In our first episode, Kevan and Veronica discuss the human reality behind the jargon-y buzzword of “Digital Transformation.” A candid conversation about the business necessity and cultural impact of digital change as it transforms our workplaces and lives.
Why "Digital Transformation" is more than a buzzword
Kevan brings wisdom from over a decade of experience leading award-winning digital strategies for a wide variety of institutions and businesses. A seasoned and engaging facilitator and speaker who has been with Domain7 since 2010, Kevan has helped shape our collaborative and people-centric culture. He’s studied design thinking and innovation processes at the THNK School of Creative Leadership.
Kevan: Welcome to Changes in the Making, Domain7’s podcast where we explore all things digital through the lens of purposeful change. I’m Kevan Gilbert.
Veronica: And I’m Veronica Collins, and together, we’ll be discussing themes of connection making and culture shaping. We’ll be delving into how to create meaningful change from a business standpoint and a human perspective.
Kevan: Today, we’re looking at the exploding reality of “digital transformation.”
Veronica: Yes. Yes, please never say those words again. I think I had something against the words ‘stakeholders’ for about five years after working in a university setting where it was like, ‘Just don’t ask me about stakeholders. Can we call them people?’ I think maybe there was something similar going on here. I didn’t want to hear about the learnings around digital transformation that we have gathered from our stakeholders. It’s actually a very real vibrant current thing. It’s just been painted beige by this term that’s now #digitaltransformation.
Kevan: Oh my gosh, yeah. It’s an alive activity, it is an actual movement. There are things happening here that are vital, that they’re necessary, they are fundamental, they are activities that will change the shape of how employees experience their workplaces, how customers experience the organizations they use for services. It changes or has the potential to change so much, and yet people are staring at it like it’s some sort of stop sign that they’re walking past.
Veronica: Yeah, I think one of the interesting things for me was realizing that I had this yawn … Reflexive yawn reaction happening in my work life about ‘Okay, we’ve decided that this is something that I need to dig into,’ but in my personal life, I’ve completely embraced this, and not only that, it’s changed my life over the last few years in just this gradual way. But I saw somebody call it a digital revolution the other day instead of digital transformation, and that really seems to ring true, that we’re living through, in the same way that the industrial revolution completely reorganized people’s lives. We’re living through a digital transformation in that way-
Veronica: And I think it’s happened … It feels like it’s happened so gradually that we don’t even see it, and yet I love how you like to say 10 years ago … I can’t do the Kevan, you do the Kevan. 10 years ago, what didn’t exist, Kevan? Or what was brand new?
Kevan: This was easier to say when it was say 2015 or 2016, but I’ll try it anyway.
Veronica: Yeah, getting old.
Kevan: We’re aging out of our ability to access, but when I was your age, statement, but about 10 years ago, we didn’t have smartphones kicking around, Youtube hadn’t been invented yet, Facebook might’ve been emerging as a network, there might’ve been Twitter, but it was just SMS based. Laptops were still super expensive. You were connecting with people in realtime, yes, but it was through MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. You were probably using your free Hotmail account unless you were an earlier adopter of Gmail. The state of technology just a decade ago was so bound to the desktop, and mostly not real time. It was definitely not mobile, it had very little in the way of video and audio, it had very little in the way of even cameras to enable easy access to video conversation.
Most of our organizations that we interact with from our governments, to our hospitals, to our educational institutions, to our small and medium business across Canada are operating with technical environments that are at least 10 years old. It simply means that by nature of how times have changed, we are not using 90% of the capabilities that technology has given us for running most of the organizations on this planet.
Veronica: Which is astonishing because I feel like, back to me, I feel like in my day to day life, I just expect everybody to be ubiquitously digital. I’m an Amazon Prime member, I watch Netflix, I stream my music, I do online banking, I use Google for the hours of every neighborhood institution I visit, I reload my transit card online. So I just assume that this is the new reality, and that we’re all here.
