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The unintended consequences of digital transformation

Digital transformation offers organisations a way to change fundamentally the way they operate

Traditionally, when a new technology enters the workplace, it doesn’t fundamentally change how the workforce operates, it merely digitises an existing working practice – memos became emails, onsite meetings became Zoom calls, for example. Ultimately, though, the processes people perform and how they are managed would remain largely the same.

But the same cannot be said of digital transformation. When implemented correctly, digital transformation provides an opportunity for organisations to fundamentally change the way they operate. It is this “transformation” aspect that distinguishes it from the technology implementations of the past.

The challenge is that most people aren’t ready for it – they are simply not ready to be transformed. Those in management roles, in particular, who have been operating in largely the same way since the industrial revolution, are certainly in for a shock when the effects of digital transformation really take hold.

How will digital transformation affect them, and is there anything they can do about it?

Managers are not immune to this change

Most of the human stories around digital transformation tend to focus on its impact on frontline workers, in particular how it makes certain roles redundant. Do you need as many checkout operators with self-service tills, for example? No, you don’t.

But technology innovations have always made, and will continue to make, certain production roles redundant. Yet, despite numerous tech revolutions, the human race hasn’t found itself redundant just yet. We may have fewer coal miners, switchboard operators, chimney sweeps, and so on, but people have found fulfilling work in other, new, often technology-enabled industries.

The difference this time around is that the change introduced by digital transformation is not confined to the productive labour force, but to their managers, too. And given that the manager’s fundamental role has been largely insulated from all the changes to the workforce underneath them until now, managers could be in for a big surprise.

This is because most managers are task-based: they set tasks and check that these tasks are being completed. This is then reported up to their manager, who then reports up, in turn, until it eventually reaches the board. “Management” is therefore, more often than not, primarily a reporting line to those further up the chain.

But as the reporting of tasks becomes more automated through digital transformation, or the tasks themselves become automated, what role is left for the task-based manager? If they can no longer report the completion of tasks, what is their role?

A change for the better

Managers need to recognise this change now and adapt along with it, just as their staff have had to do for generations. Organisations can help by shifting away from task-based reporting lines to objectives based on values and outcomes. Managers will still have an important role to play in the digitally transformed enterprise, but it will be far more forward-looking and strategic.

Instead of compiling reports and looking backward at what has or hasn’t been done, they should become more focused on the future. Managers will be reading reports instead of writing them, and making more strategic decisions based on the abundance of data before them, often aided by artificial intelligence analysis.

This is a long way away from the tactical, task-based manager that dominates our organisations today. It will require a very different skillset and mindset, which some of today’s managers may struggle to adopt.

Returning management to its roots

Although this change requires us to re-evaluate the role of the manager in modern organisations, in reality, digital transformation is returning management to its roots. Management was never meant to be an aggregation point for reporting – it is about generating value by getting the best from people through encouragement, inspiration and the enablement of teams.

The impact of digital transformation on managers will, ultimately, be positive for them, those they manage and their organisations, but only if they embrace it and are willing to transform themselves too.

Romy Hughes is a director of change management consultancy Brightman.

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