Why technology alone won’t guarantee a successful digital transformation

29 May 2020

Why technology alone won’t guarantee a successful digital transformation

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have meant that some businesses have gained massively. Others are in limbo or, worse still, decline.

Companies whose CIOs had the investment foresight and knowledge to implement remote working and secure access and communication quickly held the advantage of seamless continuity of business.

“Responding to Covid-19 has seen many people and companies realise that IT had more to offer them than they had realised. …the range of the changes information technology makes possible will only increase.” The Economist, April 2020

The future will mean a heightened acceleration of the enmeshment of digitisation and data into life and business.

But, before rushing headlong to adopt new digital strategies, critical cornerstones need to be in place.

As an HBR article observed “Contrary to popular belief, digital transformation is less about technology and more about people.”

In an increasingly uncertain, rapidly-changing environment, hard learning and even new technology can quickly become outdated. What endures in the face of adversity, and in what has become the ‘normal’ pace of change, is adaptability, curiosity and a flexible, open mindset. The soft skills that investment in the right people provides.

Our search and placement experience, over the past two decades in particular, has proven this time and again.

Learn from past mistakes or you’ll repeat them

During the 90s, new opportunities to replace many manual back office and operational duties with more efficient digital methods were massively hyped by over-eager IT companies and consultants. The 00s brought another league-jump in business technology.

Whilst web-based technologies offered companies opportunities to operate and market themselves in different and better ways, their eager adoption soon highlighted pitfalls in potential and promise.
Many expensive investments did not transpire into a new digital world, and we know the dot.bomb outcome.

“Digital transformation succeeds only when it’s mostly about people and their needs.” Peter Jackson, Caroline Carruthers, Data Driven Business Transformation

Technology promised to do too much, but new marketing channels did not magically harvest audience share and control markets.

Keep people at the centre of any transformation

While applauding their importance, the problems behind the software are nicely described in Caroline Carruthers’ and Peter Jackson’s book ‘Data Driven Business Transformation’.

“The crucial point was that the focus should never have been on the technology alone—instead, much more on the actual tasks to be done as a whole; and even more, on the people and the overall people-story. … whatever technology we use, it’s always more complex than it looks … we need to keep people, not technology at the centre of every would-be solution.”

Learning from the past, putting digital and data transformation on your agenda must mean starting with the source of true innovation, your talent.

Technology is utilised to its best when combined with human mastery of the skills needed to exploit its full potential. When your key people add these skills to a creative curiosity about how your data can write new chapters in your business story, you distinguish your brand from competitors.

Data is a tool for every employee

Your data will become your new point of difference. Leaders of companies, departments and teams will need to move those they lead in the direction of data-enabled cultures. All employees will need to understand the language, potential and usability of their organisation’s data assets and engage in the harvest.

Marks and Spencer made headlines in 2018 with the creation of the world’s first data academy in retail, part of their Digital First Retailer strategy. They plan to produce a culture of skilled leaders and data scientists to lead transformation in every function—store management, visual merchandise, finance and buying.

Leadership styles must adapt to thrive

For digital transformation to evolve at today’s speed of change, leaders must adopt approaches that work to bring people with them.

Our Leadership Confidence Index 2020, compiled in association with Harvard Business Review Analytic Services is clear about this.

“If organisations hope to compete in a world of growing disruption, they need to focus on retaining and developing the type of leaders that thrive despite increasing uncertainty.”

This also applies to retaining top talent who will only stay with leaders who show the ability for innovation and risk taking.
“For organisations to compete, they must look for ways to encourage and teach risk-taking. If success goes hand-in-hand with continuous innovation and adjustment of business models in the face of disruption, there also needs to be a tolerance of failure and openness to reinvention.”

Leaders must “ … open the way for their teams to innovate together, without fear of failure, as they create and implement new business models to take advantage of the pace of change, rather than become a victim of it.”

Keep learning, stay curious, embrace change

More than ever before, the future is unnervingly unpredictable. We cannot tell what the next wave of learning for the next jobs will need to be.

What you can bank on is selective investment in the kind of people that will always be at the ready for what’s new and approaching. Step forward those with an eagerness to keep learning and who welcome the new.