There is no silver bullet to improving efficiency and productivity through digitalisation, and that’s OK

Lauri Kieksi Strategic Digital Designer & People Lead, Solita

Published 22 May 2024

Reading time 6 min

Organisations are systems that never truly stop evolving, and the contrast between how organisations think they work and how they actually work can make or break an organisation’s efficiency. Consider the typical office scenario: although there are established processes and governance models, everyone still calls an insider—let’s call her Anne—for magic money or shortcut solutions, because Anne knows how the organisation works and knows how to work around it. At the same time, the organisation’s leadership might have no idea about how Anne is circumventing the intended process, as information flow through the organisational chart can become distorted much like a game of Telephone. This disconnect between imagined and real-world process execution is a challenging gap many organisations face.

Digital solutions are not a silver bullet

It’s common for organisations to view emerging technologies, such as AI, as silver bullets capable of solving a wide array of challenges, from process efficiency to customer engagement. ”This technology, this platform, this product will solve our problems.” However, if digital solutions are just parachuted in without the support of a broader strategy that considers the people, processes, culture, and maturity of the organisation, those solutions are bound to fail—and potentially add a whole new layer of friction to everyone’s working day. Organisations must commit to bridging the gap between the neatly defined processes in strategy documents and the messy reality of how work gets done on the ground. By truly understanding this divide, process automation and digital tools can be built to fit the real world, not just the idealised one plotted out in board meetings.

From incremental improvement to transformation

Analysing current processes and finding inefficiencies is of course only part of the equation since effective digitalisation goes beyond merely slapping technology on top of existing processes. Automation, AI-assisted tools, mobile and other technologies aren’t just upgrades—they enable us to fundamentally rethink processes to make leapfrog improvements and create entirely new value. But succeeding hinges on accepting that there is no silver bullet, but rather a need for a contextual approach to adopting digital solutions and technologies. This means picking and implementing tech in a way that makes genuine sense for the company, its people, and its customers—and not just because the technology is shiny and new.

The readiness to embrace automation and digital transformation is not a one-size-fits-all thing; it usually varies wildly between projects, teams, or divisions within an organisation. People are at different stages of the digital adoption curve, and if you don’t meet them where they are, you’ll find yourself preaching the tech revolution in a room full of sceptics. Failing to secure commitment can severely impair an organisation’s ability to reap the benefits of new technologies.

Disruptive forces, changing markets, and the ever-increasing need for cost-effective solutions mean that it’s increasingly important for companies to consciously and intentionally build a culture of true experimentation in the digital space. For far too many organisations, building a digital experiment of a thing just means building the thing, as a huge, irreversible investment. Whereas technologies like AI and low–code could enable experiments that are low-investment and reversible – in other words, things the organisation can learn from and walk away from if needed. Most importantly, without any red faces. It’s all about trial, error, and no hard feelings.

Don’t do automation to your people – do it for your people

Do people use the system we are making? If the answer is yes, there is a need for user-centricity. Guesswork doesn’t belong in process improvement, and leadership trying to guess what good digital productivity looks like without involving employees is a bit like someone ordering dinner for someone they’ve never met. Organisations are often guilty of describing how they believe people act rather than trying to understand the people running the daily grind. And by involving those people from the get-go it’s possible to ensure digitalisation and automation efforts enhance work rather than complicate it.

If the opportunity afforded by modern technologies, AI, and automation is combined with organisational insights – observation, interviews, workshops, surveys, and more – the organisation can ensure an understanding of the impact on people and processes and can create digital processes that are tailored to its specific context: strategic objectives, customers, end-users, and stakeholders. This approach doesn’t just spot opportunities; it ensures they’re practical and actionable in the real world, not just theoretical wins on paper.

Organisational insight isn’t just research and study of a company; it serves as critical fuel for designing solutions that create real value. Participatory design acts like a time machine, allowing us to bring future solutions into the employees’ real world today through prototyping and participatory testing. Here are some ways in which organisational insight, design thinking, and participatory design can help zero in on the best solutions:

  • Human-centric research: It is important to start by understanding people’s needs, objectives and challenges. Methods like interviews, surveys, and observation help identify bottlenecks, weak points, and previously unknown factors.
  • Assumption mapping: Organisations assume a lot about themselves, their people, and their customers. Assumption mapping is a tool for making assumptions visible and identifying how evidence-based those assumptions really are.
  • Stakeholder mapping: A process for identifying, analysing and prioritising the individuals and groups who are involved or affected by the solution being considered. It helps understand who is impacted and how.
  • Data and user analytics: Data-driven development of customer-facing applications is a given in most organisations, but far too few make use of the same tools for improving internal solutions. Behavioural data helps identify patterns of user behaviour and identify process or usability bottlenecks.
  • Iteration and testing: Making the change concrete through visualisations, digital prototypes and more helps expose them to people at an early stage to catch things that don’t make sense.

By combining these sorts of methods with a willingness to experiment, organisations can ensure new tools, processes, and capabilities fit their context and are properly adopted by people in the organisation.

Moving on from the hype

To really nail efficiency and productivity through digital transformation, organisations need to be crystal clear about what they’re up to—both within the boardroom and across the cubicles. Tossing around vague promises about “freeing up time for more meaningful work” can backfire spectacularly, especially without a solid plan for what this “meaningful work” means. Claims that aren’t anchored into real commitment and detailed strategies from the top brass will unavoidably smell of insincerity. How will the expected benefits in efficiency and productivity come about? What is the impact on people? Will people be laid off? These questions can’t be tiptoed around. Providing clear, honest answers helps in managing expectations and mitigates the uncertainty that typically accompanies change. After all, employees aren’t just cogs in the machine; their active support and buy-in are crucial for making any new digital tool more than just a misplaced investment.

True productivity and efficiency enhancement through digitalisation requires a holistic approach that integrates the right digital solutions into the organisational fabric of people, processes, and customers. This is difficult or impossible to do without experimentation and continuous learning. By focusing on aligning technology with its context, and in adaptable and small enough steps, organisations can let go of the silver bullet syndrome and start achieving meaningful and sustainable improvements in how they run their business.

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