Data-Driven Transformation is an interesting concept. One of the things that first excited me, was reading Eric Schmidt’s book – How Google Works. One of the most important pieces of insight inside Google is how decision making was always backed-up with data.
Many of us take Google on face value, pop in a search term, out pops results. Of course, those in the marketing industry, information security and others who know a lot more – realise the sheer amount of data Google is collecting on us.
If we take Google’s corporate ‘Don’t Be Evil’ motto as truth, then there is nothing much to worry about. However, let us face it – you get all this cool stuff for free. Search, maps, email – what do you expect is happening. They are learning, developing more heuristics and insights into human behaviours. They may not care about you as an individual data subject, but the huge datasets they have on everyone gives them a great basis for making decisions. To improve products and services and to improve their business.
There is, of course, only one Google, but how can the rest of us use data to drive digital transformation?
When Big Data was a Big Deal
You may remember when Big Data was a big deal. It rarely gets a mention these days. We are now talking about Artificial Intelligence and Machine Based Learning. Although to be honest, they are all pretty much in the same family. Intelligence and learning are simply algorithms applied to large data sets – a data warehouse, data lake, big data – or just a plain old database to you and me.
In a previous blog, I talk about Digital Process Transformation. Which is a term that I have been using to explain this phenomenon. Data-Driven Transformation is part of the same family too, but the concept is quite simple.
Like Google’s internal workings, to make a decision you have to have some data that backs up what you’re saying. In my experience, when working on change projects, I’ve often worked from the basis of ‘just do it this way’. That may come from a good place, my experience, knowledge, how the technology and processes are in the software you’re implementing. It’s also usually right. At least, so I think.
For instance, if I’m developing a new Purchase-to-Payment process. I’ll know the software we’re working with, know how it likes to work with minimal changes. I know industry best practice and how that alights with that. There’s also my experience as an ISO auditor and implementor in the bag as well as my technology expertise.
I make judgements of changes based on experience, not based on the data from the particular process I’m changing.
Am I right though? I’ve probably followed the path of least resistance in terms of implementing the technology. I’ll have undoubtedly created a process map of the as-is and re-engineered that to be as the software dictates and what I see industry peers doing.
So, with my technologist hat on, I’ve made my life easy when it comes to the implementation of the software. I change based on what’s easier to fulfil with the software and technology that I’m working with. Absolutely not with the people. And people are as much of a process as the software and indeed, the process map itself.
I’m over 20 years down the line on this and I absolutely see the error of my ways. No processes are alike, nor should they be. What would the world be like if we all bought (as we do) Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, Dynamics and implemented standard functionality? We’d essentially be doing things the same way as all our industry competitors. In fact, other than a logo and perhaps differences in people-to-people relationships we’re going to be one homogenous mass of corporate greyness.
What happens if we’re all just the participants in the 1984 Apple Macintosh advert! A serious point, in reality, the Macintosh and most of the Apple products are for creative types to create. From the perspectives of marketing, product and business, Apple has been seen to encourage thinking differently. Whilst Apple leads in consumer tech, this is just as important for business systems that define how you do things.
Jazz Club for your Transformation
An area I know not enough to comment about is music. However, I’m going to tread dangerously for an analogy. I do like jazz, I don’t know very much about it– but part of jazz is the improvising around a core tune. This makes almost every performance, every musician different and bringing something unique to their craft.
Indeed, this is what should be special about businesses. Business process best practice is your core tune, but the cool, jamming improvisations and differences between and your competitors are what makes you unique to your customers.
Let’s face it, Unleashed is a cooler, hipper, more amenable, cheaper and friendly version of someone like Accenture. Nice!
Following Business Process like Sheep
I’ve just dropped a lot of corporate tools and analogies in this blog. However, whether you’re using Sage, Xero, Quickbooks or the big ERP tools like SAP, Oracle and Dynamics – it’s all the same. The software comes with a process and you are following it, often like a sheep. I know about sheep too, I’m Cumbrian. There’s a lot up there, not necessarily in fields.
In small businesses, you are generally agile enough to create some manual processes around the constraints systems such as your financial software imposes. It may slow you down, but not enough to erode your competitive advantage. In larger corporate mammoths, the ERP’s are generally fit for some division of the company, once upon a time. Lead to many, many hundreds of manual processes to be made.
Large or small, you end up with what we call in the technology trade as ‘unstructured data’. As a rule of thumb, everything in a system or a properly built and supported database is structured. In reality, unstructured data looks like things that are emailed between you, document files like Excel, Word and in some cases PDF’s.
Just because something is in an electronic format, doesn’t mean it’s useful structured data.
Not the data we’re looking for
Unstructured data is very difficult for machines to make sense from. So, automation is difficult and improvement of the processes is furthermore difficult.
You may have saved 20 years of quotes in Excel thinking it’s a great repository of data. Painstakingly naming each file with details of the date, the customer and tweaking and building on the formatting each time. Adding new tabs and moving things around to better suit market conditions and what your customers want.
