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Driving Successful Digital Transformation with a People-First Strategy

Having a digital transformation plan in place is a fundamental requirement for businesses, especially now that COVID-19 flipped the script on everything to do with how we work. Investing in new technology is the easy part of the equation. Making sure that a digital strategy addresses the real on-ground needs of both internal teams and customers is even more crucial for success.

In a Gartner study, 64% of CIOs pointed to an organization’s culture as a barrier to digital transformation, and BCG found companies that focused on culture were five times more likely to achieve breakthrough performance than companies that neglected it.

That’s why digital transformation is about winning hearts and minds—changing processes and culture by changing mindsets. Each digital transformation journey is slightly different, shaped by a unique combination of talent, operational challenges, and business opportunities.

But, an emphasis on inclusivity is critical. It's important to bring in employees at all levels, regardless of age and or level of digital savviness, along with care and empathy, even if it slows down the pace of change.

Open lines of communication, an emphasis on experimentation, and the ability to focus on inclusivity and incremental change can help leaders overcome roadblocks that may arise along the journey to digital transformation.

Open communication and experimentation

For any successful business strategy, communicating frequently is an essential component of success.

Regardless of how prepared teams are, hiccups are inevitable – like the infamous Murphy’s law. None of this is made easier by the majority of a workforce being remote. Effective, transparent communication is at the core of any strategy that successfully anticipates and addresses technological pain points.

Encouraging open collaboration requires straightforward communication channels and a less hierarchical approach to management. A McKinsey study, for example, recommends turning away from asynchronous messaging (i.e., emails) and looking to interactive platforms like internal social media (think Slack, Teams, or Workplace from Facebook) in order to achieve a flatter management structure and support more effective dialogue at every level.

Openness to experimentation also goes a long way in ensuring organizations are making the right choices. With a system for continuous feedback in place, decision-makers can treat their transformation strategies as an evolving process, seeing how each new investment impacts the daily experiences of both employees and customers. Leaders should champion traits of a startup culture - no matter their size - and focus on agility, continuous learning, and a relentless focus on the customer.

Winning hearts and minds

To support flexibility and efficiency in digital transformation, business leaders should be transparent and clear even when it comes to implementing changes, providing access to reasoning and processes to the entire organization so employees can understand and trust the transformation. This is particularly important during current times, given increased anxiety and uncertainty caused by the pandemic and the need to make enterprise-wide shifts technologically and culturally. Employees need to be given the tools and information to understand and trust new ways of operating.

Though this isn't exactly new advice when it comes to larger technological shifts, it's even more important now to provide an insider's look on decision-making. Company executives must possess that insider's perspective, finding ways to explain and integrate (rather than impose) their vision into processes that already work well. In addition, business leaders need to maintain a willingness to learn and not be wedded to making a specific strategy work without first testing its efficacy. By remaining flexible, organizations can learn which specific investments make sense and how they can best be implemented.

To close this skills gap, each investment in technology should be matched with an investment in training that ensures employees can actually use the new tools provided to them. Otherwise, businesses may end up investing in powerful (and expensive) technology that only a handful of employees will actually use to full effect.

With the right organizational structures in place, business leaders can begin tackling the most common hurdle to digital transformation: a lack of willingness and preparedness to adopt new technologies. Ill-defined changes to the way business is done are often met with fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Effective leaders’ first step should be to dispel these concerns by building awareness, agency, and action within each team throughout their organization. Combined with a culture of experimentation, gradual change can help business leaders reach their goals efficiently, without unnecessary investments in features that teams will be intimidated by and/or simply won't use.

Digital transformation is a collaborative process that recognizes and draws from the expertise of employees across departments. Success begins with clearly communicating the value of new investments, then keeping those lines of communication open to receive feedback and reshape implementation strategies as needed.

With organization-wide support, change leaders can start to deliver value to customers and define their place in a digital future - even during uncertain times.

Pathmal Gunawardana is Head of Americas at Tata Communications.