If only digital transformation could be as easy as installing an app. One tap of a button, and voila! Your business is ready for the digital era. 

But some companies would still resist hitting the button even if it were that easy. Why do they resist?

Internal and External Transformation Pressure

The urgency for digital transformation varies across different businesses and sectors. Many find themselves thrust unwillingly into the spotlight of transformation when a clear threat to an existing business model or market emerges. 

For others, the pressure to adapt arises internally, which creates an appetite, if not a burning drive to change. Even born-digital companies risk facing similar resistance as they scale from startup to enterprise. 

We tend to talk about digital transformation in abstract terms, but ultimately it comes down to people's desire and capacity to change, not the technology.

Questions at Every Stage

Taking a human-centered view of the digital transformation journey allows us to ask questions about the different stages of transformation:

  • How do people currently perceive the digital world?
  • How will they respond to different digital strategies presented to them?
  • How will they work together to create the future state?

This requires more than a high-level or strategic view of the transformation needed. One of the biggest shifts in the last few decades has been the ubiquitous spread of information technology as a tool of work at all levels in the workplace. 

Information technology has moved from the domain of specialists into the hands of executives and front-line workers. Real-time mobile communication and information exchange makes this kind of information technology extremely personal. An executive can not delegate an email requiring an immediate response just as much as a warehouse operator can not resist the move to paperless operations. 

Everyone responds differently to the introduction of new technology, but in the workplace we have less choice.

Lending Support, Even to Leaders

Organizational change often ignores the needs of executives and senior managers in this context. Sophisticated techniques exist to engage workers at scale, including utilizing internal social media platforms in the process. But leaders are often simply treated as strategists and decision makers, not participants. This neglects their role as users and champions of the new ways of working that underpin digital transformation.

Leaders are no different from any other person working in the organization, but their role and influence calls for different treatment. Ultimately these leaders will determine the urgency of digital transformation and it may be held back because of their own personal response to the new digital systems and processes that need to be introduced.

For example, how will a leader engage with digital teams using agile project management or join the conversation in the company’s customer community? A leader may argue against the urgency of digital transformation as a way to resist changes to management practices or customer engagement that impact them personally.

Once you understand how to reconcile the emotional and rational response by leaders to the technology-based changes required to make a digital strategy work, you can put in place the appropriate tools and resources to help them make the personal transition.

You Can't Resist the Inevitable

Every organization will eventually find itself on a path to digital transformation — it's inevitable. 

If you are suddenly thrust into the journey, you may have little time to anticipate the reaction of leaders. But appreciating the emotional response will at least provide insight into the decisions they make. 

If you are only just building the case for digital transformation, ensure you consider the emotional wants — and not just the rational needs — of those who will be digital leaders on your journey.

Title image Kamesh Vedula