When Digital ain’t Digital

The past year has brought an acute focus on the imperative for digital – and by digital, I mean the use of technology and new ways of thinking applied correctly to transform the way that organisations deliver products or services to their customers.

Tom Goodwin asserts that the number one mistake when delivering digital change is to apply new technologies to old processes or ways of working. Tom often cites the introduction of the steam engine, which was first used to pump water uphill for use with a water mill. As bizarre as that sounds now, there are similar mistakes still being made including within my own organisation.

Probably the best example is our online shop. After all, 2020 was the year of the online retailer – Amazon delivered a record performance in 2020 with annual revenue up 38% to $386 billion, and net profit up 84%.

A few years ago I led a project to replace our legacy online shop with a well known e-commerce platform. The scope of the project was focussed only on the replacement of the platform, which in hindsight was a real missed opportunity. We simply layered a very professional looking online shop on top of the same old antiquated order fulfilment process, which required ‘Bertie’ to retrieve the stock from a dusty cupboard and send it in the external post. We should have looked to transform the shop and all of its underlying processes – adopting a more efficient, resilient and scalable model. So despite visitors from over 80 countries this year (we have a global brand) the shop has been closed as our staff have been forced to work from home and ‘Bertie’ has been ‘shielding’.

This is by far the most acute digital shortfall, but it is not alone. There have been numerous examples of staff having to process incoming or outgoing post, or worse still, piles of post left unprocessed. We have successfully managed to wean off most of the organisation away from printers, though still some services have needed to go into the office to print off documents and stuff them into envelopes. We also continue to hunt down the scourge of the pdf application forms – which require customers to print off, complete by hand and return by post (probably with a hand written cheque).

Between March 2020 and March 2021, my organisation has seen a 10-fold increase in our online applications, and a 6-fold increase in online payments, so the past year has not been without its successes. However there is an ongoing and increasing need to embrace digital in its truest sense and not simply layer technology on top of antiquated processes.

“When digital transformation is done right, it’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but when done wrong, all you have is a really fast caterpillar.” (George Westerman MIT Sloan). In our case, I’m not sure the caterpillar is any faster, it just has a shinier cocoon.