Digital transformation is too important for IT to handle alone

Myles Runham speaking

Written by Myles Runham, Consultant at Myles Runham Digital & Learning

At a recent conference, I chaired a panel session focusing on the practical steps to digital transformation (there were many other routes the debate could have taken but this is where the audience had greatest interest). There was a sense in the room that the grand vistas of digital strategy are becoming over-exposed and attendees were looking for advice closer to home, to help steer practical choices they need to make. Like all good user focused enquiry, the “what’s in it for me?” question was paramount.

There was also a clear recognition in the room that digital transformation is not the preserve of technology alone but relies on mindset and cultural change for a valuable impact. This seems obvious, perhaps, but it is a useful breakthrough. It is the people of an organisation who will unlock digital value for their customers and users as well as themselves.

This post by Jeff Imelt, ex CEO of GE is a useful input. There are some helpful observations on leading and organising digital transition in here. Unsurprisingly, leadership clarity, trust and empowerment are crucial factors. Strong digital businesses behave in different ways which need a latitude to takes risks and act fast. As important, is the assertion that digital ultimately needs to be a part of everyone’s day job at some point. Whilst a specialist team may be prudent to gain momentum in the early days, everyone needs to make the change and adopt digital ways of working to sustain the changes. This is worthy of consideration for many of us. A lot of organisations have digital specialist managers and teams (often born from an information technology background) but struggle to make the transition beyond that point. This structure can discourage change taking hold elsewhere and the mindset needed can be poorly understood where more conventional cultures persist.

Imelt also asserts that digital change cannot be the preserve of the IT functions. In many ways these are outsourced technologies and activities which operate at too great a distance from the core business to generate valuable change. I really like this point. Too often digital is seen as the preserve of techies and systems folks, under-cooking the potential it can have and limiting the radical change needed. Technology as a function is often too far removed from decision making to create far-reaching changes. There is an attractive tidiness to this tendency. Effective digital organisations tend to arrange themselves in ways that cut across traditional structures – it can feel messy and undirected from a traditional leadership view.

Handing digital off to technology teams limits the changes required – digital transformation is about people and how they work as much as it is about technology. In anxious organisations, there can be an insulation from digital because it is seen as a specialism of technologists. Successful change will not occur under these circumstances. It has happened to me directly. As a Director of Digital, I have been given responsibility for digital transformation with only technology levers on which to pull. The remainder of the department remained distant, labouring under the belief that ‘digital’ would be solved for them and launched at them. No. It didn’t work.

A related challenge to the preoccupation with IT lead route to digital is the misplaced faith in systems implementation as a source of digital change. Fundamentally, the revolution of digital has been a product of the widespread adoption of digital ways of working. Inherent to these approaches is the ability to experiment and adjust to seek valuable solutions. Any transformation means the old rules no longer apply. Systems implementation, by definition, precludes experimentation and denies the arrival of unexpected value. The computer will say no.

ERP systems implementations will not deliver digital transformation for this reason. They will deliver efficiency, order and accuracy (hopefully) to established systems or in the embedding of new ones. This is not to be sniffed at, but is not transformative. User needs are rarely anywhere to be seen either. Other digital tools are where signals of value can be found. As a rule of thumb, it is always best to look outside our own industries in seeking clues to make far-reaching changes. We are all now users of digital tools and have high expectations of what works well for us. That is the judgement we should rely on and organise around.

Myles Runham is the trainer for the Digital Leaders Academy Course “Developing Your Digital Mindset,” – find out more.

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