Digital transformation: 11 emerging lessons

Is digital transformation giving way to digital malaise within your organization? In late 2019, a McKinsey survey found that just 16 percent of respondents said their organizations’ digital transformation had successfully improved performance in a sustainable way. Another 7 percent said that performance improved – but only for a time.

“We’re entering a world of digital transformation fatigue because of the failure rate.”

The continuing drumbeat of “change or die” can certainly get old, particularly if the results are less than satisfactory. “We’re entering a world of digital transformation fatigue because of the failure rate and the exorbitant amounts of money that disappear into the digital transformation black hole,” says Ankur Laroia, managing director of BDO’s Houston office and leader of its Digital Transformation Services practice.

Yet the drivers behind digital transformation aren’t going away. In a hypercompetitive market, worldwide spending on the technologies and services that enable the digital transformation of business practices, products, and organizations is forecast to reach $1.97 trillion in 2022, according to the IDC’s Worldwide Semiannual Digital Transformation Spending Guide. By 2020, nearly a third of G2000 companies will spend ten percent or more of revenue on their digital strategies, IDC says.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

In an effort to re-energize digital initiatives, it makes sense to review what we’ve learned. This accumulated wisdom may help leaders refocus those areas that have veered off course or reinforce practices more likely to yield positive results. The Enterprisers Project talked to those who live in the digital transformation world to find out what’s working now – and what’s not.

Digital transformation lessons learned

1. Multi-disciplinary teams win

Some organizations have a chief digital officer, chief transformation officer, or other head disruptor-in-charge; some don’t. But what unites the most successful efforts is a cross-functional approach. “Successful enterprises leverage centralized and line of business IT, business units, and other corporate functions in digital initiatives,” says Yugal Joshi, vice president at Everest Group, which surveyed 180 CXOs on the topic of digital transformation.

You want a mix of technical, process, and change management skill.

Likewise, APQC found that best-practice organizations tend to have a steering committee to guide their digital transformation efforts and rely on a center of excellence or transformation team. Such groups include a mix of technical, process, and change management skills, says Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland, APQC’s principal research lead, process and performance management research. Their digital leaders likewise are experienced leading cross-functional teams, she adds.

2. Buy-in is never optional

“There is no such thing as a digital transformation that shouldn’t be business-driven.”

“One disconcerting trend is that some companies continue to try to drive digital transformation as an IT project without complete buy-in and participation from the business beyond the obligatory steering committee involvement,” says Brian Caplan, director with management consultancy Pace Harmon.

Migration of data and workloads to the cloud, a move that’s often part of transformation efforts, may seem like a simple tech swap, but there are still significant risks. “The lesson learned is there is no such thing as a digital transformation that shouldn’t be business-driven,” Caplan says.

3. Innovation injections work

“Innovation can come from any source for these [successful digital transformation] enterprises, including conferences, webinars, seminars, tech vendor events,” says Joshi. Digital transformers remain open to innovation from all areas. According to Everest Group research, 69 percent of successful digital transformation enterprises work with academia in addition to their own internal think tanks. Some of the most successful transformation initiatives involve an innovation function skilled at evaluating and testing trends and technologies, Lyke-Ho-Gland adds.

4. Rush jobs never deliver

There is incredible pressure on the business and IT to digitally transform and deliver results – like, yesterday. As a result, some organizations are (still) undertaking projects without conducting a thorough analysis of business needs and impact.

“Companies frequently believe they are being left behind in the digital transformation phenomenon – in particular for customer-facing digital transformations – and feel pressured to begin implementing the transformation before they understand the business and technology impact to the entire company, as well as the impacts of changes to data sources, models, consumption and governance,” says Pace Harmon managing director Andrew Alpert.

5. Seek alternative sources of talent

Digital transformation leaders take advantage of acqui-hiring and other talent tools.

It’s accepted wisdom that certain digital transformation skills are in high demand and short supply. So digital transformation leaders take advantage of acqui-hiring (bringing talent into the fold through M&A), joint ventures, partnerships, and crowd-sourcing. Are you using any of these valuable talent acquisition tools?

What else distinguishes organizations logging early wins with transformation? Flexibility, communication skills – and the guts to hit the pause button.

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