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Digital transformation has always been a loaded term, coming with all the ambiguity and subjectivity about what constitutes a transformation as well as being overused by consultants and vendors. It's also always been associated with customer experience rather than employee experience, whereas it’s actually about both.

Although digital transformation is overused and comes with baggage, it’s also a useful term because it grabs the attention of leaders and conveys the power of what digital can do within an organization when it’s successful.

Digital transformation comes in many different forms and is hard to generalize. But having been involved in multiple digital projects over the years, there are some observations to be made about the nature of digital transformation and some if its central tenets. Here are five things I have observed from the past five years of experience with digital transformations:

1. Digital Transformation Is Primarily About People and Culture

The mantra “it’s not about the technology, it’s about people” is a bit of a cliché, and not a strictly true one because technology — the way it works and the way it’s implemented — is integral to digital transformation.

However, transformation is all about change, and change is all about people. With digital transformation, employees are on a journey, adapting the way they work and using new tools. Of course, it’s not just about adoption. It’s also about altering behaviors and attitudes towards using those tools.

Ultimately, the destination for true digital transformation is the evolution and adaptation of an organizational culture to embrace digital, agile and iterative approaches and experimentation. And to do it more as part of the everyday. If you’re hoping to achieve digital transformation, it is essential to never lose sight of the crucial fact that it is primarily about people and the way they behave.

2. Transformation Has to Be Bottom-Up as Well as Top-Down

Over the years, I’ve worked across numerous digital workplace projects and the most impactful tend to be driven both top-down, with wholehearted, visible and active support from the CEO, but also bottom-up with peer-to-peer support. For example, many successful digital projects leverage the energy of champion networks who can frame the value of the digital workplace through what it means to different teams, divisions and locations. Peer recommendations can resonate more strongly than centrally driven messages, usually because they are more relevant to a diverse workforce.

However, the need for a bottom-up approach is not only important in the roll-out of a digital workplace, but also in employees’ input into the design and subsequent overall evolution, as users develop new and agile ways to use tools. The citizen developer phenomenon, aided by readily available and no code tools such as the Microsoft Power Platform really supports the bottom-up culture change.

When thinking about digital transformation programs, it is essential to think bottom-up, building in employee feedback, peer champion networks and freedom for users to experiment. This helps to drive the behavior and culture change associated with true digital transformation.

3. Transformation Is Sometimes Slow, Subtle and Intangible

Digital transformation often comes with an expectation around both the extent and speed of change it will initiate. The dramatic impact of the digital workplace can sometimes be slower and more subtle than anticipated but not necessarily less impactful in the long run. There are many factors that influence the speed and immediacy of digital transformation. If you have an organization that has lots of manual processes, then a digitalization process using forms and workflow can have a quick impact in time and efficiency. Whereas if you already come with a more digitally advanced workplace, then transformation may well take a more evolutionary path.

It’s also important to recognize that because transformation is about people and culture, the benefits are not always tangible. The cause and effect of a changing attitude to digital can’t always be captured in a KPI or a metric; it may be hinted at in a story or an anecdote, but ultimately, the impact may be indirect and not immediately obvious. For example, an organization which embodies a progressive digital culture will likely make itself more attractive to technically savvy – and hence valuable — new recruits.

4. Employee Experience and Customer Experience Are Both Part of Digital Transformation

Customer-facing digital platforms and channels have always tended to be a bigger priority (and have a bigger budget) than the digital workplace, whilst digital transformation has tended to be more associated with customer experience. However, if you want to influence customer experience through digital transformation, you need to work on the employee experience, too. Some of this is obvious: If you want to be able to respond to customers quickly, you need good collaborative tools in your digital workplace and you may need access to customer information through advanced systems.

But the impact of digital transformation on organizational culture also plays an important role in driving innovation and the wider adoption of digital touch points with customers. Employee and customer experience are both integral parts of digital transformation, with the former being a key enabler of the latter. 

5. Never Make Assumptions About Digital Transformation

I think all of us have a slightly different view of digital transformation now compared to the beginning of the year. The pandemic advanced and scaled up the digital workplace over a short period in a surprisingly frictionless way that most of us did not think was possible. This is a salient reminder that we can never really make assumptions about digital transformation. There are always surprises ahead, expectations to be confounded, things that really shouldn’t work that do. It’s important to remember that what can apply to one organization doesn’t always apply to another. We’re continuing to learn.

Related Article: What Intranet Practices Tell Us About Building Sustainable Digital Workplaces

There’s More to Come From Digital Transformation

2021 is going to be a fascinating year. Collectively, we’ve moved the digital workplace forward, and for many organizations this has meant another chapter in their digital transformation journey. Our thinking may be challenged again when it comes to digital transformation. But whatever happens, people are going to be at the center of whatever is to come.