Digital Transformation: Why is the leadership challenge so important?

The below article originally appeared in a digital transformation supplement distributed on behalf of Mediaplanet, which member companies of the Technology Ireland ICT Skillnet contributed to.

Few people in business can have avoided the term digital transformation. It has been discussed at length in many forums and its importance can hardly be understated. However, despite its ubiquity, there are still common myths, misconceptions and pitfalls that must be tackled. The first of which, and perhaps the most critical, is that digital transformation is not about technology, but about leadership.

Clear vision for digital transformation

Consultant, educator and author, Niall McKeown of Ionology, says that amongst the most common mistakes organisations make in digital transformation efforts is failing to clearly define into what they are transforming. This, he says, can stem from a failure to differentiate between digitising and digitally transforming, another common pitfall.

“You can’t digitally transform without digitising first,” warns McKeown, but sometimes organisations get stuck on the digital, neglecting transformation aspects.

Clear leadership, to understand the pressures, drivers and the opportunities of transformation must be translated into a precise vision for the organisation that can be easily stated.

This vision must then be communicated as widely as possible to allow everyone in the organisation to understand why transformation is necessary, the major steps and what success will bring.

“Digitising is about practising innovation, leveraging new technology, but with the specific goal of taking a new position in the digital economy. If you can’t take that new position, it is just a transition from where you were,” says McKeown. “If you can articulate that, then internally people will buy in, and externally, existing customers will understand the shift and help you make it.”

Digital transformation strategy

McKeown warns that a unified strategy for the entire organisation is required, not a list of strategies for different parts of the business. “Digital transformation requires a strategic repositioning of the business,” he says.

Resources are a critical element of transformation and their division has a major bearing on success. McKeown reports another common mistake is that while many business leaders understand the greater part of efforts must be dedicated to transformation of the business, and the lesser to technology, often when it comes to material resource allocation, the majority goes to tech.

Leaders must understand, he argues, that people, teams, skills, environment and culture all require major change which will have more impact on the success of digital transformation efforts than any technology deployed.

Dave Feenan, Network Director with Technology Ireland ICT Skillnet, adds that “with strong leadership based on a clear vision that everyone understands and supports, a strong digital transformation strategy can be developed.

‘People time’ is critical for successful digital transformation

True transformation will be disruptive throughout and therefore needs leadership at every level so that each person in the organisation can understand how the part they play will contribute to the overall success of the efforts and the organisation.

Veteran of transformation projects, Dejan Cusic, business director, Ireland and UK at Endava, says empowering someone to lead, from the bottom up, is not enough. “People are used to command and control, therefore, that leads to huge cultural change within an organisation. When you combine that with new technologies in an organisation, often making some roles or existing skills redundant, you are in a very complex change environment.”

Only leaders who are invested in the process, who understand its implications and its ultimate value, can bring people with them. Especially when they may perceive threats to their positions from the likes of artificial intelligence and automation.

Business leaders, McKeown asserts, must continually set aside the time to educate themselves on digital transformation. Understanding the business value of emerging technologies, without getting too deep into the tech itself, is vital for creating new roadmaps and new business models as markets and environments evolve, making transformation part of a cycle, not an end goal.

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