Digital Transformations Start with Frontline Workers

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Recently, one of the largest hotel chains in the world transformed itself with digital technology — for the second time. By all accounts, the first effort had been a failure. The company had invested a significant amount of time and money installing a major new system that promised to increase efficiencies, streamline day-to-day operations, and enhance the guest experience. The problem? The system was so cumbersome, difficult to learn, and ineffective that the hotel’s employees routinely bypassed it, preferring pen and paper to take notes and relay guest information.

The goal in the second transformation was to avoid making the same mistakes again. The first time around, the hotel chain’s leaders had developed design specifications by following the vendor’s recommendations and the best practices of their industry. They had ended up with a system just as good — or as bad — as that of their competitors, with no particular links to the qualities that made their own chain distinctive. Nothing in their new IT system had made it easier to keep the customers who already loved staying at the hotels, or to attract new customers.

It takes courage to recognize your past mistakes and, in effect, start over from scratch. But that’s what this hotel chain did. They saw now that their employees were the key to a great guest experience. And they recognized that their approach to gathering information about the pending change was part of the problem. While the employees were not the totality of that experience, they were the best source of information on what would make the chain come to life. So the best place to start in designing the IT system was with those employees. Ask the bellhop. Observe the desk clerk. Follow the managers of the cleaning staff. The hotel leaders had to understand not just what technology they could implement and what strategy to develop, but what they could actually deliver, and, more importantly, what the staff (and customers) would want to use.

Today, the hotel has a new platform: a single IT system that seamlessly connects every aspect of the customer experience, from the online request for a reservation to the follow-up reviews after checkout. Every room has a dedicated tablet that guests can use to make requests, communicate more easily with staff, and instantly rate the service they receive. Staffers get real-time requests via mobile devices and can respond quickly and efficiently. The team can access dashboards on performance and communicate with one another more seamlessly.

The core principle in this story is true for any digital transformation: No matter how complex and multifaceted the technology may be, keep your eye on the experience of customers and employees. You have probably been hearing about some kind of tech-based silver bullet that can solve your problems. But your solution is not going to be like anyone else’s. Your solution depends on understanding your own way of creating value for customers, the things you can do better than anyone else, the insights already held by your employees — and your ability to build those elements into a digital system that is all your own, that no one could ever duplicate.

In designing their hotels’ system, the company leaders didn’t pay attention to other chains’ best practices. Instead, they talked to their own people. They shadowed more than 180 hotel employees and surveyed 4,000 more. Then they commissioned a prototype of the new system and shared it with employees at all levels, asking for direct feedback. They took the time to understand the frustrations and aspirations of everyone on the payroll: bellhops, concierges, housekeeping, waiters, and parking attendants.

Business leaders over-index on looking outward. That is, they don’t consider the distinctive approach to execution that only they — with their company’s unique culture, identity, people, and assets — can take. This mistake is particularly common with digital transformation initiatives. It’s an underlying reason that 70 percent of business transformation efforts fail.

No matter how complex and multifaceted the technology may be, keep your eye on the experience of customers and employees.

A strategy that looks good on paper may not necessarily fit your company’s needs. In order to succeed, you must build in execution from day one. Execution requires both planning and iteration — through inventing, prototyping, and testing. These activities should be informed by multiple inputs from diverse viewpoints, including creative minds, designers of user experience, and tech experts. No single executive can think through all of the potential outcomes and scenarios, or create and test a solution single-handedly. Instead, the best execution often is led by a multidisciplinary talent pool working together as one team in search of holistic solutions. Good execution takes into consideration the perspectives of customers, partners, and employees.

It also means looking at a problem through multiple lenses. The hotel chain’s situation, for example, can be broken down into three parts — the business, the experience (for both customers and employees), and the technology. The best method to use in analyzing and developing these three elements is what we call BXT: considering them together and tracking their impact on each other. This allows you to gain clarity on the greatest opportunities as well as the hidden challenges.

When you tackle business problems in an integrated way, you look at the tools (technology) differently than you did before. You see them as vehicles for leveraging business insights and designing compelling experiences. If they don’t deliver on those counts in ways that are both measurable (with the head) and deeply felt (down to the skin, bones, heart, and blood), then you aren’t interested in the technology, no matter how much press it gets. And you learn about its ability to deliver by looking at your efforts from a variety of different perspectives.

When a major technology investment fails, it’s probably because the leaders of the business didn’t pay enough attention to the actual business results and experience of using them. A BXT orientation forces you to pay attention, in ways that enhance your own strengths. That is the key to transformational change. The first step on this long journey is right down to your concierge desk (or the equivalent customer-facing establishment in your business.) You have to be willing to ask the bellhop.