How to create digital processes for the enterprise world

Going digital is often understood as «let’s buy that software tool», or «let’s subscribe to this stream». While this is often true in the consumer world, it won’t get you anywhere in the enterprise world.

Why not? Digital consumer products typically come with a highly standardized built-in digital process, whereas digital enterprise products need to fit in with the existing, organically grown processes inherent to any large organization. At the same time, large organizations need to transform their processes towards the digital world in order to take full advantage of the benefits digitization offers.

This article isn’t about a specific example, but about the concepts of digital processes and digital transformation in the enterprise world. My thinking is inspired by 10+ years of work experience in the enterprise world, and by 5+ years of leading a company that provides digital products to enterprise clients.

I’ll begin by explaining the characteristics of a digital process. Then, I will take you on a journey into the fascinating world of digital transformation, making sure no one is left behind.

Digital Processes

Digital processes are often seen as the cornerstone of making work more efficient. But how are digital processes different from analog processes?

First of all, digital processes allow a non-linear flow of action. This means that process steps can run in parallel, whilst using the same information of course. This is especially helpful in processes that require consultation and feedback from various stakeholders. Digital processes speed up the lead time and improve the quality of consultation, as information is shared, and the typical round-robin feedback loops can be avoided.

This allows to work asynchronously, meaning that work can be done from anywhere at any time. The only thing you need to work is a computer and an internet connection. Especially for approval processes, physical meetings to approve decisions and sign-off papers are not required anymore – everyone contributes whenever and wherever.

Remember the times when process descriptions were stored somewhere on the server in that QMS folder, or even printed out and distributed to all employees? Have you ever wondered why people didn’t adhere to these processes? Digital processes are typically modeled using workflow frameworks, which allow the definition of specific roles, triggers and notifications that consequently activate the right people at the right time. In the digital world, process adherence is governed by a server without moods, without chaos on its desk, and certainly without paper forms that need to be returned to a central office and manually typed into a computer.

Last but not least, the status of a digital process is always visible to everyone involved. In contrast to analog processes, you know exactly who blocks the flow of the process, who rejected a decision, or who wanted to push back on a change. Process transparency helps making work more efficient, but typically requires some cultural change in the beginning – digital processes are transparent about who has done their work and who hasn’t.

Start Today, …

So, you’ve successfully created your first digital processes, and now it’s time to add some digital content. My advice: start today, even if not everything is perfect.

Think of Apple’s very first iPhone back in 2007: copy-paste wasn’t available yet in iOS 1.0, nor did the App Store exist. Nevertheless, the consumer world took up the iPhone like a new religion. This is a fundamental difference to the enterprise world: many large organizations still think that you can’t go live with a digital tool that is not perfect yet. However, a digital process in its very first version is still a lot closer to perfection than an analog or manual process will ever be!

The key elements of digital transformation are speed and simplicity. Both are achieved by starting fast with a non-perfect first version, then improve. From my humble experience, the tipping point of digital transformation is always the moment when the users see their digital content in its new form for the very first time. Suddenly, digital transformation becomes tangible: users see their own content, in a new form.

And this is where legacy projects typically stop: We had a successful go-live, thanks for your hard work, let’s close the project. In the digital world, the real work only starts now, and it goes by a specific name: iteration.

…. Then Iterate

Iteration is the digital equivalent of the well-known “plan-do-check-act” cycle (PDCA cycle). The PDCA cycle originated in the manufacturing industry and was designed to optimize assembly lines and factories. While rearranging your assembly lines on a daily or weekly basis is not easy to do, adapting a digital process based on workflows is easy. Simply upload the new workflow versions, and all your employees can immediately work according to the amended process.

The enterprise world needs cultural change to allow iteration: Iteration means admitting that the previous version was not perfect, therefore admitting that someone made a mistake. Iteration means listening to feedback from employees and customers and incorporate this feedback into the next version. Here, agile methodologies used in software development can help in the enterprise world, too: Agile development means going ahead in small steps, trying things out, fixing errors, making improvements. Never would I blame one of our developers for creating a bug, or for refactoring a component in our software that has become obsolete over time. Bug fixes and component refactoring just go into the next development sprint.

Digital transformation in the enterprise world means doing what software developers have been adhering to for years: Accept the fact that errors happen, and that components and concepts get outdated faster than one might think. If you manage to do this with the digital processes in your enterprise, you’re set for unprecedented efficiency improvements and radical innovation.

Leave No One Behind

Often, digitization is heralded as a cure-for-all. Here again, the difference between the consumer world and the enterprise world needs to be considered: While a consumer decides for just him- or herself if the digital process provided by a supplier is compelling, enterprises need to create tailor-made digital processes for a large number of people. And there are always some employees who don’t like change. There are also always employees who just simply cannot follow the rapid change anymore. Both types of people are part of your enterprise, so you need to make sure not to leave them behind.

One thing that jumps to my mind here is the obsession with documents. A lot of people still have the desire to store documents as digital printouts, preferably in the format they have gotten used to over the years. Whilst this is certainly not the aim of digital processes, I think it’s worthwhile to incorporate such functionalities into digital products – at least for a transition phase. You can always restrict the availability of such functions with user roles – and measure usage before you decide on finally pulling the plug on legacy functions.

Conclusion

Digitization saw a rapid rise in the last years, mainly due to the compelling digital products created for the consumer world. The next frontier in digitization is the enterprise world, where digital products don’t need to fit the needs of a single individual only, but of a large group of employees. Therefore, it’s not enough to focus on the process aspects of digitization – if you can’t pull your employees along, the best digital process won’t get you anywhere. At the heart of this change are the concepts of iteration and agility – which really are just fancier words for an open error culture.

Published: 8 January 2021
Author: Thomas Vogel, Co-Founder & CEO