Digital Transformation : don’t forget blue collars

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Digital transformation is too often a matter of white collars. It can be seen at two levels. First because it’s thought and designed by white collars, second it’s made for white collars. My latest post on intranets and digital workplaces is nothing but an example of a broader concern.

Digital transformation : a mix of common beliefs and reluctance

This has two causes : unfounded common beliefs and a kind of reluctance when it comes to get to the bottom of things.

Let’s start with common beliefs and easy shortcuts. Digital is about internet and computing so it’s for people who use computers at work and people who “work with symbols”, that’s to say knowledge workers. That’s a first one. A second one is to believe that knowledge is owned by a small circle of people and that average employees have nothing to answer to “do you face issues on the field ? which one can be solved by digital ?”. And even when they’re asked such questions, the listening process often ends at the offices’ door and does not dirty its shoes in factories.

Then reluctance. Admitting we start with the assumption that digital has a really value for people of the field and blue collars, there’s still to make it available. That’s about digitizing and putting in networks unlikely places, equip with tablets or smartphones people who have always worked without. It comes with a cost, what makes businesses think twice before trying to tackle these issues.

So, digital transformation is not made for the cleaning lady, the blue collar worker, the shop assistant or the cashier, to name but a few.

The digital paradox : the pursuit of operational benefits without addressing operational people

Looking for operational benefits out of initiatives that do not address operational people is the difficult equation many businesses are forcing themselves to solve. The matter is completed enought to avoid adding additional burdens but, obviously, some loves that.

I’ll also mention an obvious risk : disengagement. In the same way we see employees disengaging because all the digital effort heads towards the customer while they’re asked to do more and better with outdated technologies and a terrible employee experience, the same gap can be found between offices and factories, shops etc. at an even larger scale.

Operations : the hidden, often dirty but profitable side of digital transformation

Who are the left-behind of digital transformation ? Operational people at the end of the chain and most of all when they don’t have “computerized” jobs.

Since the job of blank clerks is radically transforming, how does technology help them to fulfill their mission in front of the customer ?

In airlines, flight and ground grew of most airlines are being equipped with tablets simplifying core-activities tasks as well as customer relationship. That’s a growing trend but not mainstream yet.

The check-in process at many hotels is still archaic and we should not expect any significant change while self check-in is not generalized and cleks equipped  are still equipped with softwares worth a stalinist administration. What’s really painful is that these people are asked to be more and more proactive responsible. If nothing is done, the risk of being replaced by digital assistants is high.

Most retailers recognize us “as a person” on their websites. “Hi Mike…you should like this since you’ve bought that…you may also like to discover…”. In their stores you’re John Doe. Your loyalty card is used to log your transaction, not to proactively identify and welcome you. That’s the paradox we’ve come to : the customer knows the product better than the clerk and the clerk knows less about about the customer than the site. Not only sales clerks are not equipped for customer understanding and knowledge but they’re often not allowed to use their own smartphone to get advanced information, insights and even comments on a product to deliver better service and advice. Tops-turvy world.

On the other side let’s consider a company like Codelco. You may not know them but they’re one of the biggest copper mining company in the world. They started with the vision of a digitized mine and did so for two reasons : operations efficienct and employee’s health and security. Data analysis on the one side, intelligent and autonomous machines on the other were their main focus. Digital transformed processes, operations, decision making and in the end people’s role and missions. The same happened at UPS where the hidden side of digital  – IoT, sensors and data – revolutionized operations.

I also saw people wondering how a connected trolley could help cleaning ladies in hotels. Time optimization regarding to occupied/not occupied rooms, reminder of guest preferences (extra pillows etc…).

I recently heard an employee telling me : “we started a huge crowdsourcing of digital initiatives…we were expecting a lot from marketing, sales, communication people….and in the end most good ideas came from factory people, warehouse people… But it was not what we wanted in the first place”. I was not surprised at all.

Digital starts with employee experience

Ask any business what’s the main line of its digital strategy, you’ll get this answer : “customer experience”. Ask what they mean and they’ll say : ” make the customer journey as easy and engaging as possible through various tactics to sell more”. In short : make the customer time more profitable and increase the satisfaction.

Employee experience is the same thing, on the other side of the wall. Make employee’s time more productive and increase their satisfaction at work. The closer from the field, the more direct, concrete, operational benefits. It requires not only the C-suite but managers, middle managers and people on the field to be involved.

I’d even go further and say that starting from the top often lead to many conceptual causes and political issues. Ask people on the field how to simplify work and you’ll get more answers and traction.

Photo Credit : blue collar by Robert Kneschke via shutterstock