Taking digital transformation into the frontline
While digital transformation has increasingly been the dominant theme in the strategy of most businesses for the past decade – a trend that’s accelerated since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic – frontline workers have largely been excluded from digital transformation initiatives.
That’s according to Denis Bensch, CIO of FlowCentric Technologies, who notes that companies often have a robust tech stack of tools that enable their office workers to collaborate with each other. However, frontline workers – usually the first point of contact between a company and its customers or products, and the foundation of most industrial sectors as they carry out core business operations in the field – are usually still heavily reliant on paper-based, unscalable solutions.
“Digital transformation is about changing the way you use technology to do business. It involves the transformation of business activities, processes, products and models to fully leverage the opportunities afforded by digital technologies to fundamentally change the way you operate in order to meet changing business and market needs,” he explains.
For frontline workers, this means moving away from communicating through printed memos, bulletin boards and chaotic WhatsApp groups to streamlined, fully digitised, operational communication with securely enforced procedures that all frontline workers can follow easily while they are in the field.
“Around 60% of the global workforce are on the frontline and they play a critical role in the global economy. A digital transformation strategy that fails to include them will never achieve its full potential,” he says.
Bensch believes that frontline workers’ exclusion from the majority of digital transformation initiatives is because their planning and execution is completed in silos by decision-makers in the back-office who have little interaction with or grasp of the needs and challenges of their colleagues out in the field.
“There are a variety of reasons for this: for a long time, the technology and connectivity required to digitally empower frontline workers in the field were neither available nor affordable. In addition, staff turnover in this sector is generally high, which makes businesses reluctant to invest in digital solutions for employees who may soon move on,” he adds.
Now, however, technological barriers that previously stood in the way of digitally empowering frontline workers have largely been overcome with cloud, enterprise mobility and other developments, making it technically and financially feasible for digital transformation to reach workers in even the most remote locations.
That this has not happened can be largely attributed to money – or rather, the lack thereof. A 2020 study in the Harvard Business Review revealed that 43% of respondents said the cost of delivering digital technologies to frontline workers was one of the key barriers to their digital empowerment.
However, the study also found that less than 50% claimed to have IT resources that were suitable for supporting frontline workers, not only because of using legacy systems that were unfit for purpose today, but also because even the modern solutions they had in place were simply not right for the specific needs of their business or workers.
So how should businesses go about digitally empowering its frontline workers?
A good place to start, Bensch says, is for the company to consider how it can leverage and expose its existing systems and processes to frontline employees without overwhelming them or compromising corporate security.
“Frontline workers predominantly use tablets and mobile devices. It’s therefore important to keep solutions simple and streamlined. They should be optimised for mobile devices, but also take cognisance of the fact that many frontline workers may have spotty internet connectivity and may not be accustomed to or comfortable with what they perceive to be finicky or complex technology solutions.
“Companies should therefore look for tools that are user-friendly and intuitive, so they have virtually no learning curve, thus promoting high adoption rates while maximising value.
“At the same time, companies can leverage the complexity and power of integrated business processes on the backend to offer a truly streamlined employee experience that supports the core needs of the business,” he adds.
Bensch also warns that employees out in the field don’t have the benefit of the secure corporate internet; and mobile devices can be lost or stolen. This could potentially expose company data and systems to bad actors. In addition, if employees are permitted to use their personal devices, security could be further undermined. As not all devices are created equal, companies should also ensure that their solutions work equally well on even the lowest spec basic devices as on more advanced ones.
Communication between managers and employees, as well as between employees themselves, departments, functions and teams is vital.
Where this communication is complicated because of a mix of frontline and office-bound employees who are not only in different locations, but often work different hours, Bensch recommends using an integrated, centralised application that can bring everything together. Companies should also provide a dedicated portal where fieldworkers can upload documents at any time, without the need to go into the office or work after hours simply to process all their paperwork.
“These are just some considerations to bear in mind when extending digital change to the remote workforce and frontline workers. It’s therefore vital that before doing so, businesses examine their core business processes and determine how to make them more resilient and agile in order to accommodate operational curveballs and sudden, unexpected changes,” Bensch concludes.