How do you encourage and enable distributed groups of people to get the most out of new digital technologies? Nothing changes unless people’s behavior changes. Sure, digital transformation requires that companies upgrade systems and make sure people have the right tools and know how to use them. But those investments only lead to transformation if they are coupled with serious work helping people adopt and use that technology in meaningfully different ways. Otherwise, you replace fax machines with email, email with Slack, Slack with neurologically transmitted messages (someday!), but still find past problems perpetuating.
by Scott D. Anthony and Paul Cobban (Harvard Business Review, November 25, 2021)
How do you encourage and enable distributed groups of people to get the most out of new digital technologies? Let’s consider a case study of how DBS Bank in Singapore managed the transition to more distributed, remote work over the past two years. [Disclosure: Scott’s firm, Innosight, has provided advisory services to DBS in the past. And Paul is currently an Advisor to DBS.] This case suggests three key tactics to enable successful digital transformation: use technology to make technology disappear, actively shape day-to-day behavior, and systematically reinforce desired behavior changes.
1) Use technology to make technology disappear.
Paul served as the Chief Data and Transformation Officer for DBS Bank in Singapore for more than a decade. He led a team called “Future of Work” that helps to accelerate innovation and drive technology adoption across the workforce.
The team seeks to use technology to create friction-free, human experiences, where the technology itself disappears into the background. Like most banks, DBS is very security-conscious. The rise of people working from home in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought new security risks, such as the possibility of bad actors more easily taking photos of screens, to use one example. Due to these concerns, DBS did not allow most employees to access sensitive systems from home prior to the pandemic. But with the increased need for remote work, DBS now uses new techniques — some of which were originally created to combat credit card fraud — to enhance the security of remote work, without compromising the user experience. For example, DBS now places a “digital watermark,” or a unique pattern, on each user’s screen. It uses sophisticated artificial intelligence to detect unusual employee behavior and has dramatically simplified the two-factor authentication experience required to access internal systems. These largely invisible background technologies allow employees to enjoy the same access to enabling tools and sensitive information, wherever they happen to be.
Another challenge brought about by the increase in remote work is getting a handle on employee sentiment without as much face-to-face interaction. To address this issue, the Future of Work team has built a model using natural language processing algorithms to spot weak signals of employee dissatisfaction in qualitative comments in regular experience surveys. The model assesses employee sentiment and categorizes and highlights patterns in qualitative comments. It features a dashboard so that any department or team can view sentiment analysis and trends across categories or drill down into word-for-word comments. This approach enables leaders to have a fine-grain view on what needs the most attention.
A final example involves using technology to pinpoint internal tools that aren’t delivering against employee expectations. As employees work in a more hybrid fashion, they need a wider range of digital tools to help do basic work tasks. DBS has more than 200 applications that employees can use to do common tasks ranging from processing credit card applications to completing online performance reviews. Just as consumers rate games and productivity tools in Apple’s popular App Store, DBS employees rate their internal applications. For any application that has more than 100 users and less than a four-star rating (out of five stars), the app owner must address the identified challenges. For example, one app tracks the number of times employees open official corporate communications to measure their effectiveness. A low app store rating surfaced significant usability issues, such as frequent crashes and a confusing interface. The team upgraded the app and introduced training, boosting the score well above 4 stars.
2) Actively shape day-to-day behavior.
In our book Eat, Sleep, Innovate (also co-authored by Scott’s Innosight colleagues Natalie Painchaud and Andy Parker), we noted that a significant barrier to behavior change in organizations is the inertia of old ways of doing things. Past processes designed for an analog world can conflict with digital technologies, leading to duplication of effort and significant employee frustration.
DBS has a mechanism to deal with this problem called the Kiasu Committee. Kiasu is local slang in Singapore, akin to the idea of the fear of missing out (when people stormed supermarkets early on in the pandemic to hoard toiler papers, locals would say, “Why so kiasu?”). The head of Legal and Compliance chairs the Kiasu Committee, which takes the form of a mock courtroom where any employee can “sue” the owner of a policy or process that they feel is getting in the way of getting work done. A mix of employees from a range of levels serve as the “jury,” collectively deliberating over whether a change should be made. One of the first decisions was to remove the need for physical signatures to approve a proposal. The approach caused quite a ripple through the company and gave DBS employees confidence that their issues would be heard and addressed.
