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Building a culture that supports digital transformation

Jules Carman, Head of Digital Transformation, Accountancy, Sage

Digital transformation. First it was a buzzword, then it was a trend, and now it’s a day-to-day reality. Accountants are now facing the imperative need to move their operations onto digital systems, to reinvent the way they do things for the information age, to provide more streamlined, data-driven and personalised client services. And it’s not a one-time deal – technology moves at the speed of sound, so as soon as you’re up and running in your new environment, guess what? You’ve got to keep moving forward.

There are two ways of responding to that challenge: with fear, or with a,resilient can-do attitude. The former isn’t very productive – the latter can help you make a success of digital transformation. Going digital doesn’t have to be scary, if you take the most logical steps for your business.

Think people, not tech

So where should accountants begin? The answer is: with their people. Digital transformation projects mustn’t exist in a vacuum. They should tend to a purpose, aiming to solve a real-world problem or improve a real-world service in a way that benefits employees. If you do it backwards and try to foist tech onto people without considering their needs, the effect will be negative both for internal culture and for external client service.

With that in mind, any transformation project needs to start with an in-depth cultural assessment. Who are you as a practice? What do your accountants value? What keeps them up at night? What are they willing to change, and what are they keen to retain? These issues will help practices identify the ‘gaps’ in their systems that should in turn guide digital transformation. Start with the ‘why’, not the ‘what’.

We’ve all had the experience of having a new IT system land without any reference to what the direct benefit will be. If you don’t include people in the planning process and find out the answers to these questions, you’ll pay the price in the form of a lengthy education process helping employees to get up to speed and understand the value of new IT.

For accountants, it’s not just about their own people, either – it’s about their clients, and your employees know what they need better than anyone. Digital transformation projects need to be rooted in their needs – how is your new technology going to make their lives more fulfilling?That’s the goal.

Here are the three key phases of an effective cultural assessment to help you achieve it.

  1. Involve everybody

That means everybody, from senior management, HR, down to frontline teams. When you’re planning who to talk to, consider the wider impact of the technology you’re looking to implement. In an ideal world, your practice will be joined up and working as one, so don’t throw a new software into the mix without thinking how it’s going to impact other functions – will finance have to change up the way they chase invoices? Will client-facing teams have to provide inductions for their customers to help them work with new processes?

If you get representatives from the various teams involved into a room together at the start of the process, you stand the best chance of picking up these chain-reaction points early. Not only that, but involving different business units helps them develop a sense of ownership over the project which will in turn encourage them to commit to its success. Don’t only focus on the business unit closest to the project – treat your practice as a unified whole and ask for input from everyone.

  1. What are their pressure points? 

When conducting the consultation phase, avoid the temptation to come into the room with a ready-made proposal and effectively ask: ‘any problems?’ Give your employees a blank page to present their needs and concerns. What do their clients and customers want from them, and what do their stakeholders always ask for? How could technology help with those issues? You can’t always get what you want, but at the same time, the chances of anyone getting what they want are much lower if you don’t ask.

The aim of this process is to uncover the unknown– the things that keep your team up at night (and the things that they never want to change) which the digital transformation lead might not be aware of. No-one can be fully aware of the situation in all parts of the business – the only way to find out is to ask. 

  1. Aim for a bespoke project, not a playbook

The consultation process can only be of any use, however, if the practice is committed to developing a bespoke project rather than buying an off-the-shelf system. It’s no good finding out exactly what your staff and clients need if you’re then going to implement a pre-packaged system that doesn’t have the flexibility and adaptability required to meet those needs. Such systems are often cheaper in the short-term, as they require less consultancy time, but it’s a false economy. An off-the-shelf system is much more likely to end up being a white elephant, where an agile, bespoke project runs much higher odds of meeting the needs of the practice and its clients.

As a result, the final consideration of the consultation phase in a digital transformation project should be involving an experienced partner that can help you plan your project. In-house teams shouldn’t feel like they own the entire process from top to bottom. If they run their consultation phase properly, they should be able to bring a deep, nuanced understanding of the company’s needs to the table.

The bottom line is that digital transformation should be led by people, not technology. Companies that work that way around will find the path to success is much smoother than it otherwise might be.