Technology is an enabler. You’ve undoubtedly heard this phrase before, but what does it really mean? It’s used by leaders across industries to champion new technology while recognizing that people-and-process is still king. It’s an acknowledgment that things like culture and business strategy still play a leading role. And while those things are largely true, this mindset can lead to a limiting approach to technology management. It can lead to missing out on true process-redefining technology – the technology that brings the most significant benefit. 

Proponents of technology as an enabler believe the business process should drive technology, not the other way around. But when we look at the broad categories of technology, we can begin to see the limitations. For this framework, we’re going to consider technology as fitting into four buckets:

Forced: Perhaps a vendor killed a software or product; perhaps a regulatory shift requires a change. No matter the cause, a forced technology change is typically expensive and time-consuming and comes with minimal tangible benefit. There is little time or thought given to improving the business process here. 

Necessary: Perhaps because of a merger or acquisition; perhaps a specific software will be obsolete in a few years. Like a forced change, this is going to transition all aspects of the given technology. It requires similar time and budget but offers enough advance notice to provide some thought to process improvements.

Enhancing: This is where we see the process start to drive technology. The first two categories are layering technology onto existing processes, but with enhancing (enabling) technology, you’ve identified a process improvement that would benefit from a technology upgrade. Or you’re unlocking a piece of an existing technology that would enhance your current process. We tend to spend less time and money on these technologies. We have good intentions to focus on this after we’ve fully implemented our core technologies, but we rarely get here.

Process Redefining: This is technology you don’t need, but technology that offers a significant benefit to your business. It may require changing your org structure; it may eliminate processes or entire job functions. Enhancing technology can drive pieces of the process, but this technology truly drives the process. This technology offers the most significant benefit but is where we spend the least amount of our time and money.

So, if we know process-redefining technology can come with significant benefits, why don’t we focus our time here? We can go back to the mindset that technology is an enabler. If we’re considering process, culture, and strategy first, we’re going to stay within the bounds of those things. They keep us grounded and keep us moving forward while limiting risk – all very good things. And process-redefining technology does come with its own unknowns. What if it’s too much of a shock to our culture? What if we move backward in other areas? What if our team members don’t adopt it? What if we’re trying to do too much at once? These types of process, culture, and strategy concerns prevent us from going after the outsized gains that process-redefining technology can bring. So how do we shift this mindset? How do we build a mature enough culture and strategy that we’re comfortable letting technology drive?

We can do it one project at a time. Just like developing a continuous improvement mindset, we must always look for the pieces of a product or project that are process-redefining. In typical projects, we never make it there. We have overruns in time, budget, and scope, and we end up just delivering the core functionality (the necessary). Or we decide to focus on the core product and tell ourselves we’ll implement the extra features later. But we never get to the nice-to-have, and certainly not the process-redefining, pieces.

This mindset shift is the difference between fuses and TripSavers. Sectionalizing a circuit with fuses is good, but you still need to send a truck to replace the fuse after a momentary outage. You may decide to use route optimization software to reduce travel time in replacing the fuse. You may even restructure your org so you have on-demand resources able to replace the fuses. These are good, nice-to-have improvements, but what if you didn’t have to send a truck at all? That’s process redefining. 

You have to be purposeful about finding these opportunities. Many utilities are looking for these opportunities as part of grid modernization efforts, but it’s a mindset that should be adopted throughout the company, not just the core. Do you design emergent work after it’s already constructed in the field? Or do you have a way for the responding lineman to record the labor, material, and system changes on the spot? That’s process redefining. 

You don’t have to wake up tomorrow and turn everything upside down, but before implementing your next new product or software, ask yourself what the process-redefining piece is. This is a very simple concept that is, unfortunately, also very simple to overlook. Process-redefining technology can drive a step-change in your business, but only if you make it a foundation of your project management processes.