I get frustrated at … Even though this is relatively new, right? That I could order something on Amazon, it could be here this evening, I get frustrated that Amazon has not figured out for me how to get that to my door, and get my door unlocked with new technology. So just the expectations that I have that have gone up so high, and yet I was an early Facebook adopter in university, and I’m not that old. I remember Facebook being new, and now Facebook, Youtube, these mega platforms have more than a billion users. They’re almost miniature governments now in and of themselves with all the problems that entails.
Kevan: Yup, and yet our own local governments are functioning with nowhere near the technical enablement of these institutes or these platforms that you mention. When it comes time to vote, it’s by necessity of security still highly paper based. When it comes down to participated in a town hall, it’s usually in person. When you interact with your hospital, with your local school, it might be that the odd platform here and there or startup here and there has emerged to improve some of the branches of services of each of these spaces, but it is likely not that they are equipped with a staff of thousands like these organizations that you’re mentioning to run digital.
We have as customers, grown these expectations for speed of service and digital empowerment, thanks to most of these entertainment feeds coming our way from Silicon Valley startups. Yet legacy organizations that are around us in our communities simply don’t have the capacity to operate with that kind of digital readiness, right?
Veronica: Yeah, and it seems like it’s not just the small and medium sized businesses. Sears is an interesting example-
Kevan: Oh my gosh.
Veronica: What happen there that they … You would think this would be an organization that had the means. There’s a lot of Sears examples out there I feel like. What’s going on there, Kev, with … It’s not this is the mom-and-pop shop in small town Canada, this is … They did catalogs. Back when I was a kid, they were the Amazon.
Kevan: Absolutely. I love that example, I just … It pains me to think that Sears didn’t take the opportunity to see themselves as the precursor to Amazon. They had invented remote ordering 100 years ago, 100 or more years ago with the catalog that you’re mentioning. If they, at some point, had seen that they had an opportunity to use what they’re already doing, which is communicating through picture and words what you can order from their stores to enable ordering using technology … This is where digital transformation gets really complex, is Sears, if you look at their journey, including some really funny Youtube videos that are online, did try it. Even in the past year or two, they had hip Toronto office with a sprinkling of hipsters here and there to help them embrace words like agile and iteration to do their digital transformation, but it ran into other realities, the business was under a huge pressure and tremendous threat because they had stores with products that nobody wanted to buy in the first place.
The last time that I walked in to a Sears before their closing sales, my kids would say it’s … “Why does it smell so bad in here?” We … Even when everything was discounted 60–90% off, we couldn’t think of a single thing we wanted to buy because the other aspect of that organization was they weren’t collecting a close enough relationship with their customers to build a relevant pipeline of products.
This is just conjecture, I’m not a Sears expert, what I see when I drive past my former local Sears location is a wall that has boarded up this formally monolithic Canada wide institution, that this organization was absolutely sunk because of a mix of pressures that include their choices in digital and their cultural reality. Something prevented them from taking advantage of the opportunities that were in front of them and this is the result, is empty stores.
Veronica: Makes me sad because like you said, they were a cultural icon. I loved those catalogs as a kid. They … You could do the wishlist thing from them, right?
Veronica: The big Christmas wishlist catalog.
Kevan: We had that experience too.
Veronica: It was so heavy there on your coffee table, or on your doorstep.
Kevan: Yeah, a bit of a side note, but I learned when looking into Sears a little bit, that in the mid 1900s, they had a mail order system for actually ordering yourself a modular home. That you could order a Sears home and I don’t mean furniture from a store called Sears Home, they had a catalog of models and prototypes of build it yourself houses that would get shipped to your community and then you would build it. There’s about 10,000 or so homes across Midwest America that today are still Sears homes. I think that’s hilarious and also just as like, ‘Hey, this company had at some point in their history, the capacity to come up with unconventional ideas and go after things nobody was doing even if they were outlandish.’ But what happened to that? What happened to the genetics of the company that was willing to do such a crazy idea as that when it comes to the internet?
