Visualizing Digital Transformation

This is my third article on the subject of digital transformation. In the first article (Digital transformation: Engaging for Success) I discussed the importance of engaging people to achieving successful digital transformation. In the second article (Approaches to digital transformation and How They Are Influenced by How People View Organizations) I discussed people’s perceptions about what organizations are and how they change, and the impact those perceptions have on the approach to transformation. In this article I discuss the use of visualizations (pictures, diagrams, etc.) to promote shared meaning, ensuring that all stakeholders have the same understanding of the transformation.

Visualisations have been an important method of human communication for at least 35,000 years, from ancient painted drawings on cave walls and ceilings, to the symbols of Egyptian hieroglyphs and the pictograms of Chinese language characters. Our perception of the world is overwhelmingly visual – we spend half of our mental energy processing visual information – and therefore we should take advantage of the importance of visualisation when we communicate digital transformation.

The problem with many digital transformations, and in particular large-scale transformations, is getting everyone on the same page. They invariably involve a significant number of stakeholders, each with their own view of what the current problems are, what the transformation will do, and what the landscape will look like after the transformation. And, importantly, what it means to them. What in fact does digital transformation actually mean to most people? The wall-to-wall adoption of cloud technologies perhaps, or greater use of the web for customer interactions, cultural change to adapt people’s mindsets to exploiting technology, or even, more fundamentally, changing the organization’s business model to deliver new and innovative products and services. What the ‘new world’ will look like may be intangible – it may not be known at the outset, but evolve and become more apparent as the transformation progresses – but people like to have a view (in their mind at least) of why change is necessary, and ideally what the result should look like. For transformations to be successful, and to achieve that success efficiently, there needs to be shared understanding.

Much of what we visualise is in our minds, the ‘mental models’ that we build up based on our experiences and our biases. Even the language that we use suggests visuals are at play – “oh, I see what you mean”. If the visualisations (or models) that we create on the page can be used to collectively align the images that we have in our minds, we can have more meaningful conversations, better co-ordinate action, and achieve more of what we set out to achieve.

If we want a visual to have the same meaning to a broad spectrum of people, then it needs to resemble the common experiences of people. Putting an abstract word in a box and using lines to connect it to other words in other boxes pre-supposes that everyone reads the same meaning into the words. By comparison, a more concrete visual that people can relate to from their own experiences is more likely to resonate – see the example of the two extremes in Figure 1.

VBT Fig 2 2 Abstract Concrete dimension scaled
Figure 1.  Abstract vs concrete visuals

A very technical model in a functional specification may be great for the team of specialists implementing it, but only because they’ve learned the modelling language in which it’s expressed, and they’re familiar with the jargon used in it. However, it’s value outside of the group of specialists is limited, or open to broad interpretation.

However, visual representations are not intended to replace words – change is fundamentally about people talking to each other, understanding each other, and making sense of what’s going on. What we strive for is that shared understanding (or meaning), not just that we understand it, but also what it means to us. This is essential on large-scale transformations but is too often overlooked.

Even more important than visualisation is dialogue. Using a picture is a great way to get a dialogue going simply because it is visual and, as I said, our perception of the world is overwhelmingly visual. But it’s not just about explaining the visual, it’s using it to get the dialogue going. Your visual is your perception but other’s have theirs too, although they may not have gone to the effort of drawing it.

Co-creation can be a great way of getting that shared understanding. An impromptu whiteboard session, with people each having the chance to hold the pen can really be inclusive, although some people are not so comfortable doing that as they think that they are not good at drawing. Or a facilitated workshop, for example, where the facilitator is an artist, illustrator or designer, creating a picture with the freedom to present information in a way that resonates more directly with the mental models of those present; in other words, it increases shared meaning.

If we live in a visual world, using appropriate visuals to understand and describe digital transformation should help to increase the probability of achieving successful transformations.

Do you see what I am saying? 🙂


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