Which argument do you buy: That digital transformation is the biggest issue CIOs and their organizations have grappled with over the last five years, or that it's a fashionable buzzword that doesn't exist in the way consultants and pundits would have you believe? That all business is digital now and has been for a decade or more, or that there are more outlying organizations than leading edge practitioners would acknowledge who still haven't managed to digitize their products and processes?

Whether you believe wholeheartedly in the digital transformation agenda or you believe it is just aggregated elements of business as usual, you can't argue with one basic tenet — technology alone will never answer any business problem.

Strategy Precedes Technology

I have written many articles referring to the balance, or occasionally the imbalance, between three main factors:

  • People
  • Process
  • Technology

However, for obvious reasons, when people hear digital transformation they tend to focus on the technology, because isn’t that what the "digital" means?

Digitization defines the conversion of analogue data to digital data. A good example is the scanning of paper documents to get a digital copy into your information systems. Digitalization however is the strategy by which you enable widespread use of digital technology across all business and administrative processes.

A broad and deep digitalization strategy therefore requires factoring all three points of the triangle — people, process and technology — into the strategy, and the plans to execute it. For many organizations the large-scale and sudden move to remote working that the pandemic forced has driven home the need to think about and change processes and the user experience of their employees. I have plenty of anecdotal evidence from friends, neighbors and ex-colleagues on how organizations I thought would deal better with this situation ended up failing quite hard. If you send your employees home but tell them they can only attempt to access corporate systems behind the firewall via VPN after 8pm in the evening, then you most definitely have issues on the process and technology fronts. On the other side of the coin, my organization had customers who accelerated their move to the cloud to secure remote working, sometimes without needing to use a VPN at all. Such organizations have robust processes in place, allowing them to execute on their plans in an agile fashion, in what proved to be a scenario that many did not have a contingency plan in place for.

So you have a strategy, you know what you want from the implementation of digital technologies, you have a vision for your digital workplace, and more importantly, you understand it’s not just about buying new tech. You therefore undertake the work required to change processes to make the most of the tech, and you provide support for your people through extensive change management activities.

Related Article: Change Management: The Key to Successful Digital Transformations

Focus on the Transformation, Not the Digital

If all of the above is simply digitalization, what's the difference between it and digital transformation?

Again, digital is not the key word here, transformation is. Depending on which dictionary you want to quote, transformation means either a “thorough or dramatic change” or “the act or process of changing completely.”  A few significant words crop up in these definitions:

  • Thorough
  • Dramatic
  • Complete

Not just a change, or a set of changes, but a thorough, complete and dramatic change! Well that could not be clearer, could it?

Learning Opportunities

So you have stepped beyond a strategy of digitalization of your business into the transformation of it by applying digital technology to generate the thorough, complete and dramatic change of your organization. This makes finding that balance between people, process and technology even more important, because just implementing new digital technologies cannot make those deep changes.

To undertake a true transformation we must put our people at the top of the agenda. Your CIO cannot lead digital transformation on their own. They'll need the business process expertise that lives in every line of business, division, group and team. They'll need the HR function and their expertise in managing, coaching and helping employees through what is, by definition, a dramatic change.

Related Article: The Missing Link for Digital Transformation Success? People

Is Your Leadership Up to the Task?

Organizations that have successfully transformed themselves are those that understood, managed, mitigated and saw the competitive advantage in completely changing how they worked to achieve their strategic objectives. The backend supported these efforts, but success had little to do with them providing the right technology at the right time. Technologies come and go, and if you are truly transforming your business you may need a completely different set of technologies than those you previously required. What will make you successful is acceptance of the old saying: the only true constant is change.

If you equip your employees with the right skills and mindset, if you transform your organizational culture to one that educates, coaches, upskills and supports them, then you enabling and empowering them to deal with changes, whether constant and incremental, or occasional and dramatic.

I had an amazing boss at the Open University in the UK who once told me that there is no such thing as change fatigue, there is only a failure of leadership to support those who are undergoing change.

So whether you believe the hype around digital transformation, or just consider your digitalization strategy to be an enabler of dramatic change, your true focus for digital must be on the people, not the technology.

Learn how you can join our contributor community.