If we stand close to a pointillist painting, all we see is a cluster of colored dots. In order to see the picture the artist intended, we need to step back and look at the entire canvas. (The image above is close-up of my bio photo below.) Likewise, if we try to think of Digital Transformation in terms of individual technologies or implementations, we won’t see the real change that must occur.
Here are some “definitions” of Digital Transformation (DX) I’ve heard or seen over the past year:
- The elimination of legacy systems
- Implementing new, digital collaboration tools
- Including mobile versions of everything on our web site
- Going paperless
- Having a “mobile first” strategy
- Increasing automation
- Using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Taken together, these remind me of the story of the blind men and the elephant, where each of the men touches one part of the elephant and then describes what the elephant is like. The one who touches the tail says that the elephant is like a rope. The one who touches the leg says the elephant is like a tree, and so on. The descriptions are not so much wrong as they are partial. They are partial because they are being created from views that are limited by proximity, i.e., being too close to see the whole picture, as in the earlier example of pointillism.
If your organization does not understand a solid definition of DX, your goal-setting will be very difficult, if not impossible. This points to the “Lack of Understanding” called out in the Institute’s Digital Enterprise Readiness Framework. Of course, the definition will differ depending on your industry vertical, the state of your infrastructure as well as the structure and agility of your organization, among many factors. (Note: Consider scheduling a “What Is Digital Transformation?” workshop through the Institute.)
It’s hard to see the finish line when there isn’t one.
Too often, organizations are asking the question, “When will we be done?” They are trying to play a finite game when they should be playing an The Infinite Game, as described by Simon Sinek. Transformation—digital or otherwise—is not a project with an end date and a set of deliverables. This fact makes it a hard sell in many cases, and can result in the kinds of partial definitions shown above. It’s far more palatable in many organizations to put an end date on “the elimination of legacy systems” than to truly embrace an understanding that transformation is continual.
Of course, the various pieces and parts of transformation should have goals and timelines. Projects—such as the installation and implementation of new technologies—will have definite beginnings and ends. But those are the pieces and parts, not the transformation. Pistons and valves are necessary to an internal combustion engine but are not—in and of themselves—the engine.
How will we know we are finished?
That’s just it: You won’t be finished in any traditional sense of the word. What you will know is whether you are succeeding or not.
The measures involved here are of business outcomes such as:
- Market share gain
- Profit margin
- Customer loyalty
- Employee engagement
- Return on technology investment
All of these (and more) are measures over longer periods of time than you’d like, but a real transformation doesn’t show itself in a few weeks. Some of the changes in these indicators may, in fact, go in the wrong direction at first; productivity is likely to dip as new ways of working take hold, but then begins to improve.
Some of the elements of transformation will result in short-term failure, but if these failures are treated as lessons, then they are positive outcomes. The organization learns what not to do, and new ways to accomplish tasks and goals are found. Experimentation—or prototyping and testing in the language of Design Thinking—needs to be built into budgets and timelines. Training and education has to take place. Culture takes time to shift.
All of this requires excellent communication. Getting that solid definition of DX across the organization is a fundamental piece of the transformation and should not be taken lightly. Directors and managers are going to be concerned with the work in front of them. That means they’ll be standing close to the pointillist canvas or feeling only one part of the elephant. It is the digital leader’s job to help them see the full picture as intended and to understand that the elephant is more than a conglomeration of disparate parts.
It is important to note here that communication is not the same a broadcasting. Sending an email with a link to your newly created DX intranet page is the equivalent of putting one tiny point on the canvas. There needs to be robust discussion, feedback, revision, and clarification for true communication to occur.
For all of these reasons, it is necessary to, as Stephen R. Covey eloquently put it, Begin with the End in Mind® and develop a vision that helps the entire organization unequivocally understand what is expected of the transformation. Only then will the pieces come together, the points of color become a painting, the elephant—whether in the room or otherwise—be seen for that it is.
Now go back to the bullet list of “definitions” I gave at the beginning of this article. I think you’ll see how they all can fit into your organization’s definition, but, taken individually, are not the definition.
You’ve expanded your vision.
Note: This article is based on Roy’s book Digital Transformation: Defining Success and Avoiding Failure, which will be published later this year.
Roy Atkinson is one of the most recognized thought leaders in IT, service management, and customer experience. He is a prolific writer, speaker, webinar presenter, and podcaster as well as an industry analyst. His expertise has been featured by The Economist, BizTech Magazine, Social Media Today, Computerworld, Oracle Customer Experience, SAP Business Innovation, and others. He was described on CIO Insight as a “model for the future digital leader” and by Nextiva as one of the “Top 50 Customer Service Experts of the Decade 2010-2020.” He was HDI’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award honoree. He holds a master’s certificate in advanced management strategy from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business.