Veronica: Yeah, I feel like that idea in today’s environment would be a winner because you see the prefab homes going out and the take a shipping container and turn it into a home, the tiny homes. Sears was ahead of the game there, so I think I’m hearing two different scenarios that happened around digital transformation or the lack there of.
One is this idea that … What is the statistic? I think it’s something like 40% more of our small to medium sized businesses in Canada don’t even have a website. So this idea of these neighborhood organizations, and businesses that don’t have the means of Amazon or Facebook, but we have this subconscious expectation of them, that they’re gonna deliver us the same digital experience and service level, so that’s the one scenario.
Then I think on the other hand, there’s these organizations like Sears that are larger, that probably have the means but they’re legacy organizations that have been around for a long time and maybe they don’t have the culture in some way to kick start this, or they kick started too late, or too superficially.
So what about … Which one comes first, the culture or the means for the technology? Can these smaller organizations in our neighborhoods do digital transformation in their own way, or are they out of the game?
Kevan: Wow, that’s such a good question. Just to contextualize a little bit ’cause I learned this recently, I think about 90% of working Canadians work at what’s called a small and medium business, so it’s a great deal of our workforce that is employed by a “small and medium enterprise,” and a small and medium enterprise is defined as any business that has 500 or less people. That doesn’t necessarily mean tiny, or mom-and-pop, it means many of the places that we’re really familiar with, which I just think is a helpful way to contextualize just how many of us and how many organizations are really stepping up to this exact question of which comes first, if you’re wanting to do this.
Sometimes digital is the trigger, it gets people asking questions, and yet underneath the surface of any questions about how do we keep pace with digital is the question of why haven’t you kept pace already? What was it that was holding you back from a more iterative evolution or saying yes to pilots and prototypes early on, to empowering those early adopters in your organization who wanted to try out a new technology just to see how it would work about 15 years ago.
Some of it is that a lot of business leaders, at least in my view, tend to be really responsible. They are people who take their accountability seriously and thus make decisions in a way that is exhibiting responsible stewardship of the people they employ and the assets that they steward. That leads to a little bit of appropriately conservative thinking, and technology can be seen as a threat to that. If you think of a new idea of being something entering an immune system, it’s that immune system’s job to extinguish the threat, so business leaders are doing a good thing in some ways by resisting the threat of these fads, and these trends that digital sometimes masquerades as. So the responsible thing to do is to neutralize the threat.
So there’s an opportunity to set the cultural queue from leadership to not treat every new idea as a threat, but to ask what is a response that can better enable us to be on mission, in support of what we’re trying to accomplish in a way that enhances the lives of the communities that we are serving, and how might we use this technology opportunity to address both the mission, and the community we’re serving more intentionally. I think some people stop much before that and I assume they’ve done their job really well by neutralizing the threat and moving on to the things that are expected and predictable, instead of seeing it as an opportunity to host really meaningful conversations about how they’re going to choose to respond to change, to help their organization achieve their purpose.
Veronica: It’s the age old … A human challenge of change, right? When you unpack the word transformation, it’s a very positive spin on the very simple reality of a change story. I just think about human psychology around change, and while you’re managing risk and responsibility, it brings so much emotion to bear actually. Trying to make smart decisions in a changing environment, history books are full of this, right?
You look back at different eras in human history where there were massive changes, and you can just almost hear the existential angst coming off the page as people tried to grapple with it, tried to … Were left behind or tried to catch up, and this idea of does it have to … I think disruption gets a bad rap too, or maybe it puts a bad flavor into this story where it’s this idea that’s aggressive, and disturbing, and not very human. If anything, it’s gonna … It sounds like it’s gonna cause human pain, right? Now quite often it also causes human flourishing, but there is that discomfort, that emotional discomfort around the reality of disruption, and what that means for people who are leading other people really. Businesses are people leading people.
Veronica: To provide something for people, right? So this is innately human reality, but that gets glossed over I feel like sometimes with words like ‘technology business.’
