapt. Why? – I genuinely believe that the answer is: we have moved away from what it means to be human. What I mean by that is, if we acted purely on instinct, we would almost do better than if we thought too much about it.



Change and the rollercoaster of emotions that comes with it

There’s lot of literature about organisational change management and the keys it possesses. The problem is, even though the idea behind it is to put people at the heart of any digital initiative, I still feel that many are falling into the trap of seeing it through the sterilised, idealistic business view. In this article, I want to put people back at the heart of the process and I will try to do that by channelling my passion for psychology.


Simplifying it down to the fundamental pieces again, change is disruptive, and disruption affects us down to the very human level. The way the human body reacts to change is through emotions. Emotions help us make sense of the world and the environment in which we live in. They are stimulated by the environment that we are in but they also influence how we perceive the environment that we’re in. To a large extent, they help us evaluate whether what lies in front of us is an opportunity or a threat.


Any operational change, with varying degrees of magnitude, can impact the way we work by changing the decisions we have to make, the way we make these decisions, who we make these decisions for and who we make these decisions with. In other words, this change in environment generates an opportunity or a threat. How a person perceives the new environment is incredibly personal, and this can never be understated. Something I see as an opportunity might be very threatening to someone else. An example being: two people can be stood on the edge of the same cliff but one feels a serene calmness overcome them due to the freedom and peace they find in the expanse before them; while the other is petrified by the peril before them and the threat falling off the edge possesses. That’s an example we can all appreciate right? So, why doesn’t that same level of understanding translate into the business world?


Organisational change through digital transformation represents that same paradox of emotions. We feel excitement and anticipation. We also feel confused and sceptical. We feel anxious about the uncertainty. And this cocktail of emotions carries significant cascading impacts because it ultimately changes your identity within the company and the relationships you have with the people around you. You may suddenly have to work with someone you’ve never worked with before or be responsible for a team of people you know very little about.


As I have mentioned, our emotions are born out of the environment in which we find ourselves and we’ve come to accept a very sterilised business environment where it is seen as ‘unprofessional’ to express how we truly feel. We’re taught to be these smiley, level headed individuals who never feel threatened and never show weakness. But in my opinion that suppression of emotion is creating an almost unmanageable environment. How are you supposed to give the person who feels threatened the necessary support if you don’t know that they’re feeling threatened? Meanwhile, you’re over-supporting an opportunist and they start to feel micro-managed.


The result is a very disgruntled workforce. The threat/opportunity paradox creates a simple fight or flight dynamic. You get silent revolters who take matters into their own hands by either fighting against the change that is threatening their place in the organisation or by running away from the added pressure of having a more responsible role. Maybe you have a case of new managers feeling anxious about the fact that they don’t know anything about their new team members, but rather than face the threat, they avoid any interaction with their team altogether. Any sort of bottleneck like this means the change will not perform in the way it was projected to.



The People Agenda – the gateway to digital transformation success

In my previous article, I highlighted the incredible failure rates of digital transformations. Having spent the last two weeks digesting the result of that analysis, I see that the common denominator always traces back to what I want to term the People Agenda. I’m certain, if you go to nearly any company out there, big or small, they will have a Digital Transformation Agenda and a Business Agenda, but they will almost certainly not have a People Agenda. Company leaders are so focussed on how they can use technology to achieve their business objectives that the bigger picture is going right over their heads. The People agenda is not seen as a priority but as a side agenda, a nice-to-have rather than a must-have. The way I see it, it lies directly in between the Digital Transformation agenda and the Business Agenda – a rite of passage or a channel that links the two. If you want to understand the impact of a digital transformation on your business objectives, you first need to consider the impact it will have on your employees. This is what I meant when I said putting people at the heart of the organisation. But how?

It all goes back to the environment. The businesses that are able to translate the theory of digital transformation into practice are the ones that have created an environment in which their people can thrive.

  • They trust that their feedback is heard. Self-expression is encouraged and a very human, emotional atmosphere is created.

  • An atmosphere of motivation and hope is created. They see the tangible impacts of their feedback on the company’s success and they convert any threats into opportunities. Anxiety becomes excitement and productivity, creativity and innovation flourish.

  • Silent revolters become leaders at every managerial level, creating the feeling of inclusivity throughout. There's a feeling of horizontal hierarchy because the employees at the bottom of the food chain feel so connected to the top.


Lastly, a lot of the narrative focuses on what are called ‘Change Agents’. These are the people within your organisation that encourage transition from the old to the new by driving adoption. This is through their understanding of the people around them, what their concerns are and what is limiting their perception of the business after adoption. How do I see it? – We don’t just need a few Change Agents here and there. To create the environment above, every single person in the company needs to be a Change Agent for any digital transformation to succeed. They need to take responsibility for their own feelings AND for what excites and what threatens the person to the left and right of them.



Summary

For me, the evaluation of digital readiness is a case of evaluating people readiness. It is that gate, the People Agenda, which is the channel or the bottleneck that stands between the Digital Transformation Agenda and the Business Agenda. In my ideal world, every single executive should be able to justify with immense detail how each of their digital and business objectives affects every single person within the company. What are the threats that compromise transition and what are the opportunities that accelerate adoption?


In simple terms, let’s start behaving like human beings again.

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