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Digital Transformation Has a Branding and a Leadership Problem

September 15, 2022 Digital Workplace
Chris Ellis
By Chris Ellis

The term “digital transformation” carries some baggage.

The misgivings associated with these efforts will be familiar to anyone who has been around digital transformation programs. Those involved in the programs may have experienced these impacts more directly.

For some, digital transformation is a dirty word. But many organizations are still pegging their futures to it, and most will likely succeed with initiatives that could live under the  “digital transformation” umbrella — even if the organization decides not to call it that.

One immediate improvement would be to call digital transformation what it really is: change management for the digital age. When it comes down to it, digital transformation is really just a great big change management project.

Change management by its nature is people-centric. It’s about leading and taking people on a journey, and preparing them to both accept and embrace the change that is before them.

Yet, this is often missing from digital transformations. Too many digital transformations are myopically organized around technology: Buy tools, deploy platforms and repeat until the organization is “transformed.”

But organizations aren’t built around technology. They’re built around people. So shouldn’t transformation efforts start there instead?

Digital Transformation Centers on People

Recent research by Baker McKenzie illustrates the lack of ‘people focus’ in digital transformation efforts. Of respondents, “45% are focused on building personnel infrastructure, 40% on promoting new and agile ways of working and 28% on creating the culture needed to deliver transformational projects.”

In other words, less than half in all cases.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, respondents also said the biggest barriers to accelerating and scaling up transformation efforts — aside from budget — included expertise/skills (43%), lack of clarity and lack of buy-in (both 31%). That is, three of the top five barriers to moving transformation out of small-scale efforts related to people.

At this point, it’s worth making a distinction.

We know from previous research that a good percentage of digital transformation programs don’t go to plan. EY says 30%-50%. Other estimates come in smaller, some considerably larger, but they are not as well-sourced or necessarily in line with lived experience.

EY’s research found the four main reasons projects fail aren’t because of technology. Instead, they don’t go to plan because there’s no clear end goal or people-first approach used, or due to a misunderstanding of what was being transformed.

Again, two of those four reasons could be considered people-based. But the distinction to be made here is between people and leadership.

Related Article: On the Path to Becoming Digital, Don't Forget the Humans

But Goes Nowhere Without Leadership

People, process and technology aren’t the only factors at play in transformations. I would argue that leadership is also a factor that is distinct from ‘people’ in this context. Many organizations don’t consider the impact of leadership — or a lack of it — in its own right.

But leaders have a critical role to play in transformation programs. They are responsible for articulating a clear vision, driving alignment, removing blockers and creating incentives for people to invest their time and themselves in the programs.

Treating leadership and people as distinct variables in transformation programs will likely bring organizations closer to resolving the misgivings or inefficient aspects of their current initiatives.

The Lippitt-Knoster model for complex change management can be a useful way to visualize and simulate where transformation programs are going wrong from a leadership vs people perspective.

It considers vision, skills, incentives, resources and an action plan to be the five key ingredients to effective change. It should be clear if one of these is ineffective. For example, if people are confused, it’s probably due to a lack of vision or 'north star.' If people are anxious, they may feel they don’t have the skills to carry out the work. If people are frustrated, it may be the incentives for them to come on the digital journey and commit to the process aren’t there or, the program is ineffectively resourced.

The model shows a lot of potential things that can go wrong with change — and therefore digital transformation — programs, where the common denominator is either people or leadership. In almost all cases, leaders are best-placed to do something about it.

Related Article: Communicating Change: Overcoming Resistance Through Empathy

Mapping for the Right Start Point

To establish vision and a path forward, leaders — together with the architects of digital transformation — need to retrain their focus on being people-centric or even people-myopic.

By understanding how teams of people work, what their processes are, and how they collaborate, organizations are more likely to be in the right mindset to see how technology can be used to improve those human-centric processes.

Technology can assist in this scoping phase: tools exist that can sit in the background while people work, mapping out the way processes are structured and run. This can help transformation architects to prioritize where the greatest opportunities for optimization, improvement and value-addition are likely to come from, without demanding too much upfront commitment out of the business-as-usual of people’s days.

Used in combination with models like Lippitt-Knoster, organizations can establish the right foundational understanding of their environment, their people and how to change it in a way that is both persuasive for people in that environment to embrace and effective as a result.

About the Author

Chris Ellis, technical director at Nintex, gained invaluable experience in SharePoint, Office 365 and the Nintex Platform as a pre-sales solution specialist within the partner network. Hailing from Aberdeen in Scotland, his work with the Nintex Platform exposed him to the full lifecycle from analysis and requirement gathering to delivery, support and training, contributing across a spectrum of projects in various industries and in some interesting places.

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