Becoming digital inside out

There’s a disconnect between external and internal digital reality as customer experience is prioritised over employee experience

Have you noticed how some companies focus all their efforts on making the most of digital technologies for their customers but, when you look inside, they have a patchwork of antiquated software packages, devices, and internal ways of working that are fit for a bygone age?

Spare a thought for the signals this sends employees. The potential of game-changing technologies – the cloud, mobile, social media, big data and seamless connectivity – to transform the inner workings of organisations has slipped down the list. Why does it matter?

  • Employee engagement suffers: staff struggle with old-fashioned cultures and ways of working, reinforced through dinosaur IT systems and working practices that aren’t as flexible as they could be.
  • Employer brand is tarnished: talent leaves or never joins as the hiring process reveals internal cracks and that the external brand is not matched internally.
  • Productivity stagnates: employees can’t work how they want or when they want, and ultimately financial benefits are lost. The workforce notices work tasks take more time and are more onerous than they need to be (unlike our home tasks, which are getting easier).

Old economy companies are challenged to change from the inside as well as the outside. Just as customer experience is crucial to success, so the employee experience is at the heart of being a digital business. It’s not sufficient to simply think digital; it’s about being digital in every way, literally from the inside out.

So what’s the solution? Here are some thoughts:

  • Stand back and look at the big picture: develop and commit to an internal digital strategy, connected and integral to the external customer strategy. Consider the wider context and the opportunities digital offers. What parts of the internal strategy will cost time, money, or can be innovated on a shoestring? What can be leveraged from existing work on the customer experience and used internally? Use workgroups and other employee forums to engage directly and drive staff engagement as you discover the answers.
  • Rethink culture, leadership, talent and ways of working: what’s the tone from the top, what does it need to be and how will you get there? Reinvigorate your talent by bringing in different mindsets and capabilities and embracing diversity. Lighten and simplify internal processes such as performance management.
  • Break down barriers, build internal and external networks, and focus on outputs: flatten hierarchies and remove silos to support collaborative, innovative thinking. Recognise and incentivise outputs. Apply agile technology delivery skills more holistically across the whole organisation.
  • Love the latest technologies and leapfrog to the cloud and mobile: although the investment can be expensive, it doesn’t have to be such a heavy cost if you have a bring your own device approach.
  • Manage data actively: always be conscious of data security, while creating insight from data to inform action and improve performance.
  • Embrace the change: remember your excitement when digital technologies transformed your home life for the first time? That’s how you need to be: infusing enthusiasm for new ways. Communicate with employees digitally by using social media to talk directly to the frontline. The essential test for leaders is to do something digital every day.

Above all be bold and brave and enjoy it. Challenge everything employees touch, involve and empower 'digital natives', and excite the rest of the organisation to digitise from within.

Caroline Scott is EVP of organisational design & HR services at Sage. She has also worked at Vodafone and Thomas Cook.