Digital transformation is about people, not just technology: it must originate from the top leadership and take effect through the staff on the ground who work with the result. So what do leaders need in order to increase the chances of their companies’ transformation succeeding?
Clarity of vision
This point was repeatedly emphasized by speakers and delegates at a forum on digital transformation for Singapore enterprises held last month: leadership must have a clear vision of what digital transformation looks like, and they must understand what shape it will take in the particular context of their company.
“The success of digital transformation requires firstly the clarity of the leader’s vision, and secondly the alignment with staff’s professional beliefs,” said Michael Choy, director of e-learning developer DioWorks. As an example, he pointed out that if a new digitised method goes against the beliefs of educators that they should emphasize human interaction with their students, they are very unlikely to embrace it.
Either the leadership must have the digital skills to understand and implement the transformation, or they need to hire someone who does. A 2018 survey by McKinsey found that having a digital-savvy leader, usually the Chief Digital Officers, increases the chances of a successful digital transformation by 1.6 times.
The leadership must be willing to commit resources, including their own time and energy. The McKinsey survey also found that the more intensively the leadership--from board and CEO down to the leaders of specific initiatives--engaged in the transformation efforts, the more likely the transformation was to be successful.
In contrast, lack of leadership commitment can hold the company back. Tech services company NTT found in its 2019 Digital Means Business survey that project prioritization frequently gets in the way of a successful transformation: 24.5 percent of organisations highlighted the issue of competing priorities, some of which are almost certainly leadership’s pet projects, as a significant barrier to digital transformation.
Willingness to change
The NTT researchers wrote that “execution efforts are sometimes superficial because leaders, despite communicating the need for change, aren’t truly driving the right level of change in their own mindsets and behaviours. This creates an environment where organizations are unable to change because leadership is stifling transformation efforts, by not being willing to do the necessary within themselves.”
Finally, there is one key factor seldom brought up in discussions of digital, but critical when dealing with any kind of transformation that affects people:
Even if leaders are fully committed, they cannot possibly succeed in digital transformation if they cannot empathize with and alleviate the concerns of the people on the ground, the staff who will be living and working with the results of the change.
Bernadette Chua, director of Singapore-based management consultancy Dream Catalyst, pointed out that even though people criticize and make fun of staff who reject transformation and act obstructively, these misbehaviors are actually symptoms of fear that a good leader needs to understand and address. “The first truth we must recognize is that our teams are afraid,” she observed--and to recognize it in the first place, empathy is critical.