Kevan: Yes, absolutely, and I think of some of the change heroes that we tend to idolize, Steve Jobs comes to mind. Somebody who was famously negligent of the well being of those around him and his quest for disruption and “making a dent in the universe.” Here’s the key figure who ushered in a lot of the tech that we use today.
If that’s the model that we’re using for the change leadership we’re trying to bring about to these workforces that we just described, there’s gonna be a lot burnt out and alienated people.
If we can reframe our view of how to bring change leadership through these organizations, I think we’ll find a different way to treat people who are legitimately fearful and who are trying to do their best in the jobs that they have to complete the functions that they need to so they can achieve the result they’re lookin’ for, whether that’s a paycheck or meeting an autonomy in their work so that they can go home at the end of the day and still be healthy in their communities. It’s sometimes we are so driven towards this disruptive model of tech leadership that we’ve simply wanna bulldoze our vision through, so that we have a story about ourselves that we can tell about what we accomplished, instead of acknowledging the incredible network of people who are part of this story with us.
Veronica: Yeah, I love that. The word, ‘network,’ feels so resonant because as you were describing digital transformation earlier today, the image of a network kept coming up to me where this network of people that always existed in your community of users and customers and in your internal community as a team of people, one of the things I feel like a good digital transformation can do well with empathetically undertaken is bring that network more to the forefront so that you see all these different centers of intelligence, and insight, and input. Suddenly you are a much richer business, organization, community because those viewpoints are getting shared. You have so much more insight that you can respond to.
Veronica: But how do get there, right? Even as we’re discussing it, it can feel a little bit like a, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a lot to tackle,’ and yet, we were talking earlier today about how transformation can start with some very simple optimizations.
I think of a really simple story of a very small business, which is my dad’s business. He’s a painter, he has a small paint … House painting business, and he used to always do Yellow Pages. Growing up, I remember helping my dad design the small ad for the Yellow Pages with the paint roller and that stopped working for him a few years ago, more than a few years ago now, and thankfully he had people come alongside him who were like, ‘Try to get on Google, try to share some painting tips with quick videos-’
Veronica: ‘Get your location up there, get your search results up there,’ and my dad, who was not a digital native by any stretch of the imagination, just has a very willing to learn personality, adopted these things that people were telling him to try out, much younger people were telling him to try out. He’s close to the top of the search results for his region, and that’s really helped him in terms of just bringing the business in and keeping his business running and then, this affects people’s lives, right?
Veronica: Instead of it being a story of his business going as he got older, it actually flourished and grew just from him embracing a few simple things. So I know that’s an extremely simple story, but I was thinking of the story that you have about the U.S. digital service.
Kevan: Yeah, that’s really interesting about your dad. What I see in that is somebody who was embracing a learning attitude, and when you ask how does one even get started, you can at least start by wanting to. Wanting to not just achieve the digital transformation, but wanting to bring about some of those values you’re describing, the collective intelligence of the network. It seems its so often, I don’t really hear that from leadership praising that as a priority. I just think imagine what could change if you were simply sending the signal of an intention to be that kind of organization, to be a learner like your dad’s describing … Like you were describing your dad.
With the U.S. digital service, this … The story of the U.S. digital service is pretty commonly known by now, but it had an interesting window of insight into how it was being formed. A couple years ago, speaking at a conference with Jared Spool, who is a world renown UX expert and who’s partner, Dana Chisnell was helping actually do the hiring and recruiting for that department.
So when I was talking with Jared about what he was seeing as some of the early wins in the U.S. digital service, what I was really surprised to hear is that he brought it back to forms, digitizing paper forms into things people could interact with online. I asked him what was interesting or exciting about that for him that seems like an oversimplification of anything. He had specified that what they were doing was identifying high profile, high use departments that had key paper processes they needed to streamline.
One of his stories of success was with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, where they had taken a paper based process that previously had something like 30 days average completion time to get the paper, file the paperwork, receive back the things that you needed regarding funding or assistance, and they compress that into a process of something like four minutes long, completable entirely online. He told the story about a particular veteran he was able to interview whose life was literally saved because of the access and speed they were able to access the funding and services they needed through this application.
