Digitisation: Conflicts and chasms between established and new worlds


“We have a data lake. Nowadays, who needs a data warehouse too? That’s totally antiquated. It’s an obsolete model.”

I often hear this kind of sentiment in my consulting work with clients. Dynamic analytics and digitisation teams face what they see as antiquated systems that are in urgent need of an overhaul. Unfortunately, this often leads to confrontations with the guardians of the previous systems. Views and working methods collide, and so do those involved. Conflict, lack of respect and contempt are much more prevalent than anyone is prepared to admit. In some businesses, a war almost begins between the established and new worlds.

Ignoring these problems can be expensive. 

Skirmishes between teams are inefficient and waste a lot of energy. This is often the real cause of disappointing project results. What, then, is the cause of these conflicts? 

I think everyone involved wants the best for the organisation. The problem is that everyone also thinks that their way is best. They forget that there is no single, perfect “right way.” In the end, achieving good results requires both new ideas and established processes.

Different team experiences and goals are one main cause of conflict. Analytics teams are focused on new ideas, innovation and a flexible, fault-tolerant way of working. Established business teams, however, need to focus on cost-efficiency and automation. Operational processes have to run almost error-free, and managers are responsible for making sure that they do so. No wonder that they react with concern when someone wants to try something new and potentially messy.

History and momentum

Age and length of service are also issues. Digitisation teams often contain a lot of young employees. Many are recent university graduates who enjoy experimenting with new things and up-to-date technology, but who lack experience in the core business and company processes. They’re not aware of the tremendous efforts made before to improve data quality and agree on trusted KPIs.

Financing also contributes to conflict. Much of the budget for innovative projects and modernisation flows into digitisation teams and big data labs. Those responsible for existing systems tend to have savings targets and operational responsibility, which leave little room or resources for creative ideas. They have almost no scope for experimentation, so innovation takes place elsewhere and without their participation. Perhaps conflicts are, therefore, inevitable.

Understanding processes

Digitisation means trying something new. Not every idea, however, will lead somewhere. To find out which ideas provide real added value requires testing, and this, inevitably, means testing in operational processes. The so-called “fast fail” method, the idea that options that do not work can be rejected quickly, is only possible if you have agile, adaptive operational processes. This is important: Employees need to know that mistakes are possible. 

Is failing fast actually possible for our operating processes and employees?

For example, say that a data scientist develops a new fraud detection model or a model for better quality prediction in production. This model must be brought into a productive process quickly and in an automated way, but without putting the stability of this process at risk. The results must be easily usable by administrators, engineers and operators. All these groups need to understand how to use new insights. If they do not trust the results, or their needs are not taken into account, even the best optimisation will fizzle out. If you want to ensure success, you need to involve the process experts. They also need an innovation budget to experiment with agile implementation methods.

If you want to ensure success, you need to involve the process experts. They also need an #innovation budget to experiment with agile implementation methods. Click To Tweet

A question of culture

In my opinion, companies will only succeed if they question their culture and employees learn to work together for the future, with mutual respect and constructive engagement. That sounds obvious, but my experience suggests that it often does not happen. Only a ruthlessly honest analysis and willingness to collaborate differently in the future will help, but neither will happen by itself.

It helps to realise that digitisation needs to be fast to gain advantages in the market. This cannot be done by one team or department on its own. Everyone has to collaborate and shape the process. This requires clear communication, trust, coordination, discipline and openness. What does that mean in practice? Dr. Olaf Zeitnitz provides an interesting example of decision making and the challenges of bringing lab results into production.

Authority versus action

Digitisation is not about who is right or who is the appropriate decision-making authority. It is about what can be done successfully in practice and those who have the skills to do it. Organizations need a new way of working together at both the project and strategic level. This idea may not be new, but the challenge is to bring it to life and then embed it within the company.

Changing culture means rethinking things and questioning existing decision-making processes. This includes not seeing conflicts or emotions as disruptive. Instead, see them as opportunities to create something new. To make sense of conflicts and emotions, you need new types of communication. Professional conflict management and modern processes are essential. This is not a matter of who can shout the loudest. Instead, everyone’s ideas must be heard and treated equally.

This is not a quick process...

...but your patience and effort will pay off. You are likely to be amazed at what your staff can do. 

Modern companies have often already anchored these skills in their teams. If not, they are likely to have experienced in-house coaches supported by external consultants to manage staff development. Now companies just need to start using these skills in their day-to-day business to produce better results, more enthusiastic customers and happier employees.

Digitisation is not only an IT challenge. Done well, it will change the way you collaborate and work across the organisation.


About Author

Karen Prillwitz

Ich unterstützte Produktions- und Retail-Kunden auf ihrem Weg in Richtung Digitalisierung, IoT, Industrie 4.0 und Big Data Analytics. Davor habe ich über viele Jahre als Technical Account Manager Versicherungsunternehmen bei der Umsetzung Ihrer Business Analytics Themen begleitet. Als nebenberuflicher Coach ist eines meiner Schwerpunktthemen die Lösung von Konfliktsituationen, I’m supporting our banking customers in getting more value out of their data, as a basis for digitization, to support automated processes based on analytical driven decisions and integrated risk solutions. I use my experiences in Retail and Manufacturing Business to bring fresh ideas into these projects & initiatives. As a part-time Coach, one of my core areas is to help people solving conflict situations and to open up for change. These are also focus areas in digitization initiatives. Success is a matter of people & technology.

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