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Digital Transformation Can’t Be Forced, But It Can Be Coaxed

Digital Transformation Can’t Be Forced, But It Can Be Coaxed

Mike Fitzmaurice, VP of North America and Chief Evangelist at WEBCON.

I have a love-hate relationship with the term digital transformation. It’s not a bad idea—quite the opposite—but the term has been so overused that it’s hard to pin down. Moreover, every consultant and vendor promises that digital transformation will magically occur if one simply buys the right product or engages the right people.

It’s not that easy. And if it were easy, it would be meaningless. Digital transformation is organizational transformation assisted by digital technology. It involves better-connected, better-informed, better-organized and better-coordinated users. It involves extinguishing learned helplessness and rewarding initiative.

It’s not easy.

What Not To Do

Some companies appoint a new chief transformation officer—someone whose job is to figure out which technology is needed and where to deploy it. They read a lot. They seek the help of analysts and consultants. They propose bold programs to push change. And, after spending a lot of money and time, they often fail.

Users tend to resist this stuff. Some try, in good faith, to embrace these initiatives—at least at first. You might be lucky enough to have staff members who want to go along with such efforts, but they’ll need help, and a small team of planners will not be able to operate at the scale needed to provide it. When top-down change initiatives fail, it is often because they inherently lack two critical things: ground truth and a sense of participation.

There’s a long-standing cliché that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. The truth on the ground is sometimes radically different from what was expected, and even when it’s only subtly different, that subtlety seems to matter more than one might think.

More importantly, digital transformation isn’t about having employees do something different—it’s about having them become something different. That can’t happen without their proactive involvement.

What To Do Instead

If top-down efforts fail, you’ll anticipate an appeal to a bottom-up approach—and for the most part, you’re right. But the reason you’re right matters.

Organizational transformation is everyone’s business. If you want to combat learned helplessness and want users empowered to innovate, you need to get them to identify problems and propose solutions. Digital transformation is the effect; the cause is a change in people, and you get that change by having them involved in their own destiny.

Certainly, the needs and plans of upper management must shape the questions being asked and the innovation sought. But when it comes to specifics, the only way to get ground truth is to ask—and observe—the people who live there. The only way to get them to feel a sense of ownership for organizational improvement is to ensure they helped create it.

And most importantly, the only way to ensure there are enough resources to help with innovation adoption is to make sure plenty of people have a stake in its success.

What A Transformation Effort Can And Should Be

Make no mistake: The pendulum can swing too far in the other direction—a cacophony of one-off efforts to make tiny improvements runs the risk of corporate chaos. Again, the key concept is participation, and with this comes cooperation, coordination and collaboration.

The problem with ground truth is that there are many different ground areas, and they likely aren’t in communication with each other. What’s more, there’s a very good chance rank-and-file employees, middle managers and other stakeholders are very good at identifying a problem, explaining it and perhaps even identifying its root causes. But—especially for a problem suited to a digital solution—they may not be especially good at knowing how to solve it.

That’s when it comes time for both transformation officers and upper management to participate. If upper management is responsible for the why, and employees on the ground are responsible for the what, the transformation officer (and IT and subject-specific centers of excellence) is responsible for the how.

The key is determining what shape these solutions will take and how they’ll be achieved, which technology can be of help and, on a case-by-case basis, whether it’s something to subscribe to, something to buy or something to build.

It will indeed involve a chorus of individual initiatives, but the magic lies in optimizing, coordinating and orchestrating them.

The Last Part Is The Hardest

A lot of applications are going to need to be created. Some can be subscribed to, some can be outsourced, some can be purchased and a lot will need to be built. Many talented organizations get this far. But there are three remaining challenges, and they aren’t trivial.


One-off efforts that appear and behave differently solve individual problems but cannot contribute to an overall leap forward. Tactics should serve strategy. New applications need to be delivered at scale and in a way that feels familiar. It’s the only way to cut down adoption time and create a shared digital language everyone in the organization can speak.


If nothing else, this alone explains the reason for a coordinated approach to transformation. Someone has to impose constraints, ensure best practices, harvest successes for reuse, examine failures for lessons learned, ensure compliance is taken seriously and protect data, physical and intellectual property. The right tools, talent and technique matter.

Feedback Loops

If innovation is to be continuous, participation must be perpetual. The more everyone participates, the better they get at it, and the more comfortable they become with change. That only happens if participation is rewarded, and the best reward is not just to listen but to respond—and rapidly.

In Conclusion

Digital transformation is organizational transformation, and that requires the organization and everyone in it to do their part. Neither a top-down command-and-control approach nor a plethora of individual one-off tactical patches are going to cut it. To make this work, organizations must organize. And participating in that effort is everyone’s business.

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