Digital Transformation Should Begin on the Front Line

Enterprise digital transformation is about more than the C-suite. So why do conversations around these initiatives often remain limited to this select group?

At the executive level, discussions of digital transformation are commonplace and have been for years. Yet as a recent enterprise digitization report revealed, fewer than half of front-line employees even know what digital transformation is.

The awareness gap between these two groups — those planning business strategy and those carrying it out — begs the question: If transformation is so important to business leaders, why aren’t they communicating the agenda to their front line? And could that lack of communication and top-down alignment explain why fewer than 40 percent of enterprises report that their transformation strategies are successful? I’d say yes — and argue that it’s not only important for digital transformation to include the front-line workforce, but to start there.

The importance of the front line to successful transformation

There are a few key reasons why prioritizing a front-line-oriented transformation plan is the most strategic approach. The first reason is proximity to broken processes. Within the C-suite, there will rarely be the direct awareness of broken or problematic processes that you’ll find on the frontline.

For instance, let’s say Company A experiences significant IT bottlenecks (a problem one-third of respondents in our report said is actively impeding digital progress). In this situation, C-suite leaders will likely be aware of the bottom-line impact of this problem — reduced productivity — but they’ll face more difficulty pinpointing the cause. Yet front-line workers could easily point to the issue since they’re the ones waiting two days to get a software update installed. By pulling front-line workers into transformation discussions at the outset, high-level executives can get a better sense of the specific problems transformation strategies should address.

The other reason it’s in a business’s best interest to maintain a front-line transformation focus is that the C-suite can easily turn into an echo chamber. It happens frequently: An idea captures the enthusiasm of a room of executives. In that small room, the idea becomes a solution. And it’s only when executing that solution that the flaws are exposed. Without multidisciplinary input, you can’t have a holistic solution.

Tips for deploying an effective front-line strategy 

Once companies are ready to embrace a more front-line-oriented digital transformation strategy, the question becomes how to most effectively integrate frontline workers. Here’s what I’d recommend:

  • Shadow your front line: The most important step to launching a successful top-down strategy is to understand what hasn’t worked to date. As PwC consultant Tom Puthiyamadam explained in a piece for Strategy + Business, this process begins by taking stock of existing transformation efforts from the vantage point of those who experience it most directly: front-line workers. In his piece, Puthiyamadam describes a hotel that decided to go back to the digital transformation drawing board by shadowing front-line workers through their daily work. This direct approach allowed leaders to successfully determine which specific processes needed to be addressed in the overall strategy. And it allows front-line workers to have a seat at the transformation table, something 77 percent of employees told Nintex they want.
  • Focus on the right technology, not the flashiest: For many companies, digital transformation triggers an urgent need to deploy the most cutting-edge machine learning technology. That’s a great step — as long as you’ve automated other cumbersome manual processes first. Rather than prioritize staying ahead of the curve on AI and machine learning, companies should instead allow tech decision making to be determined by immediate and specific needs. If process management is an enterprise-wide problem, for instance, then workflow management tools should be at the top of the transformation buying list.
  • Remain open and adaptive: Including your front-line workforce in digital transformation planning isn’t a one-and-done affair. Just as digital transformation is continuous, the participation of your front-line workforce should be as well. Therefore, it’s vital for enterprises to project openness and adaptiveness when leading transformation with their employees.

By prioritizing a front-line-driven transformation strategy, organizations can surmount the barriers that are holding the majority of enterprises back from achieving their full digital potential. While taking this more holistic approach to transformation will require work and time, it’s an investment that will pay dividends in the long run.

is CEO of Nintex and a proven SaaS executive with more than two decades of financial and operational experience at mid- and large-sized software companies. From 2014-2018 Eric served as Nintex CFO where he was key in driving the company’s move to the cloud and subscription pricing. Prior to that, Eric served as vice president of finance for Jive Software, where he helped lead the company through its IPO process, and before that, as vice president of worldwide sales operations at Serena Software. He has also held financial and operational leadership positions at Merant, InFocus Corporation and IBM (formerly Sequent).