EY’s Maya Smallwood on Organizational Transformation

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Around the Bonfyre: EY’s Maya Smallwood on Organizational Transformation

7 min

With 16 years of experience as a change management professional, Maya Smallwood is no stranger to organizational transformation.

Smallwood works as a Principal in the People Advisory Services function of Ernst & Young (EY), the multinational professional services firm that offers transformational change consulting as part of its People Advisory Services practice. In that role, Smallwood supports outcome-based change management strategies with a focus in people development and learning solutions, as well as digital transformation.

Smallwood recently sat Around the Bonfyre to discuss why people are the enablers of change, the benefits of digital transformation, and why automation isn’t the end for the human workforce.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability.

What does the people side of change management involve and why does it matter?

An organization’s people power the change “engine.” Therefore, change management will always involve people. There’s research that’s been done on this for years, and our experiences with clients bear this out. When transforming the business through process improvement, technology, structure, or strategy, the people element makes or breaks the success of the initiative. We humans tend to resist change for any number of reasons. Maybe we do not understand what the organization intends or where the business is going. Maybe we aren’t sure we are able to make the transition from old to new. Perhaps our teams are not able to effectively adopt whatever was implemented.

What these studies and experiences highlight is how essential it is to get people engaged in the process, get them ready for what’s coming, and to make sure change sticks. Our approach considers adoption not only after something is implemented and changed, but at the beginning of the change process to build confidence it will happen.

People are often seen as the element that will just come along after the overall business decisions are made, but the organizations that get it right realize that their people are the enabler of business, process, technology, culture, or whatever else needs to evolve.

Are the leaders you work with receptive to that idea that people are the enablers of change?

I think most seasoned executives and people who have implemented a change program really do understand that it comes down to people. I don’t think that is controversial. But the ways in which you get people plugged in–to get the adoption you’re looking for–is often up for debate.

Related: How Modern Communications Technology Supports Change Management

People in our field have needed to provide much more data-driven, insightful, and empirical evidence to move beyond the “trust me, I’m the expert” inclinations of our professional and anecdotal experience as change practitioners. We are moving from a credibility-based discussion to one that is more compelling–but not because executives are skeptical. It is also because these behavioral, emotional, and people-related aspects have been less likely to come forward in a way that is tangible, like technology might be.

Is the move from a credibility-based approach to a data-driven strategy recent?

Digital transformation and emerging technologies offer us a better level of insight than we’ve been able to have previously. There’s more connectivity between data sources and the ability to see what really moves the needle with people. For me, that is what is different because we’ve always had data-driven approaches. But instead of tracking the number of meetings a change agent initiated with their people or sending out a survey to get end-user feedback following a training session, we now have access to much more valuable and reliable sentiment analysis and behavioral data.

Could you provide an operational definition for the term “digital transformation?”

What people mean today when they say digital transformation is the process of adopting technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain and devices; going mobile. When I say digital transformation, I’m referring to the set of technologies that are really changing the world of work, the world at home, and the world at large in a very rapid and often disruptive way.

What are some common pain points when these technologies are introduced into an organization?

Automation has always been a feature of human progress. There is much concern on behalf of the human part of the workforce that these technologies will disrupt them, change the nature of their jobs, or eliminate those jobs all together. It’s one thing when you see horse-drawn carriages give way to trains and automobiles. It’s another when you see a robot execute a trade on Wall Street or build a machine without human intervention. It’s scary to see machines do things that only human beings used to do.

“Digital is often seen as a dramatically disruptive and perhaps dangerous element of work. It is also relieving and saving human jobs–that is important for people to understand.”

Like anything else that offers benefits, there are also drawbacks. Because automation and other digital technologies often replace human action with more complete results, it can be intimidating and change the locus of control.

Could you expand on how automation is saving human jobs?

