I am proud to say that I was there at the beginning.

I began talking about digital transformation before it was a thing — or at least before it became the uber buzzword that it is today.

We are now, however, at the end of the beginning.

I no longer have to convince anyone of the need for digital transformation (although there’s still ample confusion as to what it is). And we are now getting past the point of talk and to the part where we actually make this thing happen.

As I’ve discussed in past Cortex articles, however, it’s the doing that’s the tough part.

Genuine digital transformation demands the creation of differentiating customer experiences, the re-envisioning of business models, and the restructuring of operating models from the ground up.

As a result, once organizations get past the visioning exercises, the adoption of IT-centric practices such as DevOps, and the acquisition of the latest technologies that promise turnkey transformation, the going gets tough, and transformation efforts often get stuck in the mud.

Many enterprises, especially those that were early to recognize the importance of digital transformation, are finding themselves in this position and are now struggling to capitalize on their early success and get things moving again.

While enterprise leaders are testing many approaches to get their organizations past this plateau, the best way to do so may be one that almost no one is talking about: the transformation of the employee experience.

Consumerizing & Automating is Just the Start

A sure sign that we’re moving past the initial hype-filled stages of digital transformation adoption is that, as a buzzword, the term is losing its potency.

As a result, technology marketers have been scrambling to find the next buzzword around which they can build marketing programs. And the employee experience has been a rising star in the American Idol-like battle for buzzword dominance.

In what may be a first in the annals of tech marketing, however, I believe the industry is underselling the transformative potential of this particular buzzy goodness.

In a recent conversation with a senior marketing executive at a large technology company, the executive was explaining how the company’s technology would transform the employee experience by simplifying routine tasks, making them more consumer-like, and integrating them into the workflows employees already used on a daily basis.

It was good stuff.

But if that’s the extent of employee experience transformation that technology companies are envisioning and delivering, it will fall far short.

The transformation of the employee experience will be a cornerstone of the broader digital transformation effort — but only if enterprise organizations and tech companies go much further than merely consumerizing employee-facing applications, and automating routine tasks.

These sorts of improvements are, unquestionably, the beginning of the process. They will deliver improved employee productivity, collaboration, and effectiveness.

These enhanced experiences will also make life just a bit nicer and less frustrating for employees — not an insignificant factor at a time when organizations will be in a constant struggle to recruit and retain talent.

Still, it is a stretch to call these improvements transformative. They merely make the process of being an employee in an enterprise organization a bit more bearable.

To transform the employee experience as a mechanism to drive business transformation, therefore, organizations will need to do more than just improve and simplify the bureaucratic processes of the industrial age. They must, instead, reimagine them.

Re-envisioning the Nature of Work

The idea that organizations must reimagine organizational structures and business processes that have stood, mostly unchanged, for generations, may send a shiver down the spines of enterprise leaders.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that many of the conversations around the employee experience stick to the safer ground of simplifying, automating and integrating existing processes.

Enterprise leaders, however, will be unable to avoid the reimagining of work. As organizations continue to automate any function or process that they can reduce to an algorithm, it will cause a fundamental shift in the nature of how organizations operate.

Continuing advances in technologies such as machine learning, robotic process automation (RPA), and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI), will enable organizations to intelligently automate significant elements of most business processes.

In some cases, this automation will result in the outright elimination of current job functions. But even when this is not the case, it is likely that this automation will eliminate or dramatically change significant portions of functional roles.

At the same time, technology-fueled business disruption is causing customer expectations and market demands to change at an ever-increasing rate. Enterprise leaders are already finding that traditional, hierarchical organizational models and rigid business processes hinder their ability to pivot and respond to these demands.

The automation and augmentation of existing functions, combined with the need to push decision making deeper into the organization to enable greater business agility, will lead enterprises to finally break down industrial age work modalities and reimagine them for the digital era.

The only question is when and how.

Much like the broader digital transformation story, the only real choice is whether or not enterprise leaders will guide the transformation to come or merely allow it to overtake them.

Technology: The Great Enabler

Futurists and researchers have been talking about new organizational approaches, such as self-organizing teams and holacracies, for some time. Despite a few highly touted success stories, however, organizations have found it difficult to adopt these approaches more broadly.

I believe there are two primary reasons for this failing. The first is the natural fear and resistance that exists during any significant organizational change. Faced with such a considerable change effort, most enterprises have been unable to marshal the fortitude to see such an initiative through to its conclusion.

The second reason organizations have struggled with adopting new approaches to work, however, is the absence of a replacement management model. While self-organizing teams and similar methods sound great in theory, they often make it difficult for organizations to do things like meet compliance requirements and provide the management oversight that modern enterprises require.

The reason for this gap is that, until recently, much of the work done in the enterprise needed human observation to assess things like work quality and job performance, and then human direction to provide guidance.

While non-hierarchical models are great at delivering organizational agility and speed, they often struggle to offer the direct oversight and governance that most enterprises need to meet regulatory and compliance requirements.

The good news is that the unquantifiable elements of work in the enterprise are rapidly disappearing. Today, the use of software and other automation tools enable organizations to effectively instrument and monitor nearly every facet of work in the enterprise.

This digitization and instrumentation of work opens the door to entirely new management models in which organizations can meld elements like self-organization and self-direction with automated governance and oversight (something I’ll dive into in a future Cortex), leading to a much more profound transformation of work and the employee experience.

The Intellyx Take: The Tail Wags the Dog

One of the most significant barriers to any organizational change is inertia, fear, and the comfort with the status quo. The fear and uncertainty surrounding digital transformation with its changing business and operating models, and the reorientation around the customer experience, heighten these barriers to almost unassailable levels.

As organizations seek to break through their digital transformation plateaus, they should, therefore, shift their focus to the transformation of work and the employee experience.

The reimagination of the employee experience around these new work and management approaches will be foundational to the broader transformation effort. Without re-envisioning the organization and management of work, an organization will be unable to move quickly enough, nor be adaptable enough to withstand the pressures of changes to the broader business and operational models.

Beyond its foundational nature, however, a focus on transforming the employee experience has another essential benefit: it helps breaks down the fear and inertia. The very process of changing the employee experience transforms the status quo and unroots employees from the way things have always operated.

As their experience changes — and hopefully, for the better — they will naturally become more accustomed to change, will fear it less, and will even begin to challenge why other long-standing, bureaucratic processes are not changing also.

There is no way to eliminate the challenges and hardships associated with real digital transformation. But having the courage to move beyond incremental changes to the employee experience and, instead, reimagining the very nature of work, may be the fastest way to jumpstart a stalled effort.

Copyright © Intellyx LLC. Intellyx publishes the Agile Digital Transformation Roadmap poster, advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives, and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers. Image credit: Jiaren Lau.

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