Digital Transformation

Digital Transformation is about People and NOT Technology

If I ask a hundred people in IT what they are currently working on – 90 would say that it has something to do with digital transformation. A number of organizations are on their journey of digital transformation. But I most all add that the word digital transformation is an overly used, abused and misused term. Many believe that digital transformation is about technologies and shifting to newer technologies and its offshoots constitutes digital transformation. Well, I hate to break it. Digital transformation has very little to do with technology, and a lot to do with people.

If I stretch it further, I can say that digital transformation is of the people, by the people and for the people.

Before I embark on the topic , let me talk about digital transformation.

The word digital transformation has a different meaning and connotation in every organization. Not only that, people within an organization will interpret digital transformation differently.

I wrote an article on digital transformation a couple of years back. In the article, I compared business and IT being woven into the same piece of cloth – how the business processes and IT processes are not separate anymore, how IT is realizing the business’ needs every step of the way, and how the business’ outcomes have become IT’s objective. Then we have the boosters to inject flexibility and the right mindset through Agile and DevOps. Added on top of this is the power of automation to reduce delays and human inefficiencies.

The common belief is that digital transformation is about the latest technological advancements, and organizations jumping onto the futuristic bandwagon of transforming digitally are all set for the future. Well, it may be partially true that organizations that get into higher order of technology can claim to be digitally forward, but there is more to the story which goes untold.

Technology is not at the center of digital transformation. Think about it. Organizations have capital and they can buy technology. But the question to ask is what are they doing with the technology. To make this technology remotely useful, you need people. You need people who can apply to the problem on hand. You need people who can creatively and constructively leverage the technology to provide business outcomes.

Technology by itself is useless. Technology needs people. Or in fact, a technology becomes functional when it is deployed with people power.

Moving on in support of people driving digital transformation, an important element that drives digital transformation is the leadership. Digital transformation to be successful has to be driven using the top-down approach. One cannot make changes to a process here, and a technology there, and call it digital transformation. The vision for an organization to move into futuristic digital ways of working has to be set by leaders. Leaders can read the tea leaves and take decisions that shapes organizations. I cannot stress enough on the importance of having right set of digital transformation leaders to show the way for the organization to move forward digitally. I stick my neck out to say that digital transformation is possible only with leaders who have an able vision, mindset, values, integrity and competence.

For an organization to transform digitally, you need people who can embrace change willfully. One of the new way of working is moving project centric model to a product centric model. As this happens, the ways of working changes, roles change, responsibilities change, and in short, the entire mindset of working towards project completion becomes old school of thought. So, for digital transformation to be successful, you definitely need the people who are part of your organization to buy into the new ways of working, the new culture. If they don’t, then no matter the best plans and technologies, digital transformation will stall before taking off. More reason why digital transformation is about people before anything else.

With new ways of working, and having introduced new tools, technologies and processes, it would be expected the current crop of people in the organization are upskilled and cross-skilled to meet the new challenges. In essence, you need the people to undergo trainings, workshops and do a lot of slogging as in the college days to be ready for the digital ways of working. It’s not easy. Learning new skills is hard unless you have the right mindset, but it must be done. To make it happen, you need leaders who can persuade their teams into a learning mode, and people who develop a mindset to yearn for new skills. If either one of these don’t fall into place, we have a problem. Digital transformation will stall. You could say that hire people with the right skills and maybe get rid of the current crop. Well, it’s easy to say, but in reality, you need people with organization experience, customer experience and people who are tenured to ensure continuity.

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The covid pandemic has given rise to a new problem – a large scale adoption of hybrid working. In fact, digital transformation has been used in conjunction with the flexibility of ultra-distributed teams working from homes. The challenge with remote working is multi-fold. The work culture which once revolved around proximity, meeting in conference rooms, water cooler discussions and team lunches is in the history books. This changing work culture involving remote working does not foster collaboration naturally, or team working and employee engagement. Organizations enroute digital transformation journeys have to find ways to overcome these challenges to ensure that the transformation objectives are unaltered. I made a video on leading remote teams effectively which addresses solutions to some of the challenges stated here.

I have touched the tip of the digital transformation iceberg on it being dependent on people more than the technology. I am not discounting the role of technology, or downplaying its role in the journey. As long as you have the right set of people who are ready to take this arduous journey, there isn’t anything that you cannot accomplish with technology. As you find new use business use cases, technology is there to bridge the gap. But, the challenge will always be tuning people to new ways of working. Bending people to meet use cases is not as straight forward and that’s the argument around digital transformation being more about people than technology.

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