Why now is the time for frontline organizations to seize advantage

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Digital transformation in Dallas.

The 1930s were a catastrophe.

Almost a quarter of Americans lost their jobs. The stock market fell by 89%

But there’s something else that’s rarely mentioned: the 1930s were also the most technologically progressive decade of the 20th century.

2008 was an economic nightmare. Banks collapsed. House prices plummeted, as did employment rates. 

But there’s another side to this coin, too. The years that followed 2008 saw the largest number of category-defining software companies founded in any five-year period. Instagram, Twitter, Uber, AirBnB, … — all these household names emerged in the immediate aftermath of the financial crash. 

Fast forward to 2020. 

We’re in the midst of a pandemic. The economy has fallen off a cliff; entire sectors teeter on the brink of collapse. 

It’s a tough time. It’s also a window for radical change. Because as history shows us, decisions taken during global upheaval make the biggest impact in the shortest period of time.

Accelerated progress doesn’t take place when the economy is booming and the future is bright. It happens during crises: when necessity forces us to find creative solutions to urgent problems. 

And if a change is overdue — as it is in the case of frontline industries — well, there’s never been a better time to get up to speed. 

Here’s why.

“History doesn’t crawl; it leaps.”

Nassim Taleb is right. And his words are particularly compelling right now. Change is permeating our lives at breathtaking speed. It affects how we socialize, shop, travel, plan.

And how we work.

As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella remarks, in the spring of 2020 “two years of digital transformation took place in two months”. We were plunged into ‘digital maturity’ almost overnight. 

For office workers, the technological shift was manageable. Yes, working from home was new. But the technology supporting it (like Teams, Zoom and Slack) was not.

Frontline workers, on the other hand, came from a very different baseline.

Until the pandemic, they relied mostly on ‘old school’ (think 1980s) ways of working, like notice boards and paper memos. No email address. No company mobile. They didn’t just miss out on the benefits of the digital revolution in the workplace; they were excluded from it altogether. 

It took a pandemic to reveal how urgent technological access was for frontline workers. Without it, the most important members of society couldn’t perform their essential roles. The issue went from necessary to non-negotiable.

Untapped potential

Frontline staff sit at the pivotal junction between a company and its customers. That makes them a goldmine of insight. Their closeness to customers means they can give valuable input based on first-hand experience — but only if they have the channels to do so. 

It is at this same point of contact that swift decisions are often necessary. Frontline workers can make these — but only if they have access to the high-quality information they need to do so.

CMS Wire’s Sam Marshall gives some examples: 

[…]  hospitality staff receive first-hand feedback from customers. In retail they detect trends early-on, such as a product line that will be a big hit.

Engineers see how new equipment performs in the field and may also learn how customers adapt equipment to new uses, giving ideas for product innovation.

But few frontline organizations deliver on this. Most frontline workers are neither digitally-equipped nor empowered. As a result, their companies fail to leverage their most valuable asset for insights and decision-making.

In short, digitally equipping the frontline is not just long-overdue, and pressing; it also offers a means of tapping into its immense (but often unacknowledged) potential.

Empowerment for frontline organizations

Frontline workers building.

Disclaimer: digitally equipping the frontline doesn’t just mean investing in a fancy new tool. Because pushing innovation means very little if you haven’t thought about culture first. 

Empowering frontline workers requires a radical shift in perspective.

First, re-imagining how they operate and how they contribute to a business as a whole, from the ground up. Second, valuing and trusting them as active agents, rather than as passive recipients of higher-level decisions. And finally, redesigning old organizational structures to accommodate new lean, cross-functional work across the business.

That shift can sound daunting.

After all, it means leveling the playing field between leadership and key workers. It means giving a voice to people who historically haven’t had one. In my experience, that makes some managers uncomfortable.

That’s probably the reason why such a small number of frontline organizations have made the shift so far: according to a recent report in the Harvard Business Review, the number hovers around 20%.

But as the same review highlights, the gains massively outweigh the risks. These businesses have seen higher customer and employee satisfaction; increased productivity; accelerated innovation and growth. In other words, they are the industry leaders.

The remaining organizations face a choice between acting now, or waiting.

But, in the words of David Rhodes and Daniel Stelter: 

“Inaction is the riskiest response to the uncertainties of an economic crisis.”

Frontline worker in an underground tube.

Ready? Here’s what to keep in mind…

1. Make communication channels multi-directional

The first step to digitally equipping the frontline is updating the information flow in your company. Traditionally, internal communication structures in frontline organizations are top-down; that makes them sluggish, and any feedback loop ends up looking more like a horseshoe.

What’s needed is a system that allows frontline workers to give information as well as receive it. This needs to be regular (not a one-off event) and scalable (not just for a small group). It needs to be smart — that’s where technology comes in.

2.  Choose a tool designed for the frontline — not extended for it

Temporary digital solutions adopted in a hurry by frontline organizations are often not a very good fit, because they cobble together a mish-mash of technology designed for desk-workers. 

Frontline workers typically don’t work at desks; they are often the move within or between locations. So whatever tool you choose, make sure that it is actually designed for the frontline, rather than extended from an office-based system.

3.  Iterate and tweak

Equipping your frontline workers will involve some experimenting, making small tweaks and changes as you go, and evaluating their impact. This, according to Karlson, is what helps you find the right pace to innovate and gradually build momentum:

“How hard should you push your organization? What is too fast and too slow? In the race to transform, set a steady pace that fits your business, monitor its effectiveness and adjust as needed.”

An airport.

Now is the time to strike

The power of a digitally-equipped, agile, responsive frontline came up repeatedly in our podcast, Frontline of the Future.

As Rob Slaski, COO at Dee Set, remarked: 

“Every time I go out, I meet a frontline worker who’s got skills way beyond their job description. If you could tap into that and bring it back into your business, how powerful would that be? 

Technology can facilitate this, of course. But it’s the human side that matters most. The skills are already out there. It’s tapping into them and networking them in a way that allows us to build something special.”

So, yes. The stakes right now are high. But the potential rewards of empowering the frontline are higher. 

Times of crisis and uncertainty fuel incredible problem-solving. The companies that act decisively reap can extraordinary benefits when things get back to ‘normal.’ 

Choices made during a minority of times determine the majority of long-term success.

And right now is one of those times.