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Making your business fit for the future means cutting ties with the past

How do you shift the working habits of thousands of employees to ensure they are fit for the future? That was the task facing PwC in 2015. Here, Chief Digital Officer John Riccio talks about the experience of implementing large-scale digital transformation.

Six months ago, we began the process of moving PwC Australia’s collaboration tools to the cloud. We would be using Google’s Apps for Work platform for everything from emails to meetings, to sharing documents.

In our personal lives, it’s something we’ve been used to for over a decade – Gmail launched in 2004 offering a revolutionary 1GB storage per customer.  So the interface and the foundation were nothing new to our users.

I was used to digital transformation projects. After all, I led the build of PwC Australia’s Digital Services business from scratch and have helped clients on this journey for over a decade. So you’d imagine that turning our own ship, albeit a firm of over 6,000 employees, would have been relatively straightforward.

Facing the cloud

By and large, we’ve all accepted that the cloud is the future. According to research by IDC, businesses are expected to be spending US$127 billion on cloud services by 2018.

However, there’s a huge leap between acknowledging the future and actually importing it.

Throughout the process of moving our organisation to the cloud, I’ll admit we sometimes found ourselves on a battleground between absurdity and reality.

Now, as we emerge on the other side, with the majority of the firm’s employees finally rolled onto the new platform, what has this transformation taught us – and what can other leaders embarking on a large-scale digital transformation program take from this experience? 

Implementing technology is the easy bit

Going back ten or 15 years, large technological change meant you had to build it, implement it, host it, configure it and get it all going. The service we were moving to was cloud-based, software-as-a-service. As such, there’s actually not a lot to do technically. You configure it, secure it and adopt it – and it works! In the same way that you wouldn’t have a problem ‘adopting’ Facebook, all you have to do is sign up.

The technical issues we’ve had to deal with have been around security and infrastructure. Most of that is, do we have enough bandwidth to use the product? Basically, pipes going in and out of buildings and good Wi-Fi: that has been the number one issue! Not, does the product work?

The effort, it turns out, had to be put in elsewhere.

You have to stop living in the present (and the past)

We’re all up against competitive pressures. Everyone’s spinning faster on the hamster wheel just to stay in the same spot. Imagine a supermarket that, faced with the need to remain competitive, halves the price of milk. To achieve like-for-like annual sales, it now has to sell twice the amount of milk.

In the context of technological change, everyone is too focused on the present – scurrying harder to keep pace, working to a benchmark defined in terms of past performance. No one is thinking about the future: How can I work more efficiently? How do I embrace new technology? And most importantly: How do I save some of this effort by doing things differently? This applies to almost any innovation. Go forth and conquer – you don’t conquer by staying in the same spot.

So, one of the key elements of this project was rebooting the prevailing mindset. Our mission wasn’t to replace calendar with calendar, email with email. We were taking an email and calendar solution as well as a suite of other productivity tools and moving to a fresh paradigm.

The new platform would enable users to collaborate, engage and communicate in a different way. If done properly, it would in fact lead to less email and less reliance on those traditional tools. Getting people to understand this paradigm shift is the essential first step to true buy-in.

Users are transfixed by what they know – whether they like it or not

Being under the cosh of bad technology sometimes looks like Stockholm Syndrome: captives develop feelings of empathy or respect for their kidnappers, however irrational that may be.

In our case, let’s call that Lotus Notes – polled as one of the greatest cons for PwC employees globally. We know for a fact that staff and partners hate using it. Yet, when we announced that we were moving to a new email platform, there was resistance, especially from the leaders of the business. They didn’t want change and they feared the unknown (even when it took the form of something very familiar).

Now, imagine if we were asking users to ditch a product that they actually liked. From a mindset perspective, if it’s that hard to move people on from what they hate, normal change presents an even bigger challenge.

You will be faced with absurd situations 

It’s unfair to lay all the blame at Lotus Notes’ door. In fact, we were beholden to our own captors: risk and global policy.

What this meant was that during the pilot scheme, we weren’t permitted to roll out the new technology in all its glory. We took a product that normally works out of the box, on any platform, on any device… and then we broke it.

For example, by chipping Gmail into a risk-averse shape, the platform was confined to certain devices and subject to policies that restricted the use of it, such as limiting who you were allowed to message.

What were staff supposed to do with this new email service? Use it to swap recipes?  It wasn’t doing what it was great at, it wasn’t making anyone’s lives easier – and therefore staff weren’t signing up to the pilot.

Sometimes, you need to take the axe to policy instead

Let’s face it: a dogmatically imposed blanket policy means that staff are going to break the rules.  In that situation your actual risk profile is huge, because all the policies in the world won’t save you if they’re ignored.

We weren’t willing to have policies in place if they would be broken. So we got rid of the ones that weren’t contributing to a realistic position (this was assisted by wielding the stick of imposing absolute compliance under current technology and practices). Many of these policies were either written 20 years ago or by people that did not understand the paradigm of today’s digital world. Even some of our clients’ policies place further restrictions on us because they too are living in yesterday’s world.

Businesses are no longer building big, custom software applications that take three years to complete. We’re agile, innovative, we move fast – and we break things! Don’t be afraid to smash a few untenable policies here and there.

Strong leaders will make it happen

This isn’t a story about the cloud and it’s not a story about ‘going Google’. It’s actually about making a journey into a future that has already arrived.

Implementing technology is relatively easy. Encouraging acceptance, maintaining engagement and adopting a commercial, pragmatic and realistic approach in the face of dogged frameworks – now there’s the real effort!

As such, the success of a transformation of this scale will be predicated by the ability to get the ‘softer’ elements in place first. You cannot do this without the right support.

Before embarking on such a program, ensure that it’s sponsored by someone that has the power to make decisions across the firm. Don’t even think about taking the product out of its box until leaders of the business can be held accountable for its implementation. And, long before you toe the start line, make sure you’re holding the baton that empowers you to remove, change or rewrite policy.

A large-scale digital transformation journey requires solid leadership that’s willing to challenge the status quo and able to champion tomorrow’s world. Otherwise, modern technology will just be overlaid on outdated thinking. If that becomes the case, we might as well climb back onto the hamster wheel and continue running nowhere.