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  • Writer's pictureTheunis van der Linde

Digital Transformation: It is more than just one's and zero's

The following is one of my favourite quotes about Digital Transformation:

When digital transformation is done right, it’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but when done wrong, all you have is a really fast caterpillar.”

~ George Westerman,

Research Scientist with the MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy

But herein lies the challenge. How do you do transformation the right way? To this there is no specific textbook, or one single article, or a single publication that we can take from the shelf and follow the step-by-step recipe.

In fact, a quick Google search on 'Digital Transformation' results in 484 million results, in under a second. Having unfiltered and unrestricted access to a worldwide database probably complicates things even more.

The burden is now placed on us to navigate, read, understand, test, adapt and improve practices that will help progress us towards successful Digital Transformation efforts. Transformation is nothing more than permanent change that you wish to achieve in your organization. A permanent and new, or different way of doing things, and in the case of Digital Transformation, mostly accompanied by technology as an enabler or tool.

There is no doubt that more complex nuances and aspects reside behind the technology aspect, but the rest of this blog is focused on the non-technology aspects that can help make Digital Transformation successful.

Let's learn from our past

If we step back to truly look at the big picture, we are able to see digital transformation in context. Today we find ourselves emerged in the middle of a technology and digital-driven transformation stage, but the fact of the matter is that the last 250 years have been spent moving through, adopting and embracing transformation, and disruption in some way, shape, or form (industrial revolution timeline).

In other words, we are not new to this transformation game. Consider the industrial revolution themes: they may have changed over time from mechanization (1770's), to mass production (1870's), to automation (1980's) to cyber-physical (2010's), but every new concept and stage brought about large scale change and transformation in itself. So we should have had lots of practice by now.

We are also getting better and faster, at being better and faster. The time-lapse between major emerging themes are shortening. Initially, there was a period of 100 years between major transformational themes, but the last one came about in 30 years. To me, this means that the successful adoption of one theme puts us in a better position to work towards unlocking and discovering the next theme.

Today, the magnitude of data being generated is astronomical. It is estimated that 2.5 exabytes (exa = 10^18 bytes or 1 billion GB ) of data are produced by humans every day and that 463 exabytes of data will be generated each day by humans as of 2025. Couple this with an estimated 22 billion (as of the end of 2018) connected internet of things (IoT) or smart devices in use around the world, and you have quite a robust accelerator to shorten the timeline to the next stage even more.

Put plans into practice

It is estimated that a staggering 70% (or more, depending on the source) of Digital Transformation projects are deemed as failures, and the majority of the reasons cited are non-technology related.

We have been exposed to many opportunities to advise and assist with Digital Transformation projects for clients and will share below some of the most important lessons that we have learned.

The points below are extracted (deconstructed) from our 10-step blueprint to help clients implement their technology projects, with a specific focus on Organizational Practices and Culture. This is an area that we specialize in.

1. Understand the Value (Why, and Why Now)

Given the availability and affordability of technology solutions, and just because a business can adopt and integrate technology more easily, does not mean that it should throw caution into the wind. Such a huge transformation project will make lasting changes in your business, so backtracking is not an 'easy-out’.

Be careful to understand and be able to articulate the exact business problem that you are trying to solve, and be able to answer and explain clearly the Why and Why Now questions.

2. Accountability = Ownership = Buy-in = Support

We typically associated accountability and ownership with those delegated or assigned to the transformation efforts. Those that have a specific (and often fancy) title. But it is the entire horizontal and vertical ranks of the organization that is critical.

The technology-specific technical skills, capability, and vision being brought to the table are very necessary, but overall buy-in and ownership by the entire organization is even more important.

3. Digital needs new skills - look from within

Look for opportunities to transfer, in a lot of cases create the skills you will need, and leverage then diversity. True transformation often thrives and becomes enriched with diverse input from a variety of perspectives and experiences.

Be creative and employ forward-thinking. The skills you will need will look very different than what we know them to be now.

4. Communication is more than just a memo

Do not keep people in the dark… they are not mushrooms. Communication is key, and knowledge is power. And communication must consistently be focused on being two-way, which means to also understand the way that the messaging is perceived.

