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For Successful Digital Transformation, Focus On Staff Engagement

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When you think of companies undergoing a digital transformation, you probably don’t think of one involved in manufacturing facilities, power generation plants, public and private water/wastewater, transportation hubs, office complexes, and industrial infrastructure. 

Turtle & Hughes is a near 100-year-old business in the energy management, infrastructure, and light applications sectors. It ranks among the top 20 electrical distribution companies nationwide servicing the industrial, construction, commercial, electrical contracting, export, and utility industries. The company has grown from operating in a five-story warehouse on West Houston Street in New York City to working throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. The company shows how traditional businesses can reap the benefits of digital transformation, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Jayne Millard, the great-granddaughter of one of the company’s founders, is the executive chair of the board of this fourth-generation, family-owned business. She is moving the 800-plus employee company forward by using technologies to provide service innovations that add value to customers throughout their supply chains. She is doing this by fostering an intergenerational employee collaboration atmosphere to modernize how the company attracts customers and builds loyalty. 

Organizations planning to or undergoing digital transformation can find valuable lessons in her experience. According to Markets and Markets, the global digital transformation market is expected to more than double from $469.8 billion in 2020 to $1 trillion by 2025. 

“The rate of acceleration of change over the last five years has paralleled similar transformations over the history of Turtle & Hughes, but this has probably been the toughest,” said Millard. Transforming how companies do business, especially in organizations based on client relationships, is difficult. Some of their clients date back to the 1930s, including Rockefeller Center and Macy’s. “Those relationships have been sustained by super talented people who look at moving to a digital platform as a threat to their relationship and a threat to how they perform their jobs.” 

The tough part of the digital transformation wasn’t building the technologies. It was the soft side, the human component, and alleviating trust concerns.

For example, suppose a customer is designing a power-distribution system for a wastewater treatment plant. In that case, they’re not going to do it on the internet by using an AI-driven bot to help them design the system and pick the right equipment. However, they would reorder material for that treatment plant online. Digitizing mundane tasks frees up staff to help with more important things. 

Using big data, analytics, and AI enables companies to respond quicker, with fewer mistakes. It provides a competitive edge. It allows companies to better understand customer requirements and provides actionable insights that facilitate productivity gains. Understanding what functions could be automated and moving customers online in the right situation was vital. “We’ve eliminated some friction that has challenged our customers,” said Millard. 

“Many employees felt that a computer was not going to do things as well as they can. Getting them to understand that technology enhances their effectiveness and makes them more productive [was the challenge].” Turtle & Hughes’ digital transformation’s success is greatly influenced by its employees’ perceptions and fears about using new technologies and their impact on jobs. The company’s leadership team is committed to making the transformation as smooth as possible. 

Effective training and engagement are minimizing disruption. The company provides an extensive online training program, which it calls Turtle University. Recruits and rising stars are put through an 18-month training program run by senior executives. The program includes engineers and thought leaders as teachers and mentors. Interestingly, a wonderful interplay between the generations developed, commented Millard. The senior folks mentor about the complexities of the job and understanding the products. The younger ones reverse mentor. They tend to be more comfortable using technology and are more agile about accepting new methods. 

The company has experienced back-office efficiency gains and increased sales for MRO (maintenance, repair, and operation) products. Sales for higher-level services are growing, too. 

Because the digital transformation happened before the coronavirus pandemic, the company transitioned swiftly to working entirely virtually when lockdowns happened. As an essential business, the company has taken great pride in helping New York City retrofit emergency field hospitals. 

How will you ensure a smooth digital transformation process for your company?

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