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Digital Transformation Blog

Practical insights on the digital revolution

Helping the Frontline succeed with Digital Tools



Digital tools at the frontline can make a significant difference in performance, and the bottom line. They represent a significant discontinuity, and that cuts both ways. Yes, they can uncover new sources of value. But they also represent a break with existing practices for people who get a lot of satisfaction out of being good at their job.

We have spent a lot of time working with frontline people in mining, and while it's foolish to generalize, they take a lot of pride in doing difficult work hard. If you want an easy life, you would choose a different profession than mining-- it's demanding, dangerous work with early mornings, challenging conditions, and not many distractions. And while not every person in mining is an angel (far from it), broadly speaking, they care about their work and want to be great at it.

Therefore, when we introduce new digital tools in the field, we are asking proud people to take the risk of not being excellent at their jobs. They understand and have mastered version 1.0 of their job, and you are asking them to take the risk of regressing, of no longer being excellent. (Of course, if they give that up they can fully enjoy the glamor and comfort of mining.) And if they're not going to be great at their job why bother? More importantly, if they're not excellent at their jobs, will their friends and colleagues be put in direct danger? As Kathy Sierra once said, the user doesn't care about the technology, "the user wants to kick ass."

Even if you successfully introduce a new tool, like a shift log completed on an eForm rather than paper, a good first week inevitably is followed by a dip the following week. The path to Mastery is never straight, in fact it undulates. The objective is to get the user past the "Suck Threshold" as fast as possible, and then past the "Passion Threshold", where the user regains the feeling of mastery.


So when we ask people to go through this process, it can't be because of a "feeling" or "it might be interesting". We ask people to change only when it is important enough to be worth it. And while something may seem compelling in the team room, on a white board, or in a PowerPoint to the General Manager, it may not be as compelling to the frontline-- they are the ones who are at risk of losing their status and even sense of self-worth. Anything that can compromise frontline workers' autonomy, mastery, and purpose will be sensitive, and Digital Technology at the workfront almost always affects Autonomy (because workers can be monitored more closely) and Mastery (because it's different).

So before you roll out a technological change that seems compelling in the abstract, make sure that you can answer these questions.

  • Am I going to be adequately trained? Is there a path to mastery? Too often, a senior manager sees a shiny object, puts in a purchase order, and expects IT and the frontlines to figure it out. If you ask someone to choose between kicking ass with old tech and sucking with new tech, they will pick the old tech every time. Be explicit about your training plan-- veteran frontline employees will see right through an inadequate plan.
  • Does it work the way it’s supposed to? Working in the conference room is very different from working outdoors in -20C temperatures or at the bottom of a mine shaft. The best tech in the world sometimes does not function the way you expect it to in real-world conditions. The same goes for the network-- if connectivity can't be relied on, the new technology won't be relied on.
  • Do I know why you’re making the change? Have you explained why I should go through the discomfort of change? It's simple good manners on one level, but you can't expect experienced people to change their behavior if you can't convince them of the logic behind your claim. You don't need to make them converts, but you do need to give them a plausible reason to believe.
  • Do I trust you? Are we aligned on most things? Are we disagreeing about basic assumptions in other areas? Have you recently done something that hurt your credibility? Is it a generally low-trust environment? The lower the state of trust between management and front lines, the longer you will need to sell and train. I have seen multiple low-trust scenarios where the root of the problem is an external contractor. But even if it's technically "not your fault", it's your responsibility to create a sense of trust if you're going to get your frontline team to buy in.
  • Do my boss and his boss understand the change? Is the organization aware of what you're asking me to do? Are you going to throw me under the bus if the first week looks bad? In that case, I'm going to resist. In an organization that is not aligned, the person who brings in bad results is punished. If I know the whole organization understands there will be bumpy patches during the transition, I know I have the security to make the change.
  • Do co-workers in adjacent departments understand the change? Equally, if any of my internal customers or suppliers is not in alignment with the change, we are setting ourselves up for conflict. Adjacent functions need to understand the change as well.
  • Are you going to ignore this change after the first week? How long do I have before you expect the transition to be complete? If I am going to change from being a master at my craft to someone who is struggling, I want to know your expectations are realistic.
  • Is there a realistic plan for transition? Finally, are you going to allow me to continue being good? We often see new technology implemented only halfway. Senior frontline people give up their authority to the tech people who install it, but it is not fully installed-- key steps have yet to be completed. And during this gap, the best frontline people are completely dependent on IT or clerical people until further notice. I have never seen anything irritate and suck the motivation out of good people then this endless limbo.

The frontline wants to succeed, but they take pride in doing things well.  If you take that sense of mastery away, it will be hard to sell the change.

We have a lot of experience in making change stick.  If you'd like to discuss rolling out Digital Tools effectively at your organization, please contact us.