Unlocking the success of digital business transformation

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Kamalesa digital strategy expert with over 23 years of industry experience, is the author of The Human Side Of Digital Business Transformation.

As the global business landscape evolves and adaptation becomes critical to success, many C-level executives have embraced digital transformation as a strategy to stay ahead of the competition. While investing in technology, processes and infrastructure are key components of this shift, it is equally important to recognize that people are the cornerstone of successful digital transformation initiatives.

Early in my career, more than 23 years ago, I came to a critical realization during a core system implementation project for a major telecommunications customer. The project got off to a good start; we mapped out the existing process landscape and scoped the transition to the new system. The existing environment, like that of many other companies, consisted of manual, human-led processes and a hodgepodge of systems; however, my team’s primary focus was on understanding the complex process landscape, technology infrastructure, and business requirements. After implementing the new workflows and core system, we started monitoring and tracking the progress of the business.

To the surprise of both the project team and the customers, the result of implementing the system was long hours and increased work for the company, rather than the expected increase in efficiency and productivity gains. The system delivered the promised integrated solution, streamlined workflow, and unified view of data and management reporting. Manual processes were replaced by digitized, optimized workflows; however, the number of hours it took to complete the processes in the company increased dramatically.

After a painstaking diagnosis, we exposed the problem: people! The customer teams required to adopt the new solution were not involved in the transformation and did not trust that the solution would deliver what they needed. This allowed them to continue with the existing environment and manual processes in the background, freeing up time to enter the necessary data into the new system at the end of the day. This created a shadow organization that increased the time and effort required.

My team had planned for success in every part of the project, but failed to consider the most important element that could make or break the final implementation: the human factor. The project was successfully completed after we handled the buy-in and people conversion to the new system. But for me, this experience was monumental.

An organization can be compared to a living organism that functions to survive in its environment, such as the human body. And just like the human body, organizations have an immune system that develops organically from systems, procedures and mindsets.

Just like the human body, an organization’s immune system can become hyperactive. The organizational immune system will go into overdrive to attack and defuse any new element or change that threatens the status quo, whether it be a threat, disruption, or innovative opportunity. When this happens, chances are you’re missing out on new market opportunities that are transforming the industry. This response is what is known as the “amygdala response,” a term referred to by Salim Ismail in his book Exponential organizations. In an organization, people are at the heart of the amygdala’s response, including board members and management teams responsible for driving change; employees who adopt, embrace and advocate for change; customers responsible for initiating change; and external stakeholders such as partners and suppliers who are responsible for supporting the implementation of change.

Based on my experience, the real secret to successfully driving sustainable digital business transformation is understanding and engaging this ecosystem of people involved in the journey. This was the catalyst for my new book, The human side of digital business transformation—a culmination of practical strategies I’ve implemented for numerous organizations. I wanted to create a cross-industry playbook that business leaders could use as a guideline to navigate and drive the digital transformation journey in their organizations.

It is often misunderstood that technology is at the heart of digital transformation. While technology could create exponential opportunities in today’s digital economy, it is really the transformation part – the journey an organization takes with its ecosystem of people – that provides the solid foundation for accelerating these opportunities.

Buy-in is essential to achieving long-term sustainable success in the context of digital business transformation, where initiatives can be complex and have a significant impact on the business. There are a few inventive strategies that can successfully gain people’s acceptance and influence them to change both their attitudes and behaviors. For starters, trust and empathy are the fundamental components that lay the foundation for buy-in and effective collaboration, and are central to digital transformation strategies. The role of the leadership team is shifting from directive to one that promotes a safe, open and trustworthy environment.

Another key element in involving the human element for transformation is the focus on adding value. I believe it is in human nature to look for something good for ourselves in every situation, be it intellectual or emotional. As a transformation strategist, I practice empathic listening to understand the goals, struggles, fears, and hopes of key stakeholders. This helps develop a digital transformation value proposition that describes how the change affects people and what value they can derive from it. Develop simple key messages that explain the vision, purpose and direction of the digital business transformation strategy, and ensure that key stakeholders inside and outside the organization understand and adhere to them. The communication should be real and personal, designed to connect on both an intellectual and emotional level.

Companies need to be mindful in their efforts to interact with people to ensure the success of the digital business transformation. Investing in technology can be crucial, but successful initiatives must recognize that people are the main drivers of long-term success.


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