How Should Organizations Actually Go About Digital Transformation?

This is now the question that is top of mind in a large number of enterprises today, as speeding up adaptation to rapidly evolving digital markets is now not just a requirement to grow today, but increasingly to survive.

This is not incautious language and I’ve been pointing to the relatively urgent data for several years: One major slip as organizations fully digitize their workforces, supply chains, and externally facing products and services is easily enough to put an organization into significant and potentially permanent decline.

Recently, I’ve seen increasingly precise frameworks and round-ups — such as this great summary by Fabien Osmont — emerging lately on what companies should be doing to prepare for the full-on of digital transformation. One of the latest is BCG’s new transformation process for CEOs looking to make major changes. I’ve further argued that 2015 is the year that digital transformation should be taken on as a first class citizen all the way up the board of directors, something that’s gratifying being borne out in actual practice now.

Initiating Digital Transformation: The Journey for Board of Directors, CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, CMO, and CDO and the Communities

Such depictions of the necessary steps are certainly welcome, but should only be used as a starting point and with a large grain of salt given how much we still have to discover: We are still in the cave painting days of digital, as I like to say, and possibly the single most important activity of the entire effort is to be avid learners of the lessons that result. And then respond quickly to them. If there is a second urgent lesson coming from the stories of digital change, is that swiftly making moves builds momentum and can make leaders almost uncatchable. It’s one of the reasons that continuous delivery is a common component of high performing digital teams.

Another item unfortunately missing from almost all of the many views of digital transformation today, is simply the significant inherent structural barriers to change, including lack of effective mindset for digital. The processes and frameworks almost always greatly under-appreciate how much change — which is rapidly growing — in the digital world, and how poorly prepared, both in terms of scalable, repeatable processes for change and to the organization’s natural inclination to pro-actively seek urgent changes out. Over the last several years, it’s become abundantly that traditional, linear processes just aren’t up to the task, yet that’s what most still prescribe.

The inadequacy of traditional processes for digital change and evolution became obvious years ago when we learned traditional project management fared rather badly when applied to IT and software development in particular. This realization spilled over to many other arenas. New open methods emerged that were much more effective in a fundamental digital arena. These included open source methods, agile development, peer production, crowdsourcing, mass collaboration, social business, devops, and so on. Not coincidentally, each one of these advances ended up involving open, self-organizing collaboration among many well-informed individuals, instead of a few central leaders. And each development was a breakthrough in terms of performance, but confined mostly to digital domains.

Now the same is beginning to happen with business, with new digital era management methods informed how we can better run our organizations. Change agents loosely connected to transformation efforts by networks, as I explored recently, are now the order of the day, skipping past those unwilling or unable to join the organization in building towards the future, finding those most passionate about and willing to lead the change with local knowledge and motivation.

Communities of Change Agents Key to Sustainable Digital Transformation

Organizations, if they even hope to have the bandwidth and capacity to sustain change, which I’d observe, is essentially becoming continuously, must structure their digital transformation effort in a new way. Gone is top-down change. Gone are hulking centralized bureaucracies that have limited ability to effect change across today’s large global organizations. Instead, lightweight nimble networks of change agents across departments, divisions, and teams that align themselves to the organization’s journey is what will be required. Is this the open, crowdsourcing of transformation? Yes, and much more.

Based on a growing number of examples from top companies, I believe it’s now clear that new models and methods are the only real way to sustain change and any transformation process must acquire and wield them at the core of what they do. Leadership is still required to focus, guide, and inspire, but the work must be done by the entire organization (or least the parts most willing to.) I’ve synthesized a model for how this will look above, involving all the key stakeholders in the entire organziation. I encourage your input on how we can improve it based on the latest experiences in the field. I believe it’s an incredibly exciting time to be in business, and it will be a rewarding one for those that apply the right new methods, matched to the contemporary operating environment in which we find ourselves.

Additional Reading

The Strategic Role of Digital Networks in Corporate Leadership Today

The Role of the CIO in Digital and Social Business Transformation

Closing the gap between executives and digital transformation

4 Responses to How Should Organizations Actually Go About Digital Transformation?

  1. Pingback: How Should Organizations Actually Go About Digital Transformation? | On Digital Strategy | Dion Hinchcliffe - CIOWaterCooler

  2. Mike Wise says:

    Great post. Tweeting this. It’s all true. The challenge has been culture and the 7 Deadly Sins of corporate life, right? Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

  3. Andy Jones says:

    Great article, Dion. I couldn’t agree more, 2015 is the year for companies to take on digital transformation. I’d like to echo your point about creating change agents. Employee participation and involvement from the “before start” stage is probably one of the most important steps. Without support and dedication from those invested in the company’s evolution, digital transformation will fail. Making it everyone’s responsibility, rather than one person like the CTO or CIO, means that more people will be invested in the program’s success. Digital transformation can impact every part of the organization, and improving and optimizing workflows through digital transformation should remain at the top of everyone’s to-do list, as it will lead to better results, and happier, more productive employees. –Andy Jones, Xerox, @AndyJonesXerox

    • That’s a good point Andy, in terms of when employee participation should start. There are indeed some examples of companies with change agents looking for support, resources, and enablement early on, before a program is available or ready. I’ll likely make that change in the next revision.

      Your other comments are spot on as well. I believe this process is the shortest route for a win for everyone involved.

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