Advancements in digital technology continue to accelerate and steadily change how the world works, plays, and lives. These advancements enable and drive the digital transformation of industries and organizations — and can unlock new and exciting opportunities. For some organizations, this means incremental increases in efficiency. For others, it means disrupting their market with a completely new product or service. Most businesses fall somewhere in the middle.

Regardless of the path or scope of a transformation, challenges always arise along that path to digital transformation. There are three important threads running through every organization: technology, policies, and culture. How these threads are interwoven defines a company and shapes its success. This is especially true for any digital transformation project, whose outcome is largely defined by how these elements work in concert to enable the organization’s evolution.

The 3 Drivers of Digital Transformation

Taking a step back, what causes an organization to embark on the process of digital transformation in the first place? Until a few months ago, I would point to two reasons. Today, with the impact of COVID-19 starkly apparent, there’s a third.

Let’s start with the first: digital transformation driven by a perceived need to adopt new technology. Typically, the impetus to invest heavily in technology is the desire (or need) to be more competitive. Perhaps sales are down, and the leadership team recognizes that the current legacy systems are an impediment to improving productivity and competitiveness. The classic example here might be a manufacturing company that shifts to a fully digital design and manufacturing process. In a technology-led digital transformation such as this, a company’s policies and culture must evolve to support it. For example, having a data storage policy to guide employees on how to securely transfer locally stored data to a new cloud portal, or dealing with the newfound transparency of everyone seeing everyone else’s performance metrics in real time.

The second possible driver for a digital transformation is the desire for a fundamental realignment of a company’s policies and culture. One trigger here can be the arrival of new leadership that’s on a mission to get the company “back on track.” Or current leadership recognizing that it’s time to try to update or modernize the culture of the organization — perhaps due to some pivotal event or an internal crisis (think Uber and Wells Fargo, for example). Or maybe because changing employee demographics have stirred a yearning for a fundamentally different culture.

Imagine that you’re leading the charge to drive your organization to a new culture, one that is more diversity-friendly, more egalitarian, or more open and transparent. The adoption of these policies will propel and necessitate a corresponding shift in the organization’s culture to support this, while at the same time, a technology upgrade will often be required to enable a system that embraces and fosters such a transformation toward more transparent communications and open-book sharing.

As I mentioned, a third, new driver has emerged: unexpected events such as COVID-19. Hundreds of thousands of organizations across the country — and indeed around the world — have been confronted with the need to transition quickly to work from home (WFH) or remote work. This mode of operation, while already familiar to many organizations, places new demands on teams. Video conferencing and chat communications are really table stakes in this movement (Zoom and Slack have emerged as crucial tools here, of course). Effectively managing all aspects of business operations through this long-term trend toward WFH is, and will be, far more challenging.

And while some businesses have made the transition deftly, others have struggled because they simply cannot transform their teams entirely to a remote-work environment. Again, we see the same interplay of technology, policy and culture being so critical as businesses turn to digital transformation to maintain operations from the initial "shelter in place" orders through what we expect to be the "new normal" remote-work environment.

How to Successfully Implement Your Digital Transformation

So, for whatever reason, your digital transformation is imminent. How do you navigate your way to a successful outcome? In my experience, there are five best practices that define a successful digital transformation. In future articles, we’ll examine each in detail and consider specific practices and exercises that will enable you to adapt each to your unique situation. To whet your appetite, here’s a preview of what we’ll be tackling together:

Learning Opportunities

1. Common Vision

If you’re about to embark on a significant transformation of your company, it’s important to establish the need for common vision. Organizations work best when the entire team is working together, very tightly, with the same understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish. A key ingredient here is communication, because poor communication is a notorious project killer. But how we communicate (pro tip: dialogue is better than directives!) is key, so we’ll be discussing frameworks to enable successful communication that supports our digital transformation.

2. Transparency

The only way you will get a large number of people working tightly together with a common vision is to provide transparency into who is working on what across the entire organization. Traditionally, the way we construct organizations (hierarchical) and the tools we use to communicate (one-on-one messaging) are not conducive to transparency, so there’s some significant muscle memory here that many organizations need to unlearn. We will need to evaluate and possibly update our toolset, too.

3. Respecting Individuality

In this phase, we’ll focus on ensuring safe spaces to ideate, innovate, and question. We’ll also work on fostering a culture in which, whenever there’s a difference of opinion, team members will be open to accepting them and not feel afraid of voicing their own opinion. It’s relatively easy for small teams to embrace this because everyone is naturally closely involved in everything and people feel more comfortable expressing themselves. But as your organization grows, this gets harder. How can we encourage and enable all voices?

4. Responsibility

By respecting individuality, we enable team members to raise any issues wherein they see a gap in a clearly defined and regularly scheduled process. At Kintone, we encourage folks to "raise their hands and take responsibility" to make our teams and the company a better place to work. Instead of treating people as just employees, we see them as stakeholders and therefore each individual owns a part of the greater success of the company. Individuals are encouraged and expected, both from peers and managers, to voice their opinions and concerns. Deploying practices and technology that inspire participation in the process is key here.

5. Tools Alignment

Remember that earlier I mentioned technology needs to support culture and policy? That means we need to find tools that support the first four best practices. Of course, there is no tool or instrument that will magically fix an underlying problem in organizational culture. But if your culture is geared to the first four best practices, you should reinforce those elements with tools that support them. My experience is that there are tools that can accelerate the shift to a more open and efficient culture.

I hope you’ll accompany me on this journey over the next few weeks. Over the course of these articles, I encourage you to share with me your experiences on your road to digital transformation.