Digital transformation: Engaging for Success

Organizations around the world collectively invest trillions of dollars on ‘digital transformation’ – making changes to their products and services, their operations, their technology infrastructure and the way that they interact with customers, suppliers and partners. Their intention is to increase profits, reduce costs, improve efficiency, meet new regulations, deliver new products and services and evolve existing ones, enhance customers’ experience, and even change the culture of the organization. Whatever the rationale for change, it costs money, it has risks and it affects people. And along with the risks comes uncertainty which can result in a reduction of motivation and commitment of the people involved and impacted by the change.  

However, efficient and successful transformation seems to be elusive for many organizations; rarely can an organization say with conviction that they got value from every dollar spent.  Too often transformation initiatives either under-deliver, overrun, overspend or fail outright, and too often it is because they underestimate the importance of engaging with their most valued asset – their people. 

A common reason for suboptimal digital transformation initiatives is that employees are, or become, disenfranchised, either because change is forced upon them – it is done to them – or because they do not understand what it means for the organization as a whole, or for them as individuals. Successful transformation means that everyone needs to be in it together and everyone needs to be on the same pageeveryone needs to be engaged. 

It is perhaps surprising that digital transformation has not drawn more attention from sociologists and anthropologists, as it provides some fascinating insights into how people get driven apart at precisely the time when they should come together. Groups of high-functioning individuals come together for a limited period of time to achieve a common aim, but each group and individual, from inside and outside the organization, has their own language, culture, specialism, prejudices and (often) employer. They are all expected to put their natural biases and allegiances to one side in pursuit of a shared goal. 

Most of the splintering arises from how this alliance itself deals with change, because the situation is never static. In terms of people, program leadership changes hands whenever progress targets aren’t being met, sponsorship is moved as senior executives come and go, and consultancy partners arrive and depart as they come into and out of favor. In terms of content, requirements are constantly re-evaluated, the aim is rarely understood in the same way by everyone, and although everyone desperately wants to succeed, most people know that pretty much no large-scale transformation ever lives up to the hype of its original business case. 

In the midst of all this change, everyday human dynamics are playing out. Individual contractors are on day rates, and want to show that they are worth them. Teams will often (consciously or unconsciously) use deliberately vague language in their early reports in order to avoid being tied down to specific commitments later on. If a new team member uses some in-vogue jargon in a meeting, it can be hard to tell if that person is trying to make a serious point, or just wants to sound more like an expert. If it emerges that the program’s executive sponsor is ill-informed, insufficiently skilled or has misunderstood the issues affecting it, the program team has to soldier on regardless. Then there are the small-scale skirmishes that occur between projects competing for the same funds or senior leadership favor, between different philosophies (agile vs waterfall, systemic vs reductionist, user-centric vs enterprise-centric, etc.), or between change managers and technical specialists trying to build relationships with the same key stakeholders. 

For sociologists and anthropologists to truly understand why this situation, established to draw people together, so rapidly drives them apart, they would need to be joined by another group: linguists. This is because all of these forces have one effect in common: they fragment meaning – not by design but by consequence. 

In a complex transformation involving hundreds of people, where the change itself keeps evolving, it is incredibly hard to maintain shared meaning across all constituencies. It is almost inevitable that shared meaning will fragment down to the level of each participant’s local team, where everyone at least has the shared reference points of common specialisms and common experiences. Over time, each team builds its own model of what’s going on, what everyone’s motivation is, who can be trusted, who ‘gets it’, what needs to be done; yet all of these perceptions are expressed and only make sense in the language of the team that generates them. These kinds of problems are typically put down to lack of inter-team communication, but without some shared reference points to start with, this can have the opposite effect.  

In conclusion, people don’t usually start out from the position of wanting to derail a digital transformation initiative; they become disenfranchised because they are not engaged, and usually that it not something that they bring about themselves. On the contrary, when people understand it, and understand what it means to them, and are given the opportunity to contribute, they are willing to engage. We need to have more humility and more curiosity for those who are involved in change, and who perhaps see change from a different perspectiveDespite the term ‘digital’ in digital transformation, successful transformation is fundamentally about people. Don’t do it to them, do it with them! 


Author profile 

Jonathan Whelan 2 1e238cd5f10811aead187b7db4033b74
Jonathan Whelan

Jonathan is an established business transformation specialist who has over 34 years’ experience in change-related roles. His commonsense approach to addressing complex business problems and shaping practical, sustainable solutions has been fundamental to the success of many transformation programs.

In his spare time, Jonathan writes about business transformation, especially in relation to the issues and opportunities associated with information technology. His latest book, co-authored with Stephen Whitla and published by Routledge, is titled Visualising Business Transformation – Pictures, Diagrams and the Pursuit of Shared Meaning.


VisiualizingVisualising Business Transformation – Pictures, Diagrams and the Pursuit of Shared Meaning 

Jonathan Whelan and Stephen Whitla

Pub: Routledge; 1 edition (6 Feb. 2020)

Hardback and eBook (Kindle & VitalSource)

ISBN-10: 1138308242

ISBN-13: 978-1138308244