Track your initiative, communicate broadly as you go and celebrate your results when you’re done. The goal is visibility to change taking place, transparency of the process, engagement by the entire organization whether they are directly or indirectly involved and momentum to do more and be better together.
As part of our series about “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin Koss, CPA the CEO of Syte Consulting Group, Inc.
Taking a people-first, process and technology readiness approach, Erin and the team at Syte ensure family-owned manufacturing companies are fully ready to take on big change initiatives like ERP before they dive in head first. A native to the Pacific Northwest, she enjoys traveling, being outdoors, hiking, biking, rowing, and supporting the local culinary scene.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born and raised in Eugene, OR in the 1970’s and 80’s by parents who, with the exception of their passion for the culinary arts, were essentially opposites; one who was way left, the other way right politically. This drove most of how they showed up in the world. They divorced when I was four, which resulted in my mom’s shift from stay-at-home to single, working mom. My dad started a small retail business for fly fisherman and grew the business during my growing up years. Eventually my mom remarried my stepfather; a wonderful man (albeit more old school as he was 16 years her senior) with his own law firm. They eventually chose for my mom to make running their household her focus, and after taking herself from secretary to successful real estate agent, she quit working outside the home when I was in high school.
Both of my parents’ choices resulted in a great deal of privilege for me; including access to a quality education via my mom and stepdad, entrepreneurship, business operations and the job that eventually launched my long time career via my dad. From both I learned first-hand the benefits and struggles that come from owning your own business. Both heavily influenced where I ultimately landed in the world.
Helping family-owned manufacturing companies scale with ERP in a way that aligns with their values is a very personal role for me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Truthfully, nothing spectacular comes to mind. What does come to mind is the reality there were many mistakes and blips (mostly little and some larger) along the way. That’s just life. The lesson for me has been learning to extend myself grace and compassion when mistakes occur. I could do this for others, but not as easily for myself.
Like many of us, I am my biggest critic when I make mistakes or miss a target in some way. Over time, I learned to see it, feel it, and let it go more easily. Now I own it, speak it, and make amends with others if necessary. I embrace that I am enough just because I am rather than because I performed in a certain way.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There were two people whose influence had long term, meaningful impacts on me: my dad and my colleagues at Arthur Andersen Business Consulting Group.
I always loved listening, coaching and helping people navigate personal challenges. As a result, I chose psychology as a major when I first entered the University of Oregon. By then, I had spent many weekends working at my dad and stepmom’s retail store (The Caddis Fly Angling Shop); working my way up the ladder, so to speak. By the time I entered the university, I was helping in the back office doing deposits and basic bookkeeping. By my second year in school, I thought, “maybe I should minor in business.”
When my stepmom was diagnosed with leukemia, everything changed. She started two long years of treatment and I eventually took over the back office. Eventually, it was time to be “all in” and I switched my major to business administration with a focus on accounting. She passed in 1991. We were devastated. And the business had to continue.
That first year, I drank from a firehose trying to get my arms around the bigger picture, and I quickly realized if we were going to survive, we needed an accounting system that also had tools to help us manage inventory. We worked with our CPA firm who helped us select and implement the PC-based accounting solution of that time (the 1990’s version of QuickBooks: ProfitWise). I spent the next year getting it implemented and knew I had found the work I was meant to do. Problem solving, project management, putting the people, processes and systems in place to grow our business were my jam.
After graduation, I chose to work for Arthur Andersen, one of the “Big 5” national accounting firms because they had a consulting practice (Business Systems Consulting Group) that did process re-engineering and system implementation work for much larger companies. My dad supported my efforts to study for the CPA exam the spring of my senior year while continuing to run the back office. I passed the exam and started work that fall.
Within a month, the consulting division leader wandered over to the audit department with a list of “the newbies,” looking for someone who could jump onto a “network clean sweep” project that would eventually turn into the first Oracle Application/ERP implementation in the Pacific Northwest. Because of my background, my name was at the top of the list. I jumped over the fence and never looked back. Client-server, enterprise solutions (ERP) were just taking off for the largest publicly traded companies at that time, and our group went from 6 to 126 in 5 years helping companies like Microsoft, Intel, In Focus Systems and Oberto put their first ERP solutions in.
The early entrepreneurial and family business operations I learned working side by side with my dad, combined with the strategies, methodologies and tools we developed to transform large companies while at AA, continue to be an integral part of my tool kit today. I couldn’t be more grateful for them both.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Becoming by Michelle Obama — I read this at a time when I was learning to know, listen and love all of myself; not just the performing, achieving parts. Reading Michelle’s journey helped me to embrace my own success, and also be less hard on myself when I struggled.