Visually your self developed Excel system may look great, but computers really don’t care what things look like.
You may be able to find what you want, quickly too. However, a new starter would have to be trained to use your filing system. Sadly, it’s very difficult to take all that raw data in that format and perform any type of analytics on it automatically. As I say, difficult – we do have tools available that can ingest unstructured files and help us look for things. However, those projects are expensive and not really what I would personally recommend. Complexity and expense, to me, means the chances of failure are high.
Essentially the data you may have thought you’d collected may be just the same in value as deciding on process changes from experience or gut feelings.
Start collecting structured data, now
The advocacy I make over and over again is to simply take your existing manual processes and systems and put them into an IT platform exactly as they are. There are a growing number of low and no-code solutions to solve these problems – we work with tools like KiSSFLOW, PowerApps and many others. Believe it or not, you may already have some available to you that you’re paying for and not using!
Once you’ve taken this first step. Took the manual unstructured processes – away from emails, away from Word and Excel templates, and away from paper! Structure them, built them into a system that’s storing what’s going on, you open up a whole new world of insight and improvement. You are ready after a short while to harness the power of Data-Driven Transformation.
I’d also suggest that even though you may have years of legacy information. The time consuming and expensive act of reprocessing this so you can use it is of less value than simply switching to a system that collects data in a structured way from this point forward.
Previously, you had documents being emailed around. You had no idea how long that was really taking – you had no idea if process workflows were getting stuck with people on holiday, clients who aren’t as invested in the process as your staff, nothing. You just new a process would take a couple of weeks and that’s what it took.
When you can see even basic data like how long things are taking, you can start making informed decisions on how to improve.
Data + Processing = Information.
This is a basic principle we IT Professionals were taught almost on the first day of our education. We may dress up the term information as insight and knowledge. However, simply put having data is useless to you unless you can process it. Even big data and AI follow this simple model – AI is just the processing method of the data to get information and knowledge, so that’s simply just processing. Maybe not by a person, but by a machine.
How Data-Driven Transformation can bring people along with Change
To bring people along with a process change, you must overcome the whys and wherefores.
I am no different from anyone else. I detest being at the behest of a process I don’t understand why it is done the way it is. Especially if I presume it’s badly built and doing what I do, that’s generally my default stance.
Quite often if I feel myself getting frustrated with a bank, call centre or anyone who are playing the ‘computer says no’ card. I tend to steer the conversation to start getting an insight as to why the process is the way it is. If you do try this one at home kids, prepare yourself to only find a sensible conversation with your call centre agent in only 20% of cases. But trust me, being annoyed in 4/5 of calls with a call centre is a vast improvement to my life.
The great thing having collected data from your existing processes by adopting a better, indeed structured technology platform to run them is you can turn that into information. Imagine if all of a key process for servicing all of your customers ends up channelling through one person. They’re the conscientious type, they just get on with things and do it. Absolutely the best type of employee. Of course, you never set out to overwhelm that model employee. Order processing was to be spread across the team based on the product category. However, market conditions have changed. Maybe a global pandemic came along! The product that person was dealing with is now selling like facemasks! (– too soon?) .
As a manager, director or business owner. You’re firefighting on other fronts. You have no idea this is going on. However, one-click onto whatever technology platform you can see that workflow is backing up around these core products. You see the wait times, you also see the loading on other employees.
“I told you before. No one can see beyond a choice they don’t understand, and I mean no one.” – The Oracle
Bake processes, not cookies
I’m a great fan of the Oracle (not the ERP!). The one who dishes out cryptic advice in the Matrix to Neo. I always particularly liked her advice “we cannot see past the choice we don’t understand”. The biggest barrier to acceptance to people within a process is simply not understanding what it’s for, why it’s there and why it’s done the way it is. The more people you can communicate this to within the team, the better stakeholder acceptance is – internally or externally.
So in our little example, we can alter the roles within the team with the evidence of the loading on one of their comrades. Rather than the boss telling their staff what to do. Everyone can see the problem, the evidence is there. And who doesn’t want to help out a colleague who’s against it? If everyone understands the reasons, the need and why the process is to change people come along and even help you make it work.
In a nutshell, this is a data-driven transformation. We’re changing things and making dynamic decisions about workflow and processes – maybe not huge changes, subtle tweaks here and there. However, if you run your business in this manner you’ll find small changes eventually add up to massive transformation. If you think the technology is too expensive, too difficult then I encourage you to think again, speak to us or even read my previous blog on Digital Process Transformation.
Unleashed are experts in bringing technology and business processes together. The team is at the top of our game knowing many of the tools available. Some like myself, spend our spare time researching the latest nerdy cloud solutions to very specific niche problems. If you think you have a process that could be improved, but you don’t know how or which tool to use. Then we’re here for you – it all starts with you reaching out for a friendly chat to me and the team.