When we discuss the term 'digital transformation,' it's easy to lose sight of what it actually means. It's more than moving databases to the cloud and arming every employee with a laptop. Digital transformation means the creation of shared, scalable resources that are available to both employees and customers to improve everything from productivity to experience. It is the restructuring of business processes to ensure that they're as connected, smart, and streamlined as possible. This is a challenge for even the most successful companies as, in many ways, success built on legacy systems can be a hindrance up against more agile smaller companies.
Digital transformation is a company-wide process, but to be successful it requires buy-in from employees on an individual level. If a company is full of employees resistant to change their working practices, the digital transformation will move at a snail's pace. That being said, as much as each employee has a responsibility to embrace and push forward digital change, the real onus is on leadership to create a culture of trust, empowerment, and shared responsibility in companies undergoing the transformation. These might sound like vague platitudes, but they are important elements for senior management to consider, and they can be brought about directly by those at the very top of an organization.
So, what are the practical steps leadership can take to help digital transformation along? John Godwin, Director of Digital Innovation at UK retailer Travis Perkins, said: "Business leaders need to articulate a clear shift in strategic direction and that digital transformation is driven from the top." Kevin Diaz, Chief Customer Officer at Freudenberg IT, advocates the use of distributed leadership to instill the right mentality across an organization. "You hire the best people," he says. "You lead by giving the vision and then empowering them to navigate to the ultimate objectives on their own." Distributed leadership, Diaz says, gives top-level managers the ability to step back from micromanagement and allow their teams to flourish individually. From this position, leadership can ensure that teams maintain a consistent broad vision, while also encouraging experimentation by giving them the leeway to approach problems in different ways.
Joydeep Bhattacharya, Managing Director at Accenture Interactive, echoed this sentiment: "Employees look to their leaders to be the 'culture champion' as it is their responsibility to make the company culture stronger." Instilling a digital-first culture should be leadership's priority, and this means putting together a coherent vision for the future that is well-communicated to employees across the organization. Being a 'culture champion' is more than just mentioning digital as many times as possible in company updates, it's establishing a transformative vision and communicating that in actionable steps to your teams.
This means being up to date with technology trends and understanding in detail how they impact your business. A recent Gartner survey found that 60% of business leaders don't understand the possibilities associated with using up-to-date technologies, and only 13% knew which tech they would be investing in next. Leaving a CTO or a CIO to be the sole guardian of tech investment and understanding in the C-suite is a recipe for slow change.
The qualities of a good digital transformation leader are varied, and there is no one facet of leadership that they have to excel at to succeed. With this in mind, a recent report from MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte University Press, Aligning the Organization for Its Digital Focus, found that respondents valued having a transformative vision (22%), being a forward thinker (20%), having a change-oriented mindset (18%) and collaborative skills (22%) as their key attributes for leadership across digital transformation.
Digital transformation means picking the right technologies, identifying areas to modernize within a business, using data to make smarter business decisions, and allowing marketing to target audiences as they move to different channels. None of this can happen effectively without sound leadership willing to communicate and encourage digital transformation, as well as making resources available to actually make it happen. It's often said that getting digital right is a do or die challenge for modern businesses, and every organization's leadership should reflect that.