Digital Transformation

9 ways to overcome employee resistance to digital transformation

While there are several barriers impeding transformation in the enterprise, humans might be one of the biggest.

It seems like every business in nearly every industry is trying to digitally transform, to better meet the needs of a world that's increasingly online.

"Technology itself is not the answer, nor can it alone transform your business to be truly competitive in the new paradigm," Eric Powlesson, senior strategist at POP, said. "This isn't about adding a digital focus to your business, but redefining the entire business strategy in a digital age."

SEE: IT leader's guide to achieving digital transformation (Tech Pro Research)

Spending on digital transformation is expected to hit $1.7 trillion by the end of 2019, according to a November report from the International Data Corporation. That's up 42% from spending in 2017. Nearly all—96% of business leaders—say digital transformation is a core business goal, but only 3% have completed transformation projects, according to a SAP report.

But transformation efforts seem to be working. Around 70% of business leaders said they've seen significant or transformational value in customer satisfaction due to their efforts, the SAP report found.

However, the fight to remain relevant and digitally savvy has plenty of obstacles. Security concerns, legislation, and lack of standard processes were named top barriers to digital transformation in a recent IFS survey. Aversion to change also made the cut.

"It's not unusual for employees to resist change, even if they can see how the technology will improve the business in the long-run and it is addressing one of the complaints they made formerly about a system," Humberto Farias, CEO of Concepta, said.

While it's easy to assume technology changes would cause the most issues in the transformation process, tech isn't actually the root of the problem, said R/GA Austin's senior technology director Katrina Bekessy.

"Rather, it's usually organizing the people and processes around the new tech that's difficult," Bekessy said. "It's hard to change the way people work, and realign them to new roles and responsibilities. In short, digital transformation is not only a transformation of tech, but it also must be a transformation in a team's (or entire company's) culture and priorities."

Inertia and ignorance are two key parts of employee resistance to transformation, according to Michael Dortch, principal analyst and managing editor at DortchOnIT.com.

"Inertia results in the 'but we've always done it this way' response to any proposed change in operations, process, or technology, while ignorance limits the ability of constituents to see the necessity and benefits of digital transformation," Dortch said.

SEE: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

An unsuccessful internal transformation of priorities could mean an unsuccessful transformation for customer-facing services as well, Bekessy said. The humans behind the company, both employees and leadership, could cause digital transformation efforts to fail.

"If you're an established business, digital transformation isn't optional if you hope to still be relevant and competitive in five years' time," Jason Goodall, group chief executive officer at Dimension Data, said, adding that companies can't have a Plan B to transforming.

"There's just no place for laggards in business today," Brendan Witcher, principal analyst at Forrester, said. "You don't have to be a leader—you can be a fast follower and still survive. But fall too far behind competitors that are able to operate at the speed of the customer and you'll more than likely never catch up."

Here are nine ways to overcome employee resistance to digital transformation efforts.

1. Switch to learning mode, and encourage employees to do the same

Being in learning mode means being open to new skills and ideas, both of which are crucial in the digital transformation process. Learn up, Bekessy suggested.

"It's important to keep in mind that this 'transformation' is a never-ending journey—it's a job that will never be truly complete, if you're doing it right," Powlesson said. "This mindset of always in beta helps boost agility but also underscores the need to test and learn what works and doesn't, optimize accordingly, then repeat."

2. Train fully, then follow up

Over 80% of workers said new processes made them anxious, a Wrike report found, which may make them hesitant to try new digital processes. To combat this, fully train everyone involved, and try launching the product or service internally to grow confidence and identify any holes in the training.

While there is a digital skills gap, training can help minimize this, Christine Ashton, chief digital officer at SAP S/4HANA Cloud, said.

Once something is live, follow up. Farias recommends regular meetings to review progress, as well as checking in through casual conversation. The feedback sessions can give employees a chance to discuss setbacks or reoccurring issues.

3. The C-suite should collaborate and stick together

Executives should work with lower-level managers, including those in IT, to determine the best path of promoting the benefits of digital transformation, Dortch said. This can include internal education and a mix of marketing and sales efforts "to inform the ignorant and convert the unconvinced," Dortch said.

Taking a collaborative approach can help all leaders gain ownership of the mission, which could help convince employees to join in.

"If leaders in the organization can fly the flag of change without wavering, it will be much easier to get the rest of the company on board," Powlesson said.

SEE: Digital transformation: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

4. Have a North Star

Develop a vision that encompasses all aspects of the transformation, including potential benefits and achievements, and what needs to be done to make it happen.

"You need to get people excited about what you're collectively striving towards," Goodall said. "Make sure that they understand that you're creating something very special: A better business that's going to add more value, serve clients better, and be an exciting place to work."

5. Don't try to fix everything at once

Deliberately prioritize parts of the full digital picture, and focus on those first, Powlesson said. Changing the entire organization at the same time can be overwhelming and confusing, thus making it more likely you'll face employee resistance.

"Clarifying your vision upfront allows you to identify what parts of your business to turn the digital spotlight on first," Goodall said. "It's a long-term journey but you have to start somewhere."

Try selecting initial priorities with short to medium term return of investments, Goodall said. Seeing results can help employees, and shareholders, believe in the transformation as a whole.

6. Don't rely on technology

Transforming anything can be a lengthy process, so don't overwhelm it and employees with unnecessary technology. Know when new technology is a good for your digital efforts, and hold back when you're adding something into the mix just because it's an option.

At the same time, know when to invest in emerging technologies like machine learning. A lack of proper investments can become a barrier for further digital transformation, Ashton said.

7. Prepare technical assistance

Whether you're in the training stage or the digital project has just publicly launched, make sure technical assistance is ready to go, Farias said. If something goes wrong, employee frustrations can be high, but easy-to-access assistance can help remedy that. Knowing there will be outside help during the process may also make hesitant employees more willing to try new processes.

8. Have a hype squad

Identify influential employees, mainly early adopters, who can help others learn the new system while keeping spirits and energy high, Farias suggests. They can provide a morale boost to the team, while receiving a boost themselves for being recognized with the role.

9. Be transparent

Don't underestimate the power of transparency, Goodall said. "Throughout the process, keep channels of communication open, celebrate successes, acknowledge difficulties, and ask for your people's help where you need it," he added.

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Image: iStockphoto/fizkes

About Olivia Krauth

Olivia Krauth is an Education Reporter at Insider Louisville.

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