Making Digital Transformation Work for People

January 6, 2021

By Jennifer Hoover, Director of Digital Transformation

Agencies should be looking beyond IT modernization to a new era of digital transformation. To get the maximum benefit, agencies need to understand not only IT systems but also the people who use them and the organizational culture in which they exist.

In Part One of our Digital Transformation blog series , we discussed the difference between IT modernization and a true transformation strategy. In this blog, let’s take a closer look at the most important part of any digital transformation: people.

Why Digital Transformation?

Software and IT systems don’t exist for their own sake. Every program within an IT ecosystem has a purpose and that purpose is centered around people. The people are end users who rely on these systems to get work done.

There are different types of end users that need to be considered when implementing a digital transformation process.

  • End users: Who will be the people that are using and interacting with the system? Depending on the program, these may include agency personnel working in HR, payroll, accounting, acquisitions, or direct service to constituents. Some systems may be used across several departments within the agency. Direct users will be concerned with how easy the program is to use and how well it is aligned with their overall workflows and job requirements.

  • Clients/constituents: Who depends on the outcomes of work performed within the program? For example, a medical claims system may only be used by internal agency staff, but the people whose claims are being processed are also directly impacted by the system. Clients or constituents may never interact with the program or even know that it exists but will definitely be aware of how efficiently and effectively the agency is able to respond to their needs.

  • External users and partners: Who else depends on the output of the program? External users include other agencies and organizations that rely on data or other outputs from the program. For example, data gathered by a program run within Health & Human Services (HHS) may need to be shared with Homeland Security (DHS) or with outside contractors and local agencies responsible for administering parts of the program. These external stakeholders will be concerned with the accuracy and timeliness of the data they depend on to do their jobs.

  • IT department: Who will be responsible for maintaining the system and supporting end users? The IT department’s primary consideration will be how much time and effort the system will require to maintain and support. IT staff appreciate systems that are easy to update and maintain, require minimal training for users, and do not result in a large number of support tickets.

From “System Thinking” to “Design Thinking”

Traditional software development was rooted in “system thinking”—that is, putting the technical requirements for the system at the center of the development process. Newer approaches are grounded in “design thinking.” A design thinking mentality (a core component of user-centric design) puts people at the center of development decisions. While design thinking has been used in the commercial and consumer sectors for years, it is still relatively new for many government agencies.

How is design thinking different from traditional software development? Whole books are devoted to best practices in user-centric design, but there are several common elements to consider.

  • Include design in the process from the start. That means incorporating designers, not just programmers, within the development team. Designers will look at the user experience and provide input to make systems easier, more efficient and more intuitive to use.


  • Look at the whole process. When you make one change to a system, it can have unintended impacts throughout the organization. Before making a software change, it is important to understand the workflows of the people who will be using the program and how what they do touches other systems, departments, and stakeholders. Taking a holistic view of the entire process—including, not just software, but also the “offline” workflows and behaviors of the people in the organization—will provide a better understanding of user needs.


  • Build in continuous feedback and measurement. Digital transformation is not a one-time project but a continual and iterative process. Gathering feedback from users and stakeholders is an essential part of Agile methodology for digital transformation. There should also be a quantitative method for measuring the success of the transformation. This may include user survey results as well as measurement of other metrics such as number of support tickets, productivity gains, or constituent satisfaction with the services provided by the agency. These results should drive the next iteration of the transformation process for continuous improvement.


  • Consider organizational culture. A successful rollout of a new software program or process requires more than just one-time training for direct users. A change management plan includes feedback from all stakeholders, ongoing dialogue, and support throughout the transformation process. Above all, change management requires empathy and a clear understanding of organizational dynamics. Sometimes, it helps to have an outside change management expert lead this process.

It’s time to take the robot out of the human while focusing on the people. NCI’s approach to digital transformation starts with understanding the needs of all the stakeholders who will be affected by the process. Our ShaiPE methodology (Scaling Humans with AI and Process Engineering) is focused on transformational technologies that enable humans to be more productive, effective, creative, and innovative. The NCI Empower platform provides transparency into the digital transformation process and supports continual improvement through the development, rollout, and adoption of AI-based tools that support the human workforce.

When we put people at the center of digital transformation, we ensure that the tools and solutions we develop will be adopted by the workforce and make a real difference in agency effectiveness. The end goal is not simply to modernize IT systems. It is to create transformative change that allows the people using the systems to work to their highest potential.