As a result of this book, I created a three-part series for women leaders (viewing women inside and outside the home as leaders in this context) in the Spring of 2018 called, Awake, Aware, Alive — Becoming our Best Selves. The funny part was that although it was no doubt inspired by Michelle’s book; written in three parts, it wasn’t intended to be a “book club.” During our first night, many of the women thought that it was and had come in having read the book, prepared to discuss. They were surprised to learn that it was much deeper than that as the keynote speaker (me on the first night) shared her own waking up story and then proceeded to pull us all into a meaningful discussion of what being “awake” in our lives can mean for us and those around us.
Despite the surprise, the event was well received, and attendance rose for the subsequent nights in the series. It confirmed for me how important sharing our “Becoming…” stories and struggles in community really is. It was beautiful to behold.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Our purpose/vision: To help family-owned manufacturing companies scale strategically and grow with confidence.
Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
We are working on an enterprise solution implementation (ERP) for a mid-sized, family-owned manufacturing company that needs new tools and tech in order to grow. This type of project is our bread and butter. In this demographic, every client has their own unique qualities, strengths and struggles. Tuning into these and being intentional in our collaboration, communication and connection with people as we work together to execute this important change initiative is ultimately what ensures success. This isn’t to say we aren’t accountable for finishing on time and on budget; we are, of course. It’s just that the only way the processes, systems and tech come together is through understanding and meaningful engagement with people. This is just like life at home and at work in almost any context. From this lens, I believe success and even joy can be found almost anywhere.
After 25 years, we are working to grow our own company as well. It’s interesting (and humbling) to be doing the work internally that we do every day with our clients. We are investing heavily; financially and with our time in new ways of marketing. We are taking a more focused, intentional and personalized approach to our customer acquisition process. This is a little scary and makes me feel vulnerable as I work to go deeper and not wider within my network; asking for help, listening and trying to learn in new ways. I think back to earlier in our conversation about how to harness and transform fear through knowing our truth and making sure we tell ourselves that story. And that, we’ll be ok no matter how it turns out. Funny, as I look back and certainly in recent years, the “business” of Syte has always been my vehicle for personal development and growth; one that has helped me serve at work, home and in my community so much more freely. It’s also helped me to more effectively integrate and show up wholly, as a fully integrated human being; all of who I am wherever I go. I hope I’m helping others to do the same.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what exactly Digital Transformation means? On a practical level what does it look like to engage in a Digital Transformation?
I like to align our understanding of the terminology by using simple definitions. From there, I’ll share how my team and I engage in the process itself.
So, DIGITAL. This is taking information, including data and processes, and putting it in a storable, retrievable, electronic form. A piece of paper is physical and in my hand. When that piece of paper is scanned and saved on a file server as a PDF, it’s now digital. In theory, it can now live in perpetuity and be retrieved at any time.
TRANSFORMATION. I love this word so much. I define this as, “big changes that result in meaningful impact.”
Contextually, Digital Transformation refers to the use of enterprise and technology solutions to optimize people and processes in the workplace. Done well, this spans organization-wide and externally from the organization to customers, suppliers and other partners.
To practically engage in this work requires an understanding of what is meaningful change within the context of the work and the customer. It will be different based on where a company is at and where they seek to go. I believe that successful Digital Transformation relies on the 3 C’s (as we call them); Connection, Collaboration and Communication. This is because change is people-driven, and you need to be in relationship with people to produce meaningful changes with real impact. The 3 C’s will get you there.
Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?
I think all companies can benefit from DT. That said, I believe manufacturing companies, particularly those that are family-owned, can benefit the most from DT. Manufacturing in general tends to have the greatest complexity; including often times compliance and regulatory requirements. I focus here on family-owned manufacturers because they’ve often been in business a long time; for generations even. There is often a long legacy of doing things a certain way to overcome as well as historical capital investments that are expensive to replace or upgrade.
We’d love to hear about your experiences helping others with Digital Transformation. In your experience, how has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes and customer experiences? We’d love to hear some stories if possible.
The focus of my career and the work we do at Syte is focused on helping companies digitally transform people, processes and technology in order to improve operations, internal and external relationships (employees, customers, suppliers, etc.) and ultimately the bottom line. A couple of examples are below….
Story 1: Scaling Up…
We are working with a mid-sized, family-owned manufacturing company that sells their products directly into the residential construction industry. They have 3 manufacturing locations and 22 regional branches. They were growing at 25% year over year and had reached the limit of what their current accounting solution could do for them in two real ways. First, they had reached the limits of their software licenses. Second, the growth had increased the volume and complexity of the business in way the solution could no longer keep up with. This led to the acquisition of inefficient software solutions that were bolted onto the existing system and manual processes to support the additional load. The result was slower access to and more error-prone data that made it difficult to make decisions with confidence.
