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Disruptive forces abound in today’s digital economy. Most organizations need major mindset shifts to survive and thrive amid rapid technological change.
By Sudhish Mohan, Vice President, Information Management Services, Sasol
Today, the demand for digital transformation is constant. The reasons are clear: competition from nimble digital natives, regulatory changes, and pressure from investors, among others. But the “how” of pushing digital technologies in a large traditional company can be deceptively complex. As new digital business models emerge, they disrupt established ways of working and management practices. Some companies stumble and yet others embrace the new digital world effortlessly. What sets them apart?
Let me share our experience at Sasol. About two and half years ago, we began a Global Information Transformation initiative and outsourced parts of our infrastructure services. We set up a new global data center; created a disaster recovery center, and consolidated the server infrastructure, including SAP and the email environment, first in South Africa and more recently in North America and Eurasia. Why? Because, reducing complexity in the environment and moving our team’s thinking away from commoditized services would enhance our ability to take advantage of the digital revolution.
Do As the Digital Natives Do
These are big structural changes. And those who have previous hands-on experience with global transformations understand that you need to break out of your mold and build a culture of continuous change and evolution. The days of wholesale industrialization of processes has past. The demands of our customers and users change every day and we need to be agile enough to respond.
One of the biggest challenges is to work at the pace of digital natives like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. While a traditional chemical plant can take months or even years to deploy new products, companies like Facebook roll out new products and features every day.
Don’t get me wrong. We recognize that we are a company of oil, gas and chemical plants; our corporate DNA and our way of working is different from companies like Google and Facebook. But that doesn’t stop us from getting inspired by and dreaming about the art of the possible. For one thing, we can learn from how digital natives interact with their customers. Google or Facebook users don’t focus on the backend infrastructure of the platform they are using. We are continually working on providing a similar ease of use to our customers, ensuring that they don’t have to worry about the nuts and bolts of our business.
One aspect of the way digital natives work that we’re trying to adopt is the practice of inspiring employees to create innovative “side-projects” – that is, spend a certain part of their time on projects outside of their core responsibility. To begin with, we are creating cross-functional teams that can collaborate globally to build side-projects that excite them and benefit our company. For example, we have teams working on such projects as 3-D printing and how it can improve our lead times for parts. It’s early days yet, but the success of a few projects like this will hopefully inspire others to take the initiative in creating such teams, gradually building a powerful innovation engine for the company.
Create a Kaleidoscope of Cultures
Digital transformation is not an easy journey, partly because of its often global nature. Take the consolidation of our three service desks in Germany, the U.S., and Italy into a single service desk in Krakow, Poland. In the beginning, the transition hit some bumps over culture and language issues.
We knew we couldn’t waste time in addressing these issues. The important first step was acknowledging the difficulties. We then began culture and language training to help make the service desk aware of regional differences – for example, holidays and greetings – in order to make for smoother interactions when customers sought technical support. We tried to tailor the service to meet customers’ differing expectations. In Italy, we began emailing a summary of conversations after every chat, a common practice in that geography. We also started serving customers in their own languages, German, Italian, and English, from our Krakow service center. Gradually, the service desk employees knew what to expect and how to respond, and the bumps started smoothing out.
Our little kaleidoscope of cultures and languages is working well now and we are on our way to a completely managed environment, with full visibility and standard service level agreements across the group. This will now give us the platform to build services in a standard way globally and use our group purchasing power to drive better pricing and partnerships globally.
Open Minds to “Not Invented Here” Initiatives
Digital disruption is a frightening game. People are often stunned when someone in their office tells them to dismantle their decades-old way of working. They are often terrified when asked to adjust to ideas sprung by new team members in a far-flung office of a different company in a different country.
What do you do when people reject innovative ideas that can improve efficiency and meet most of their needs? We try to increase the odds of success by getting everyone involved on board, early in the process, and participate in the shaping of change initiatives. The new way of working is not about controlling the systems and processes in an organization, it is more about figuring out how to create something of value from all of these different areas.
Making people feel included can give them a sense of owning a new initiative, even if it was invented elsewhere.
Tell Stories and Win hearts
Clearly, there is no single path to a successful digital transition. But you can look to the experience of other companies for insights on what works and what doesn’t. Stories of those who have navigated the digital path lying before you can help you win the hearts and minds of the people you are asking to accompany you on the journey.
In my experience, storytelling is the best way to get people to think differently and join the transformation process. Giving people impressive statistics and numbers can be effective. But stories of other successful companies that have gone through transformation have worked best for me. At Sasol, we often talk about companies that have re-imagined their operations and gone digital, looking not only at their successes but their stumbles along the way. Looking at areas where others have failed, can give one key insights on what not to do.
Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn
We are not alone. Look at any company with thousands of employees, assets worth billions, and established business models. Across the business landscape, companies are seeking the cultural and mindset shift needed to drive digital transformation.
And it’s a constant state of evolution. We don’t sit back after making a few changes. We keep iterating to improve what we have. “The illiterate of the 21st century,” as well-known futurist Alvin Toffler wrote, “will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
A large global enterprise in a traditional industry can’t expect to adopt overnight the culture of a “digital native” like Facebook or Google. But that should be the constant goal. One step is shifting the focus of the IT function from technology to the company’s customers.
The change to ways of working that a digital transformation requires can meet with resistance. The best way to preempt this is to include current employees early in the process of shaping change initiatives.
Winning employees support for this kind of change is often best achieved not with the logical arguments in favor of the change but through stories of transformation success at other organizations.