There are a lot of things that we do in our work that we have to do ourselves because there isn’t a way for a machine to do it without our help. Expense reporting is relatable example for many professionals. You take a trip somewhere. You have to compile your receipts and offer business reasons and assurances that the trip happened with supporting documentation. But your job is not to document business trips. Your job is to be somewhere to conduct business.

Automation of functions like expense reporting changes this job as a result. You could go on a trip and bots in the system could comb through and compile information leveraging your credit card and system usage. Someone who used to take time manually reviewing and compiling the expense report now does not have to do that.

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On the flipside, there is someone whose job it really is to audit expense reports. That job will also be impacted. The job of the auditor is not to compile and comb that information. It is to make the determination that the trip was taken for the right reasons and that the trip taker followed the right rules. This auditor now has the time to take a look at more expense reports. They can take a bigger, longer look to see trends that used to be hard to spot with tools that don’t scale for large sets of data.

No one is taking the job of the business trip taker nor the auditor. These jobs will change and perhaps become more rewarding for the people doing them because technology will handle the administrative tasks.

I’m glad you illustrated these examples because I think when most people hear the word “automation,” they think in terms of eliminations and not the nuance you described of its benefits.

I agree, but we have to be careful when we aggregate the picture of what automation does and disrupts, because some jobs will change or be eliminated. Still, the distribution of manual tasks is not one-to-one with jobs. When there are jobs impacted through automation, we see our clients rethinking and redistributing the human talent into new work arrangements. What we like to say at EY is that when you take the robot out of the human, that doesn’t make the human useless. It means the human is freed up to do non-robotic things.

Many of our clients are very interested in finding other things for their humans to do because they are, and will remain, and integral part of the workforce. Does that mean we will all be doing the same thing? No. Does that mean people who do highly manual jobs will be disproportionately impacted in some ways? That’s happening now. But does that mean we should fear automation? I don’t think so. It offers opportunities that many of our clients are actively seeking on behalf of a human workforce.

There’s a lot of conflicting data speaking to the perceived successes and failures of change management strategies. One of the most prevalent statistics, circulated since the ‘90s, stated 70% of organizational change efforts fail. That later proved to be an overstatement, because there’s data to suggest the opposite might be true. In your experience, do you see organizational transformation efforts ending more in success or failure?

What matters most in transformation programs is how you define and measure success. Some people view success as complete implementation; others view it as on-time, on-budget implementation; others are looking for return on investment.

There are less quantitative and more qualitative measures as well, like whether or not it was a good idea to change something, and whether that change results in value for the organization. It’s sometimes unclear what we mean by success and failure. There are studies that take a narrower look at it and remain accurate when success is defined as ROI or specific technology adoption. Those outcomes are straightforward and not intended to make the case for or against making the change.

When people are talking broadly about their definition of success, they’re really talking about how easy it was for the organization to shift itself. Did it result in higher employee engagement? Did it result in more standardization or cohesion in how we do things? Those things are more intangible, but it’s what they often feel after a change is made.

Do you have a personal barometer for success?

There are a few. For me it really is about the client’s definition of success and whether there is a return on investment that is soft, and whether it links to what the change program is supposed to deliver. That is not often clear, so when it is, success is more likely. My go-to metric, if you will, tends to be adoption–whether the change “sticks.” Do people use the technology? Do they follow the business process? Is the strategy working, fully understood, and aligned? It’s not the only metric, but since we spend a lot of time making changes, for me the worst thing to see is all the time, effort and money spent on initiatives that don’t result in adoption.

Do you have any parting thoughts for our audience?

I’m really excited by the direction that change management and change practitioners are headed. Technology is giving us the opportunity to see and analyze things we’ve long wanted to. What was once too expensive to assess or took too long to compile can be done with ease. We can now analyze them much quicker and incorporate more data sets. It is really exciting to me to quantify previously intangible, intuitive gut-feel outcomes because they have long guided the decisions of organizations looking to make changes.

So the future is bright?

The future is bright, data-driven, and much more transparent. That’s a good thing. 

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