We are helping them implement and optimize new enterprise and technology solutions that can keep up with where they are today and grow with them over many years. I can already see on the horizon their ability to access information easily and make meaningful decisions quickly because the data is all in one place. Operationally, this automation and the addition of handheld devices across the board will allow them to grow without having to add more people in the next few years in shipping, receiving and inventory management. For finance and accounting, we’re expecting month-end close time to be reduced by half as they improve the ease of use and integration of their reporting solution, as well as the integration with their bank.
Story 2: Scaling Down…
We were asked by a family-owned engineering, design and manufacturing company that was also expanding into solar to help them scale up via a digital transformation effort. We proceeded to assess their current state; including industry, people, processes and tech. What we learned surprised us. After having much success and growing rapidly in recent years (a big reason they called us), they thought they needed new enterprise solution to keep growing. What we realized was that the industry was in a downward spiral and without a clear strategy for the solar start-up, they had missed the boat competitively. To survive, they actually needed to scale down. What?!?
No question this is was a tough choice from a people perspective. But we helped them work through it methodically, with intention and integrity; ensuring everyone’s best interests were served in the end. When we arrived, they had an accounting solution and a bunch of customized best-of-breed solutions for things like project management, inventory tracking and communication. They had all of their tech physically in-house and being maintained by internal resources. For them, digital transformation required reducing the number of solutions, optimizing those which remained and outsourcing as much as possible so the engineers could focus on their core competency: innovation and design.
In the end they were lean, mean and digitally streamlined; preserving the business and the legacy that mattered to them. They ended 2020 with top-line revenue down because of the downsize, and profitability up relative to the prior 3 years. For them, this was a win.
Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?
I alluded to it a bit earlier, and it’s hidden in the legacy that makes our clients so great. At this point, even among our oldest clients, we’ve overcome the challenge of “why” they should consider DT. The challenges now have more to do with the inertia that can occur as they try to decide what, when, how much. This is where we feel like our experience and the 3C’s really shine! We meet them where they are at and get a clear understanding of what’s important to them and where it is they want to go. Are they growing? Looking to transition to the next generation or sell eventually? Once we understand these things, we’ll work with them to create a roadmap for digital transformation based on their priorities.
Our roadmaps for DT offer guidance for who and how fast. Every company is unique. Some have the people they need to get them where they’re trying to go, but most do not yet have the capacity and capabilities they need. Even among existing staff and culture, you can only move so many rocks at one time. You need to build in time for the 3C’s to do their magic; getting buy-in, engagement and gaining the momentum required for transformational change initiatives to really take off. There also needs to be a sensitivity to the fact that you’re competing with the responsibilities of their day job. In the end, it’s a balancing act between who, how much, and how fast, and it is all based in who they are and what matters to them. The framework is the same, the map is uniquely their own.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.
I always think transformational changes of any kind in terms of crawl, walk, run. It’s the only way most of our clients can succeed in light of competing priorities and the need to keep day to day operations going at the same time. I also believe that for long term changes to stick, particularly DT, it starts at the top with the Executive Team and ideally permeates the culture first. Essentially, you need to build the engine for change for it to succeed. So, my take on the “Five Ways…” are as follows:
- Know where you are and where you’re going. The executive team must have a plan for the future and must communicate it to the masses.
- Identify your Change Management Ambassadors or Team. This can be a combination of cross-functionally focused, internal and external people whose job it will be to help the organization plan for and execute change.
- Develop a roadmap for Digital Transformation along the lines of what I discussed earlier.
- PILOT your first change initiative, keeping track of what went well and what could be improved next time. Build lessons learned into your framework. Continuously improve it each time.
- Track your initiative, communicate broadly as you go and celebrate your results when you’re done. The goal is visibility to change taking place, transparency of the process, engagement by the entire organization whether they are directly or indirectly involved and momentum to do more and be better together.
Don’t forget the 3 C’s along the way: Connection, Collaboration and Communication. These and the 5 steps above will help companies take it to the next level!
In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?
Creating a “culture of innovation” follows the same five steps I shared. It’s just another take on a change initiative; one with a different intention. We see companies who follow the steps we’ve discussed for Digital Transformation, end up creating companies who are more innovative and continuously improve more rapidly over time. It comes from being aware, knowing where you’re trying to go and being intentional about how you get there.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my all-time favorites is, “It takes a village.” Originally applied to raising our children, I’ve found it also applies in any context where engaging a team of smart people to do something that matters creates a far better outcome rather than relying solely on yourself or just a few.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Our website blog at: https://sytecg.com/blog/
My LinkedIn Page at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/erinkoss/
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!