Why Companies Fail at Digital Adoption, And Why They Shouldn’t

With the sheer number and variety of digital tools that exist today for enterprise-level businesses, it’s simply bad management to ignore them and “stick with what works”. The reality is that these applications have grown from great added value implementations to necessary components of business operations due to how well they can replace many legacy systems and tools companies still use. Yet, some companies will fight tooth and nail to keep the platforms and applications they’ve grown accustomed to, even if it means inefficient operations. 

This is just one of the factors that complicates the conversion of major companies from older, less efficient systems, to newer, fully digital ecosystems. The challenge is that digital adoption, while necessary, is a painful and often unsuccessful process. While the costs may be acceptable for smaller businesses, when it comes to enterprise-level firms, losses can stretch from the hundreds into the hundreds of thousands of dollars with a single failed adoption project. 

Still, managing a digital adoption is not impossible. However, it does require a deft touch while ensuring that certain conditions are met. 

Why Digital Adoptions Fail 

Most digital adoption projects are usually announced by a company’s C-level with fanfare and promises about how amazing work and operations will become once the new systems are implemented and in use. Most of these initiatives end in a painfully similar way—a project being scrapped, thousands or even millions lost, and a patchwork of systems that makes work more difficult than it should be. 

More than a single reason for failure, however, is a series of connected smaller failures that can hamper a digital adoption initiative before it even starts. It begins with understanding not just what is being implemented, but more importantly why it’s being adopted. New technologies, applications, and business tools are great, but if they’re installed just for the sake of having them, they’re likely to fail. 

This is a key issue, and it is closely related to who is pushing the initiative and managing it.  In many cases, executives will learn about or hear about a new technology, and rush to implement it in their company. This is great, in theory, but it results in a crisis of leadership. Once projects are started, CEOs and other high-level executives will assume they are ready to go and ignore the project. The result is a lack of leadership, an absence of management support, and no direction for the employees and teams tasked with implementing new systems.

Perhaps most importantly, digital adoptions fail because they don’t consider the most important stakeholders in the process—the employees who will use the new tools. Workers use legacy systems not because they must, but simply because they’ve grown accustomed to the technology and know how to get the most from it. Implementing fully new systems is daunting and offers multiple opportunities for employees to fail. Companies also compound the problem by not providing educational resources or a clear justification for the new technology. If workers don’t clearly understand how new technology will improve their workflow, they’ll stick to what they know. 

How Digital Adoptions Can Succeed 

This isn’t to say all digital adoptions are doomed to fail. Indeed, even the smallest glimmer of focus can be the difference between a successful and sustainable implementation and a flashy failure that sets a company back. Before embarking on a project, then, it’s crucial to understand and have all the necessary digital adoption tools ready. This begins with a simple question: why are we embarking on a new digital adoption initiative? Most companies will argue with phrases like “we need to take advantage of big data” or “it will improve our ROI”. However, these vague answers highlight the problem. Digital adoption projects should have a narrow, targeted focus and a clear goal. 

Implementing a new system that will reduce booking time from 3 hours to 15 minutes, for instance, is a clear win and will galvanize employees to adopt it. Deploying a new system because it’s the hottest new tech trend likely won’t succeed. Similarly, these initiatives need to start from the top down. CEOs must not only start the process, but sponsor and guide it. 

Having management leadership is a great start, and it can be improved by having a team of employees act as advocates and “adoption champions”. These workers can help motivate others and ensure a higher rate of success. Most crucially for employees, however, is maintaining clear lines of communication, supporting education, and listening. 

Digital adoptions are challenging endeavors, regardless of how well planned they are. They create unpredictable variables, exhibit a chance of failure, and make work harder for the initial period of implementation. If employees don’t know why they’re suffering through these stresses, they will be unhappy, unenthused, and are more likely to abandon the new systems at the first chance. 

Instead, focus on creating clear channels for communication that employees can use to vent frustrations, ask questions, or simply provide feedback. Importantly, executives should do more than just let employees talk—they must listen and make changes. Finally, it’s crucial to launch educational initiatives with any digital adoption. Helping ease employees through a new system and guide them on its use will ensure that more of them are likely to keep engaging it once the implementation is over. 

Avoiding Failure From the Start 

Without a doubt, digital adoptions are necessary, and becoming a common part of most industries. Even so, they’re not easy to pull off, and present countless opportunities for failure. This doesn’t mean any initiative will automatically fail, but rather that companies should work to reduce those odds by implementing sound policies, smart processes, and assuring that all projects are always supported from the top down.