Veronica: You think this is just a form, but then you think about the relief that would be for someone. I’m even thinking about my own experiences just as an average person with the healthcare system, and how many times you have to repeat yourself, how many times they hand write something on a chart, and just how far we have to go in terms of applying the best of digital to make human experiences better in ways that really matter. Sometimes we think about this as convenience and it can be. I think I’ve joked with friends about how every app out of Silicon Valley says they’re making the world a better place, and they’re really just making it easier for you to order pizza at 2:00 AM. But there’s that side of it, and I love that side of it, being an Amazon Prime member and etc, etc.
But there’s also the side of when push comes to shove, when you really need essential services, there’s so much room for human creativity and ingenuity to come to bear at those points in terms of applying technology and really make life better. Not just here, but in places in the world where life is a lot more stressful than it is for us here. That’s exciting to me, thinking about that, thinking about building empathetic, creative communities that come up with creative solutions, and help us live in better ways, and have greater quality of care for each other.
Kevan: Absolutely, I love how you framed that. When I think of what you’re describing, it’s giving a little bit of honor and credit to the worthy work of digital transformation. It’s saying, “Sure it might not be a hot new startup, but guess what? It’s work that needs to be done and there is so much to do.” We are so far behind, name a sector, there are years of catch up work to be done. It’s not gonna take the, as we mentioned, the bulldozing spirit of leadership to knock down walls, and make the tech happen because those organizations will need the capacity to evolve into the future to keep serving their communities, to keep being in pursuit of their missions, to keep evaluating every new impending digital choice that’s gonna be coming down the wire for them. These digital transformation efforts in every pocket, in every part of the world, get to be done with a view towards how we build people’s capacity to keep making human centered technology aware choices towards that kind of future.
Veronica: I love that. I think you said earlier that digital transformation is not about innovation, and even as we’re describing these opportunities, I’m like ‘My goodness, isn’t there a gap between the tech headlines that I enjoy every day about AI, and SpaceX, and self-driving cars, and just applying what we know how to make how we live better.’
Veronica: I think of that quote that’s really been popular over the last year, “Start where you are with what you have.” I think there’s just so much richness there that we often overlook. The word ‘creativity,’ keeps coming to mind to me that this is actually a very creative pursuit, the application of something we already have to creatively reimagine the way we could do things.
Kevan: That’s amazing. I love that so much ’cause I often find myself making the distinction as you’ve heard me say, and I think you just said, “Digital transformation is not innovation,” it’s not cutting edge invention and new stuff, and yet it is still such a creative pursuit, such an essential pursuit, so necessary, it takes courage to go there and just to reiterate, it’s gonna take a different kind of leadership in our spaces to really push through what’s ahead of us.
Veronica: The words, ‘creative community,’ keep coming back to me, this idea that a meaningful and holistic transformation you’re gonna engage your community in. I forget the poet’s name, but there’s this poet who is … She has this great line that says, “And are we not of interest to each other,” and this idea that just … What is more interesting than people and how they interact together, and what we can create together? Underneath this blasé term, digital transformation, if underneath that is creative communities coming together to form this new revolution, this new reality, that’s not so boring.
Kevan: Just wanted to say thank you to anybody who’s listening. We hope you enjoyed today’s conversation as much as Veronica and I did, and we hope you’ll join us for upcoming episodes. We’re gonna continue to tackle complex challenges that we face as digital makers and simply as human beings in this technological moment in time.
Veronica: You can find upcoming episodes at Domain7.com/podcast or you can also sign up for our newsletter and you can also find us on Medium at The Connection, a publication that Kevan and I write for from time to time. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow us at Domain7, and Kevan and I love to hear from people, so feel free to drop us a line. We love ideas, we love feedback. I’m Veronica@Domain7.com and Kevan is Kevan@Domain7.com, predictably. Thanks so much for listening, we hope you join us again.
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