Transformation efforts involve so many different parts and rely on so many resources working together, so communicate the state of affairs constantly and consistently.

5. We need more leaders and less managers

The very essence of transformation efforts is that it relies on visioning, innovation, and a forward-looking approach. That is what is expected from leaders. It is not expected that they know all the answers, but to be acutely aware of the change and how to navigate through the challenges.

Adopt a change leadership lifestyle on this journey, and lead with consistency and transparency.

"The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.”

~ John Maxwell

6. Take advantage of the buddy system

The right collaboration partner brings experience, innovation, and problem-solving to the table. With the enormous selection and availability of innovative and technological point solutions in the market, one single organization cannot possibly cover all the ground in all the areas that need to be covered.

The boom in innovation that we are seeing attracts serious players, who are making serious investments into developing serious solutions and technology, so that you don’t have to do it yourself.

7. Keep the focus on moving the needle

Align the performance drivers with the vision and the reason for the change. It is easy to get distracted and shift the focus to areas that will not move you forward in your transformation journey. There are sure to be major obstacles that you would need to negotiate and overcome, and pausing to focus on something else less complicated and smaller is not doing you any good.

Listen to and feel the pulse of your business as you continue on your journey, and adapt where necessary. Measure your transformation efforts, and celebrate the small wins. They are important.

8. Change Agent Networks are the social media movements of the workplace

The life and energy can easily be sucked from the team and momentum can quickly be stalled when there is more push than pull. We as humans are almost programmed to be part of a social movement and to be included and involved. That is the entire premise of what modern-day social media is built on. Human sharing, connecting, communicating, collectively working together for a specific cause.

Upfront involvement of the necessary people are sure ways to help tackle the challenges and remove the roadblocks, so nourish the Change Agent Networks to grow the change.

9. Turn data into information

Accurate and pointed data and information will guide objective decisions based on real performance. But for that, one needs a process that absolutely streamlines, organizes, analyses and reports on the relevant key value drivers of your project, and transformation efforts. The five V's of big data is: Volume, Velocity, Veracity, Variety, and Value - make sure you consider all of them when putting structure around your transformation data.

To avoid a wheel-spin and frustration when it comes to progress, make sure you employ structure and good practices around data, information, and decision making, which matches the volume, speed, and complexity of incoming data.

10. Take the time to tidy up your house

Understand upfront the processes and practices that will be either introduced (start), made redundant or outdated (stop), or remain in place (continue). This very straightforward and simple approach is still one of the most effective and powerful concepts to implement.

Doing a business-wide purge with a focus on cleansing your organization from redundant processes, outdated procedures, and unnecessary practices, will prevent frustration and usher in a new era of purpose and focused mindsets.

Final thoughts

With Digital Transformation projects and programs, it is important to fight the urge to immediately jump and embrace the "shiny new stuff", and instead focus on making the link of technology to the business problem (and reasons), to gain perspective.

This means asking the fundamental questions like Why, Why Now, What, and then getting to the How, where technology usually comes into play. Getting to the root of the fundamental questions and understanding the business problem at hand, will help reduce a lot of the noise and distraction and provide the opportunity to gradually work your way down the rabbit hole to understand how the technology fits.

In the pace that we move at today, we are not always able or have the luxury to start with a blank page and systematically work from the front to the back. We can find ourselves falling into the process at any point, and that’s ok. The important thing to remember is to continue the efforts to link, even if we work backwards.

For instance, we may not have a feasible way or means to effectively address a specific need (the Why and Why Now), or have a practical and executable solution, until a certain technology is made available which can be put to good effect. But it is important to be able to articulate and understand the core business problem and its main drivers, otherwise, we run the risk of "tailoring" the problem (the why) to fit the solution (the how), because that specific technology/solution is the one we so desperately want.

At Helios, we specialize in focusing on the Organizational and Cultural aspects and dimensions when it comes to transformation projects; dimensions that are often left behind or considered not as critical as the technology component, which can be very risky.

We believe that the "Transformation Triangle" relies on three sides, namely Technology, Organizational and Cultural. And the three sides must maintain some degree of harmony, meaning that if one aspect is changed or influenced, the others are impacted as well.

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