Getting the good oil on digitisation

By Dean Britton

It’s unlikely these days that any medium or large organisation’s business plan would not include the goals of increasing efficiency and timeliness of delivery, as well as reducing risk. If information is the new oil, digitisation is the pump.

Planned and well targeted digitisation can help organisations meet those goals, so it should be a no-brainer that digitisation be baked into the plan.

But that is not always explicitly the case, and often the targets we see in strategic plans relate to categories of technology or platforms, with little or no reference to a broad digitisation strategy or even an information strategy.

In one recent engagement, the executive seemed unaware of the costs associated with hundreds of “back office” or internal business processes that had not been digitised (at last count there were over 500 forms on the company intranet for internal approvals and compliance which required physical signatures!). Nobody seemed to care though, since it wasn’t as sexy as Cloud.

Priming the pump

Of course, government and big business have already transformed to a certain point and have moved or are attempting to move all customer-facing processes into the digital world. But what about those businesses’ own, internal processes? Is anyone counting the cost of legacy processes that, for many, are still largely based in a physical mode?

One executive manager I’m aware of had no notion that costs in relation to scanning and optical character recognition (OCR) had fallen sharply over a decade. He was unable, therefore, to articulate the value for capturing a collection of critically important contract documents which, consequently, remained mouldering in the basement. Once he was made aware of the momentous change in the cost-benefit ratio, he jumped at the opportunity and was soon saving hours and days when it came to compliance, audit and investigation matters related to the contract.

Let’s clear up the supposed differences concerning digitisation and digitalisation: there is a lot of discussion on various blogs and forums about the supposed difference between these two; and I say “supposed” because, as you’ll see, I think arguing the apparent distinctions is a waste of time.

It is widely suggested that digitisation refers only to the mechanical conversion of information from physical or analogue to a digital format, and that digitalisation refers to adding value to that information and the transformation of business processes.

I argue however, as outlined in the case discussed above, that the conversion (which is necessarily transformational – “across-form”) has inherent or latent value and is obviously geared toward transformation of the business processes that use that information.

To my mind then, the idea of digitalisation (as being something other than digitisation) is superfluous, unnecessary and sometimes confusing. Would a business digitise information if it did not add value at some level? (There’s the added confusion too in that digitalisation also refers to a medical procedure).

Capturing information into digital format is inherently transformational and immediately adds value, such as: streamlining access and making it available to multiple users at the same time; improving discovery; provisioning for remote and mobile access; reducing retention costs.

To avoid confusion, I propose that the term digitisation be taken broadly to mean the mechanical conversion of information from physical or analogue format (one type of transformation), as well as referring to the uptake of business processes into digital formats that use digitised information in its transformed mode.

Opening the gate

Is the organisation ready for the leap?  In a lot of cases, or at least for a lot of processes within an organisation, the answer will be “no”. Curiously, that answer comes about because the business has some long-standing rule or practice that no-one feels empowered to change.

Or because of some statute or regulation – remember, too, that a lot of the time the perception of what a regulation requires an organisation to do assumes a constraint that isn’t actually there.

Take the case of one public sector agency that thought a regulation required employee time sheets to be wet-signed because of an audit recommendation, when in fact it was the agency’s own policy that required it and led to the specific audit recommendation in the first place. Nobody felt empowered to change the policy because of the audit!

This is where leadership is required, and often sadly lacking: if some relic or arbitrary rule stands in the way of a good idea for no good reason – change it!

Of course, this requires an organisational culture with a good deal of maturity; hierarchical organisations (quasi-military or clerical), with limited scope for empowering employees, will most likely struggle with digitisation of back office processes. It can be done of course, and has been, but in these types of organisations it will come at a higher cost and won’t be agile.

Part of the reason for this is the varying perceptions of policy requirements across an organisation – I’ve already mentioned the problem of assumed constraints (the policy simulacrum), but there are others.

For instance, vested interest: in large organisations (especially within the public sector) there will be actors who have an interest in keeping things as they are. This could be related to a person’s security of employment perhaps.

Also, different stakeholders will have different perspectives about what is important to the organisation. A lot of information managers will focus on compliance, but business developers will be focused on innovation and change.  

These need not be mutually exclusive, which is precisely why the consensus position should be concretised in the organisation’s strategic planning, so that tangible leadership will be apparent and available across the organisation.

Mobilising

In my view, a Digitisation Plan is critical and this should go hand-in-hand with the correct positioning of the information management function within the organisation: information governance is a function of risk management and is especially important for businesses dealing with significant built infrastructure (I’ll make this the subject of a future post).

The business should take stock of its internal business processes and determine where the pain points are – where the “digital oil” is needed. A catalogue of all business processes based in physical forms and wet signatures is a useful start.

Find out which are the most used and which are the most complex and work out where value can be best added by digitising those forms and processes. Other factors to be considered will include:

  • The organisational approach to digital signing – there may be more than one way to electronically sign and a risk-based approach is best adopted, but everyone will need to know what the rules are
  • Managing retention and other compliance matters – the needs of information managers and business development managers will have to be weighed.
  • Digitisation back-capture processes may be involved for information that is not born digital – standards and templates may be required
  • Technology platforms and partners – software and hardware will inevitably be involved at some point
  • Metadata requirements and dealing with legacy scanned information which hasn’t been “optimized”
  • Information classification and security considerations

 

Naturally, change management will be key for smooth transitions to digitised processes. And the digitisation plan should include a high-level roadmap explaining to the organisation the changes to come – this is where leadership from the very top of the organisation is critical. If the MD or CEO isn’t “walking the talk”, it will be a difficult journey indeed.

Dean Britton is an Information Manager with many years’ experience at senior levels in technology and project management roles, within both the private and public sectors.

 

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