The Future of Work team has also focused on addressing new problems that arose with the rise in remote work, such as the “cultural decay” that comes when connectivity and community fray due to factors ranging from obvious ones (the lack of the ability to hold informal gatherings) to more subtle ones (the lack of buffers between meetings inhibiting informal human connection).
Digital dislocation can drive cultural decay by limiting opportunities to teach norms to new members formally, or, even more importantly, to reinforce shared beliefs and assumptions in subtle ways. For example, newcomers can’t watch longstanding, unstated rituals, like how people array around tables during meetings, or observe which topics of conversation flow naturally in the hallway, and which are avoided.
DBS has developed specific rituals to address cultural decay. For example, it now offers a formal multimedia onboarding experience for new employees. The idea is to be very intentional about how DBS teaches key elements of its cultural transformation to new employees. The ritual builds off of a physical “wall of transformation” that DBS had in its headquarters providing a visual overview with year-by-year highlights of its transformation. The onboarding journey combines a digital version of this story with a set of curated discussions with DBS leaders. Not only does that provide a more complete picture of DBS’s transformation, it lets new employees quickly “meet” a range of leaders in the bank.
Another example is “meeting check-in.” Borrowing from agile development principles, at the start of meetings, DBS asks people to pick a number from 1 to 10 describing their state of mind. Anyone who doesn’t give a 7 or 8 has to explain why. Another approach is to ask people at the start of meetings what percent present they are in the meeting or to ask, “Is there anything that will prevent you being fully present at this meeting?” creating opportunities for people to share humanizing factors that build team empathy. Some departments augment the in-meeting ritual with simple apps to regularly track and calibrate data.
The Kiasu Committee, the virtual onboarding ceremony, and the meeting check-in are all examples of what we call BEANs, shorthand for behavior enablers, artifacts, and nudges. They combine a formal behavior enabler (like a checklist or a ritual) and informal artifacts and nudges (like a visual reminder) to drive behavior change. Our article “Breaking the Barriers to Innovation” provides a step-by-step guide for how to create BEANs.
3) Systematically reinforce desired behavior change.
Like any data-driven improvement program, the Future of Work team has faced its challenge. For example, it was natural for app owners to respond to low ratings by getting defensive, challenging the validity of the data, trying to hide bad news, or even gaming the system by submitting anonymous positive reviews.
Approaches that have the potential to give a louder voice to broader groups of employees only work if there are reinforcing mechanisms to hear those voices clearly and act based on what they are saying. More broadly, managing the human side of digital transformation requires work to systematically reinforce desired behavior change.
For the Future of Work effort, that starts with connecting to an overall effort at DBS to have a balanced scorecard that measures and manages its transformation efforts. DBS also modified incentives to support its overall digital transformation efforts. For example, the usage and rating of a particular digital app directly impacts the performance rating and bonus of the DBS leader responsible for that app.
Additionally, DBS created a new governance system specifically related to the employee experience. The “Employee Journey Council,” chaired by key senior executives, discusses issues identified by employees such as the responsiveness of the internal IT team and the burden of remote working. The council then intervenes to improve the employee experience. For applications that are missing their target threshold, for example, the council scrutinizes progress against an identified improvement plan. DBS plans to drive this governance mechanism lower in the organization to further increase accountability.
DBS carefully tracks and measures progress in its digital transformations. The percentage of employees who said that they strongly agreed with the statement that digital tools enhanced their productivity increased from 78% in 2019 to 84% in 2021. Positive sentiment measured with the dashboard mentioned above has increased by 35%. And, specific to hybrid work, a September 2021 dipstick survey found that 92% of employees said they were satisfied with the technology that helps them work remotely.
While the journey hasn’t been easy for DBS, rapid advances in artificial intelligence and the availability of open-source solutions have significantly simplified the ability to create models and back-end tools to reduce the barriers to digital transformation. Following the tactics in this article have smoothed DBS’s transition to hybrid work and helped DBS continue to win regular accolades. Leaders at other organizations can similarly accelerate their own digital transformation efforts by using technology to make technology disappear, actively shaping day-to-day behavior, and systematically reinforcing behavior change. The payoff in the forms of higher engagement and improved productivity is well worth it.