The art of conversation: engaging the organisation in digital transformation

Anybody out there who’s not got enough to do?

Of course not. IT resourcing levels, the pace of technological change and ever changing-security risks mean every CIO and IT leader has plenty to be getting on with. And in digital transformation projects, that can often mean critical steps are missed. I always argue that engaging the organisation’s leaders and users in transformation is in the top three most important elements of a transformation programme. But where to find the time to do it – and keep on top of every other responsibility?

So I have four top tips for making sure engagement is robust. Almost all of these are based on the programme leader having conversations with key contacts; and then getting other people to keep those conversations going:

1) In the beginning, have a word…

Actually, three little words. I think there are three different short conversations that can double the chances of a programme’s success and halve the wasted effort. These are:

• Talk to the people who have defined the need the project is addressing. Ask them open questions – why do we need it, what will it do for the customers, where will we use it? This short conversation almost always identifies whether the need is robust. If you observe a lot of off-the-cuff responses, don’t rush into any action. Instead, move to quantifying the need and benefits first. This may turn out to be a project that we don’t need to resource…

• Talk to the top team. At the vision-setting stage, there should have been some healthy discussion on what the programme will do/look like/deliver. However, people involved in that discussion will have paid most attention to their own ideas – and less to their colleagues’ ideas. This means that each member of top team has retained slightly different expectations.

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So before writing even a single line of code, sit down with all of them individually. Ask each person what will make this programme worthwhile. Ask everyone to demonstrate the tangible outcomes they want. People are often far more articulate about explaining the results they want to see than defining a vision that communicates their needs and wants. Therefore, by asking these simple questions, you’ll get a far clearer picture of the programme’s priorities.

• Talk to the users. These guys and gals are often omitted at this stage. We think they’ve been consulted, because, in a good organisation, these are often the people who first stated the need. But since all the high-ups have been kicking the idea around, it may have mutated. And we all know people will not use an innovation for its true purpose and in the prescribed way unless they recognise the benefits; it feels right; and it’s effortless. So just have a quick chat to check we’re still thinking pragmatically.

That’s a handful of conversations you’ll need. Most will only take a few minutes. Some will save you years of work. So that’s what’s in it for you.

But much more importantly, the very fact of you having these conversations begins a close engagement process. People understand that they have been personally and individually consulted on this project. Their opinions have been listened to and assurances should have been given that every effort will be made to accommodate their ideas. They feel good about this initiative, from the start.

2) Hire an A-team for your communications

An A-team? That’s a professional communications team, who roundly demonstrate that “A” stands for “articulate”, “assiduous” and “accomplished”. A good internal engagement team looks nothing like a standard-issue PR firm, which would typically “sell” the idea rather than work on true engagement.

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A good engagement communications team will be able to do more than just frame messages that press all the right persuasive buttons (although that’s essential too). They will be able to operate on both strategic and tactical levels; they will have skills and techniques for accurately taking the temperature of the organisation regarding the programme; they will understand what is motivating different parts of/people in the business; and they will work from facts, not opinions.

Bear in mind that you are an IT leader, good at solving the organisation’s technical problems and seizing new opportunities to work smarter. Just because you have a GCSE in English and a keyboard, this does not make you a communications expert. Skilled engagement advisors will save every CIO an awful lot of pain by knowing what’s going on, what to say, what’s important and what NOT to bother with. Talk to the experts and listen to their advice to save enormous amounts of time.

3) Treat agile as an exercise in engagement

I believe we’re now finally leaving the era in which agile is thought of by the rest of the business as what happens when IT releases an upgrade before it’s ready…

And so we now have the opportunity to make the agile development process a real driver of engagement. It’s a genuinely brilliant opportunity for collaborative engagement, as we techies and our colleagues across the business work together. People outside IT get to see their new toolkit being developed and can customise it to their precise needs. Why wouldn’t they then love the results?

And as we all know, interest engaged before go-live means people are a so much more likely to use it effectively post-launch.

Mark Aikman

A dynamic Technology Executive with a strong track record of maximising technology to create business innovation and value across a range of industries from FMCG, Telecommunications through to Energy and Financial services. Extensive experience leading large global IT functions, highly complex change and digital transformation programmes in challenging environments.

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