EMBRACING A DIGITAL CULTURE: HOW TO UNLOCK THE POWER OF DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION IN DEFENCE
Faster, Higher, Stronger.
Higher, Further, Faster.
Whether it’s the motto of the Olympics or a similar aspiration from the Marvel cinematic universe, both adequately reflect the current challenges for businesses operating within the defence sector.
With over 12 years’ experience in maritime defence transformation throughout my career for the likes of Babcock International Group and BAE Systems, I keenly recognise these demands to deliver value for money for the defence industry.
A pressing need to be more efficient and effective in the face of a perfect storm of external factors backed off against generational challenges, societal change and near-exponential technology advancement means that businesses must shape up or ship out. No choice, not to mention a suitably appropriate maritime defence pun.
Whatever way you look at it, the enabler is digital transformation.
The art of the possible is simply incredible, from BIG data to machine learning, to SMART factories to RPA, to AI to everything in between, and whatever comes next.
At the core of unlocking these incredible capabilities is, of course, people. The most important resource in any business. IT and OT strategies operating in perfect harmony with an engaged workforce…
So why are the same failure modes re-visited in major transformational initiatives?
There is a unique cocktail of pressure on defence businesses: complexity, legacy, cost, customers, schedule, quality, resources, capability, and more.
Sometimes businesses respond to the demands for transformational change in a planned way. Sometimes they react. Sometimes the leap is too far. Sometimes the right capabilities – or more pertinently maturity of the right capabilities – are not available in the business to drive it forward.
Often the conditions for transformational success are not really established. Often subcontractors and consultants are the answer. This can be effective, but this doesn’t necessarily build the right internal capabilities for organisations to be self-sufficient.
Transformation strategies and models can be muddled. Commonly businesses try to change too much at any one time. There can be a lack of fit for purpose sponsorship, governance, and leadership. Unclear accountabilities. Inadequate comms and engagement. Lack of the right resources in the right place at the right time, with the right bandwidth from exec to shopfloor.
I‘ve seen a transformation programme designed and then initiated with infinite capacity. When applying some due diligence around resourcing planning, it turned out that 2.5 times the available resources would have been required to deliver the programme on time in full.
Despite all the project and programme management accreditations, the right artefacts are often not in place due to business pressures, resource availability, or complexity: business cases – are often absent; business realisation plans – are commonly limited; reporting – is typically onerous and time-consuming.
Programme reporting can be a real enabler, particularly through modern approaches to automation and dashboards and visualisation, but often it can slip into cottage industry territory. I’ve witnessed overly complex governance arrangements bring maritime transformation programmes grinding to a halt in the initiation stages – real-life paralysis by analysis.
Why do, time and again, major defence businesses fail to take people on the journey with them?
If my time in maritime defence has taught me anything, it’s that unless you are able to take people on the journey of technology, process or organisational change, the outcomes will at best be sub-optimal. At worst, they will be a failure. In simple terms taking people on the journey relates to effective engagement. Make them feel trusted. Make them feel valued. Bring them inside the tent.
But engagement can be difficult. Different employees are under different pressures and have different needs and wants when it comes to communications and engagement. It is easy to cascade a management presentation, send out a newsletter e-mail, or deliver a town hall brief. But this is one-way comms, not two-way comms. And it is not easy to tailor an engagement plan.
I observed at close hand an emergent change programme that was initiated following a major quality issue. The programme was shaped around the ‘collective’ views of the Senior Leadership Team and did not actively engage the workforce to take feedback or test thinking. After the initial fanfare subsided, the programme floundered and then failed.
When employees – regardless of whether they are shopfloor, professionals, graduates, or middle management – have had negative experiences around a change project or a transformation programme, it sticks with them; and the cause of this is typically inadequate or inappropriate engagement. They have been burned. Change intolerance develops. Widespread indifference to the next change programme. “It’ll never work here” becomes the call.
Often businesses – operating at pace and under the aforementioned range of pressures – are unable to take the necessary time to effectively engage their workforce. This often results in staff (regardless of level) feeling that they are “having change done to them”, if indeed “anything changes at all”.
I recall asking a Trade Union representative of one of my maritime defence employers for his views on management’s latest approach to engaging staff around business transformation. He responded that management was great at asking what was wrong but poor at making changes, and worse still providing updates. He then queried whether I was familiar with the song “Nothing Ever Happens” by Scottish band Del Amitri… because that was what it felt like for the shopfloor staff.
A very real consequence can be that layers of organisational “permafrost” develop. Information will not flow effectively through these layers, and they will inhibit transformational change. Sometimes this can be between shopfloor and first-line management, but sometimes it can be between directors and heads of department.
How do we change the narrative?
Build trust, learn from experience, and apply the right structures to not just underpin transformation programmes but ensure the sustainability of their outcomes. Be realistic and pragmatic in these outcomes – do less but do it well. Do it really well.
I recall a business I worked for brought in a new MD, and it energised a transformation programme. Sponsors and transformation leads were engaged on a monthly basis, summary programme information was used to test thinking, effectively update progress and “hold toes to the fire” – the discipline of this approach created incredible traction in the programme.
Check-in with staff at various levels whether they think the change is sticking, and measure adoption and uptake, not just the related KPIs.
Trust is a precious commodity that can easily be overlooked. Effective relationships built over time can be not only an enabler, but also a differentiator for defence organisations driving digital transformation.
An improvement team I managed was involved in piloting a new approach for shopfloor employee engagement forums in a shipyard setting. The intent was to drive improvements by actively engaging staff and reducing the air gap from management to the shop floor. This model proved to be a success because the right mix of staff was actively engaged, updated, and then held to account for progress and delivery.
Major change programmes cannot be configured purely on the views and opinions of C-suite. They must reflect business reality and take the pulse of the workforce. Involving and engaging staff at different levels can have a tremendous impact on the quality, delivery, and continuity of transformation.
Two-way engagement, design thinking, and feedback loops are not nice to haves – they are staples of modern and effective change management. Formal – not to mention informal – change networks can be a vehicle for good.
Digital transformation can deliver an incredible range of technological, data, process and people related outcomes, but this must be anchored by keeping staff engaged. Keep them informed. Keep them connected. Ensure they feel valued.
Faster, Higher, Stronger.
Higher, Further, Faster.