Wherever you turn, new companies are emerging and existing enterprises are operating faster, more effectively and on a broader scale — leaving formerly successful business models in the dust. Fuelled by digital technologies, all this disruption is having broad repercussions.

New Zealand businesses are on the cusp of rapid change, and as a nation of innovators, we are leading the world when it comes to balancing innovative technology development with sustainability. However, as we become more involved in the global economy, New Zealand faces increasing competition from around the world. Recent New Zealand research illustrates the perceived impact of digital disruption — 36 per cent of respondents reported their entire industry is digitally disrupted, and 31 per cent said disruption was affecting products and services.

Change starts with people

Most digital transformations focus on external-facing operations: streamlined processes, more efficient ordering and delivery systems, and mobile apps to target customers. But what about your employees? Is your focus so firmly placed on your customers that you’ve created an internal blind spot?

Experienced project leaders know transformation initiatives seldom fail because the technology has let us down. Some even have a disparaging acronym for this — PEBCAK, meaning the Problem Exists Between the Chair And the Keyboard — to lay the blame on people. But you shouldn’t have to do this. Successful change comes from engaging people and putting employees at the centre of change to stay ahead of issues.

Although technology might be an enabler, the real power comes from people. By engaging employees, you can better use and retain knowledge. Your staff holds a vast amount of information that can be used to improve both sides: the customer-facing side and the employee experience.

By taking this approach, your reliance on external talent is reduced, and you create a more engaged workforce that is less likely to become disenfranchised by change. When staff members leave the organisation, they take their knowledge and experience with them. At the same time, your internal talent pool becomes more important as new technology develops and creates more specialisation. Retaining specialist skills is critical, as the talent pool for many jobs is becoming more constrained, especially in relatively small markets such as New Zealand.

While engaging staff in change and transformation projects is important for the success of projects, you can achieve further benefits by focussing on the needs of employees and allowing them to use their skills and knowledge to design and support the process. Increased communication and engagement create a culture of trust where employees can contribute to the success of your business. Your staff has the people most likely to have detailed insights into what your customers need and want. By leveraging employee knowledge, you’re better able to meet customers’ needs and create a more positive environment for your workforce, and everyone will be happier — both customers and employees.

The same principles used in customer-focussed digital transformation can be applied, albeit using different technical solutions, for engaging your staff. For example, technology can be used to create a great onboarding experience. When a new staff member enters your business, having access to his or her account and tools ready from the first minute instantly highlights that you’re a people-centric business that looks after its personnel. This can be achieved by the intelligent use of automation when making new hires, and ensuring that their passwords and security credentials are ready, software is pre-installed on their computers, and any specialised gear they need is on hand.

You can also use automated tools to regularly survey people to ensure you know what’s important to them and to identify potential issues. Some services allow you to conduct regular surveys and get instant feedback on the results by using artificial intelligence and machine learning, with benchmarking against peers and competitors.

Technology can also be used to assist personnel with skills development. For example, one major U.S. airport created a gamified system to help staff learn the three-letter codes for all the airports in the world. That delivered great success without being onerous or boring for the staff. Another company, financial services provider Aduno Group, used gamification to change employee behaviour by showing employees how hackers work and the methods they employ.

Initiatives like this aren’t just about efficiency. When staff members have a positive workplace experience, they become advocates for your business. And even though they might eventually leave your workplace, positive culture creates advocates who promote your workplace positively.

Successful digital transformation initiatives are not projects. They might have a start date, but the tools and processes you need for ongoing success will change over time. Creating a culture that empowers your personnel to offer suggestions for improving your internal and external interactions means you need to be ready to act on those suggestions. To progress further, you need to be prepared to adapt and perhaps even abandon processes that no longer work.

Navigating disruption is about focussing on people. Often, there’s an imbalance: Employees are neglected while customers get all your attention. But getting the inside of your business right will help you get the outside right as well. Not only will you have a happier and more productive workplace, but you’ll create advocates who will attract new talent, and your existing experts will be less likely to leave.