Customer-facing employees left behind in digital transformation: Microsoft

​A report from Microsoft has found that managers are out of touch with customer-facing employees' needs when it comes to workplace culture and technology-based desires.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Workers who interact with customers or patients as a first point of contact feel they are still being left out of the loop when it comes to an organisation's digital transformation, a report from Microsoft has found.

According to Microsoft, there's a clear opportunity and appetite for technology-based advancements from the staff that are the first point of contact -- first-line workers -- for any company.

Speaking with ZDNet, Ian Heard, general manager of Digital Workplace & Collaboration at Microsoft Australia, said first-line workers are the key to the next wave of successful digital transformation and sustained competitiveness.

"General assumptions are made about that work group, but the reality is ... we're all technically savvy now as consumers and we're used to using rich technologies at home," Heard explained. "These frontline workers understand the benefits of technology."

He said that while Australia "punches above its weight" when it comes to cloud technology adoption, organisations are yet to leverage what this means for first-line workers.

"Really being able to unleash the first-line is an absolute key pillar in being able to drive effectiveness and digital transformation, because if you can drive real insights and maximise productivity -- and also the connectedness of your entire workforce -- then can you really accelerate the business in this digital age and increase your competitiveness," he said.

"This report has shown there's a willingness for first-line workers to transform; they're definitely seeing technology as transformative, not detrimental to their jobs -- they see that as complementary."

While there's an appetite for technology-led reform across all employee categories, the survey highlighted that first-line workers feel they are largely underused in many digital transformation projects, despite 74 percent of all employees acknowledging the culture of a company starts with its first-line workers.

"When we were undertaking this survey, a lot of it made us take a step back; we knew there was almost a forgotten digital workforce here but we didn't quite realise the starkness of the findings," Heard added.

The online survey of 1,390 working adults was commissioned by Microsoft and completed by research firm YouGov in early September 2017. It focused on staff in health, retail, financial services, and manufacturing sectors.

Overall, only 21 percent of first-line workers are currently involved in digital transformation initiatives, with a further 33 percent that are not involved wanting to be.

Microsoft said previous research points to a fear of automation taking jobs in the Australian workforce, but that there's scant evidence of first-line worker antipathy to, or fear of, automation.

The survey found that 67 percent of first-line workers agree that the ability to work closely with automation and AI-enabled systems was key to developing a successful modern workforce, with 62 percent wanting to work with intelligent and automated systems.

"One in four are concerned they might lose their job to a machine, but three in four aren't," Heard said. "We want to say that with digitisation, the glass is definitely half full here."

84 percent of first-line workers believe that technology can help streamline processes, while 82 percent think technology is key to unleashing efficiencies.

While the financial services industry has been one of the most advanced in terms of embracing digital transformation, only 59 percent of first-line workers feel their organisation has a clear and coherent strategy -- a stark contrast to 78 percent of managers who feel their organisation's strategies are clear.

Within the financial services sector, transforming the customer experience was ranked as the number one strategic priority by 22 percent of respondents, followed by achieving above average profitability and revenue growth, by 18 percent. Digital transformation ranked lower at 10 percent, with Microsoft suggesting most respondents were focused on outcomes rather than the means of getting there.

59 percent of first-line health sector workers want to work for digitally-enabled organisations, with 61 percent believing technology will help revolutionise the healthcare industry.

69 percent of respondents in the health sector believe that technology reform is required to find ways of creating a culture of innovation and creativity; however, management was revealed as being somewhat out of touch, with 88 percent of health sector managers saying that one of the challenges of digital transformation was getting departments to overcome the fear of massive change.

With almost three-quarters of retail workers aged under the age of 45, and more than a third aged 24 or younger, the report found that 49 percent of first-line retail workers said greater deployment of technology would enhance their skill level, with 45 percent believing it would enhance opportunities for collaboration and innovation.

Manufacturing first-line workers are the least equipped to handle technology-based innovation, yet they are optimistic about technology's ability to improve product development and innovation, quality control, skills development, and opportunities for collaboration, the survey found.

83 percent of first-line manufacturing employees recognise that technology is key to creating efficiencies in their organisation. A further 79 percent said technology will streamline processes, and 67 percent believe that digital technology will help revolutionise the manufacturing sector.

"What we do with technology can make first-line workers more connected, much more efficient, and also really provide real-time insight back to the business," Heard told ZDNet.

"At a time where we have to move quicker, this is absolutely essential -- these are the vibrant forces that are the shop window to your organisation."

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