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PHOTO: Clem Onojeghuo

Digital transformation refers to the transformation of business and organizational activities, processes, competencies and models to enable organizations to use and exploit digital technologies to improve business processes and outcomes. But when talking about it, business leaders often resort to discussing IT infrastructure, technologies and applications. That is only part of the equation.

Culture: The Backbone of Digital Transformation Initiatives

While infrastructure and technology are clearly important considerations, digital transformation is as much about the people and changing the way they approach business problems and where they look to find solutions. In fact, according to Gartner research analyst Aashish Gupta, many organizations forget to address the necessary cultural shift needed to change the mindset of workers, without which no digital transformation project is going to succeed.

"The culture aspect and the technology demand equal attention from the application leader, because culture will form the backbone of all change initiatives for their digital business transformation. Staff trapped in a 'fixed' mindset may slow down or, worse, derail the digital business transformation initiatives of the company,” he said in a statement.

To encourage a change in mindset from traditional to digital, Gartner has developed a four-step plan which it outlines in its report "Digital Business Requires a New Mindset, Not Just New Technology," due to be released soon. 


Business leaders need to outline a digital vision that will be able to inspire and motivate a workforce. Everyone should understand what it is the enterprise is trying to achieve.

2. Metrics

Business leaders need to create a set of metrics that they can measure progress against and monitor how, or if mindsets are changing.

3. Implement

Human resources need to be brought into the process to monitor performance and assess how workers are responding to digital changes. HR should also be involved in assessing the viability of the given metrics

4. Patience

Business leaders should not expect immediate results. Change takes time, Gupta pointed out, and leaders need to give employees to understand the new message and take it on board.

Is this approach enough to bring about change? What about the practical day to day considerations of trying to change the mindset of workers? 

James Goepel is vice president, general counsel and CTO at ClearArmor Corporation, a cybersecurity resource planning specialist based in Riegelsville, Pa. He agreed digital transformation strategies without corresponding cultural changes are doomed to fail. He said this is a common problem in the cybersecurity space. Organizations spend millions of dollars every year on the latest tools and technology, but according to the Association of Corporate Counsel's State of Cybersecurity report, 60 percent of recent data breaches were the result of human error.

“Breaches were the result of human error. You can't fix the basic human errors through technology alone; you need a corresponding cultural shift for it to be effective,” he said.

Related Article: Digital Transformation Efforts Still Falling Short

Commitment From Leaders Isn't Enough

Melissa Henley, director of marketing communications at enterprise software vendor Laserfiche, noted that even a commitment to digital transformation and change from organizational leadership isn't enough. It's likely, she said, the organization needs to change as much as the workers.

“You may find your organization needs transforming more than your technology,” she said. “By implementing a thoughtful approach to digital transformation initiatives, leaders can build and foster a team with a compelling vision; effectively communicate an agenda for change, encourage and expand a digital culture throughout the organization; and inspire an innovative environment where teams embrace change and look toward the future.” She offered five steps for change:

  • Foster a leadership team with vision.
  • Communicate a leadership agenda for change.
  • Encourage a digital culture.
  • Organize work to enable agility.
  • Inspire collaborative, forward-thinking teams that embrace change. 

Forget Tools and Applications

Raqib Sheikh is the director of brand experience at the Atlanta branch of J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. 

He said when discussing digital initiatives with clients, they avoid talking about tools, or specific applications to help address a client’s goal. “It’s important we spend time shifting the conversations to one around the culture the organization needs to support the digital solution,” he said. To achieve that, his company has come up with three furthers pointers to add to those developed by Gartner and Laserfiche. Organizations must:

  • Develop an MVP (minimum viable product) mindset, and a willingness to build, measure and learn quickly, or fail fast.
  • Develop a willingness to build a dedicated team for a short timeframe to minimize the impact of task switching.
  • Understand and focus on “brutal empathy” for the consumer and their experience with the business at all levels of the organization.

Related Article: A Multifaceted Approach to Digital Transformation

Legacy Impediments to Transformation

Digital transformation initiatives come up against another challenge: enterprises trying to carry it out using the same tools and strategies they used in the past. That won't work said Ben Saren, CEO of Raleigh, N.C.-based Dropsource, a provider of a data-driven mobile app development platform. Saren said digital innovation is needed for digital transformation to succeed, but it requires a fundamental shift in the way people work.

“I believe organizations embarking on digital transformation can’t keep doing things the same way, using the same tools and expect different results. When we change our perspective, we challenge the status quo and open ourselves to new opportunity,” he said. “If we become brave enough to tackle new obstacles, we can think bigger, solve more problems and eagerly lean into the future.”

Innovation is in the eye of the beholder, he added, describing the cultural shift necessary as follows: imaginative solutions to as-yet-unimagined challenges creative connections, experiences and business opportunities that mesh the real world, current and future products and our digital existence; and innovation that advances society, business and technology.

How Marketing Departments Must Change

Take the marketing department as an example. According to Robb Hecht, digital consultant and adjunct professor of marketing at New York City's Baruch College, some employees aren't versed in the technology as much as they could be to truly make the company have a digital mindset. He said it is up to management to not only place the tech leads into the very core of the business, but to exude a new vision and mindset so employees become a part of the new company brand story.

Moreover, he argued, while companies are going through a "digital transformation" what they really need to go through is a "marketing transformation." If their marketing mindsets are not up to speed with where their new technologies are taking them in relationships with their customers, then a new gap develops.

“A technology shift not backed by a corresponding cultural and marketing mindset shift puts the whole success of the digital business initiative at risk,” he said.

Examples of marketing transformation not being aligned with digital transformation include companies putting up logos on their websites leading to their new Facebook pages, YouTube channels and Instagram posts with no real content strategy behind their use of these social platforms. Hecht added to the list of requirements for a successful transformation strategy. He suggested marketing departments start by asking these questions:

  • Has the company put the customer at the center of our marketing yet?
  • Has the company developed content strategies that meet the needs of its core segment customer personas?
  • Is the company messaging to customers on how great they are?
  • Has the company changed the message and how it speaks to customers?

“Digital transformation, AdTech and MarTech technologies bring brands closer to their customers," he added. “Customers now take the lead. It's a different mindset; but if our employee marketing mindsets are staying the same while we are driving a business led by new powerful technologies, the digital business transformation we are all hoping for will not truly happen.”