Digital enterprise adoptions usually fail because the applied learning solution does not address the critical learning needs of front-line learners. The nature of digital enterprise software implementations is not well understood, and this usually results in a learning solution that is overwhelming to learners and does not help achieve the performance required to reach a return on investment. However, a lean learning approach — one that focuses on learning as a journey and not an event — can transform your next technology adoption and improve adoption metrics.

Most Technology Adoptions Fail

The failure of front-line employees to succeed in using new enterprise software is extremely consequential for an organization. For example, the implementation of enterprise resource planning (ERP) suites such as SAP S/4HANA or Oracle potentially changes the daily technology tasks and associated business processes of almost every person at every level of an organization.

Considerable business resources and time are invested in ERP implementations, and many, if not most, of the organizations that undergo these efforts fail to achieve a return on their sizable investment. In fact, according to the 2019 study, “Critical Success Factors of ERP Implementation in SMEs,” only 8.6% of ERP implementations stay within their original budget, 43% are completed on time, and only 33% realize significant business benefits.

Many believe these projects fail because the technology is too difficult to use, or the wrong solution was selected. Others think that failure is caused by inadequate training or inadequate involvement by senior leadership. But it is something else. These failures result from a misunderstanding of the fundamental challenges faced in the implementation phase of a digital enterprise transformation, and this leads to a workforce that struggles to adopt new technology procedures and business processes.

A Framework for Thinking About Digital Transformations

The Cynefin Framework is often described as a “sense-making” tool and is key to understanding effective solutions to different business challenges. This framework divides challenges into four different domains: complex, chaotic, complicated and obvious/simple.

Solutions to problems in the obvious/simple domain are defined, meaning the causes and solutions are typically well known, and best practices may be applied. The issue of having untied shoes is a perfect example of a problem/solution set in this domain. If your shoes are untied, you typically apply your own best practice to tie them back up. Solutions to issues in the complicated domain can typically be solved by “good practices,” and the application of expertise. A solid example of this domain is a heart transplant. The conditions that caused the problem are clear, and the many steps of the solution are well-known and can be performed successfully by an expert. Chaotic situations, such as a volcano erupting, typically have no solutions at all, except for embracing your fight-or-flight response.

The complex domain is different. These challenges involve a considerable number of variables, so much so that it is extraordinarily difficult to predict results. In this domain, large changes may have no effect, while small changes may have extraordinarily large effects. Complexity means that best practices and the application of expertise may result in not solving the problem — but instead, may make the situation much, much worse. The numbers show the challenge. The 2017 study, “ERP System Implementation in Large Enterprises: A Systematic Literature Review,” found that 66% to 70% of all ERP implementations never achieve a return on investment.

One of my favorite analogies to describe this phenomenon, which betrays my age a bit, is the Death Star from the original “Star Wars” movie. A huge amount of time and resources were spent in constructing a massive technological solution, and it got ruined in an instant by a proton torpedo. Small variables with large consequences, indeed.

This is why taking an agile response to technology implementations is so important. We need to be flexible and adaptable and have a team in place that will strive to be successful no matter the circumstances.

The Wrong Approach to Technology Adoptions

Learning and development (L&D) teams in ERP implementations usually adopt the ADDIE method — analyze, design, develop, instruct and evaluate. This method is fine for some situations, such as in the “simple” and “complicated” domains of the Cynefin Framework, but it does not work reliably in the “complex” domain.

The challenge with the ADDIE method is that it assumes perfect knowledge in the analysis and design phases of the technology implementation effort. In other words, the business problem is regarded as “defined,” meaning that both the problem and the solution are perceived as well known. However, as the previously cited numbers illustrate, certainty in outcomes is rare in digital adoptions. Certainty about specific business processes and tasks can become apparent later in a technology implementation, which causes a learning team to scramble to salvage their original plan and unearths concerns about the “sunk cost” of the originally designed solution.

A common situation is that of a learning team unable to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. The team reacts by creating learning solutions that are content dumps — a torrent of information, much of which is not relevant to a front-line user. The typical result is unmotivated end users who are confused about how to do their jobs after a go-live. Users do adapt under these circumstances, but those adaptations often result in workarounds as employees struggle to get their work done using the new technology.

For example, in a recent postmortem of a failed adoption, front-line users had failed to understand the impacts of selecting from one of the various options in a field of an SAP S/4HANA transaction. After the system go-live, these users almost universally selected the generic option. This was problematic, as most of the automated functionality that was designed to help the organization become much more efficient was based on the selection made in that field. The net result was that, because of an overwhelming amount of information in the learning solution, the critical information was buried. This caused the organization to become less efficient after their digital transformation, and the return on their investment was extended indefinitely.

The Lean Learning Approach to Digital Transformations

A lean learning approach for a digital transformation emphasizes two aspects to help promote the ability of front-line digital transformation adopters: 1) a flexible and adaptable learning team, and 2) a go-live solution focused only on the critical learning that front-line adopters will need. Since the go-live is just “the end of the beginning,” this solution preserves learner motivation (because users do not get overwhelmed) and provides them with a firm foundation so they can continue their learning journey.

When these two elements are at play, the business results expected from a digital transformation can be delivered.

Principles from agile practices are key to this approach. The learning team itself must be resilient and adaptable so they can respond quickly to changes as an implementation unfolds. The Agile principles of transparency (within the learning team and externally to the changing solution), inspection (honest and open evaluation of a learning solution’s effectiveness) and adaptation (rapidly changing a learning solution based on facts on the ground) enable a learning team to have the mindset they need to create the most effective learning solution they can.

Equally important is the concept of a minimal viable product (MVP). MVP learning solutions are ones that achieve specific, goal-oriented learning objectives at the times they are most needed. Ideally, a digital transformation learning solution has early, middle and continuous learning opportunities before, during and after a large enterprise technology change. A lean approach to digital transformations considers the “absorptive capacity” of front-line technology users in learning and applying new enterprise technologies — people can only absorb so much information at a time.

Key Takeaways

Aside from having training in Agile, there are a few things you should keep in mind to be more prepared for your next technology adoption:

    • ERP implementations are harder than you think. There is nothing cut and dry about overhauling an entire system used regularly throughout your organization. Understand that you cannot possibly predict everything; but you can smartly prepare your people.
    • An adaptive and resilient (i.e., agile) learning team is critical, so they can adapt to the complexity inherent in a digital transformation and succeed in creating a highly effective learning solution.
    • Support your end users with point-of-need learning opportunities and simplify your training approach. While you want to provide ample opportunity for learners to gain new knowledge, providing less information at regular intervals will improve learning.

Just because you build it does not mean that they will come. Proper preparation, expertise and learning approaches are always needed for successful digital transformations. If you prepare your people with the right information at the right time, your entire organization will reap the benefits.