Are people really the key to digital transformation success?

People drive transformation in their companies, not technology. Success depends on the perfect balance of skills, experience and personal traits

Illustration: Sara Gelfgren

It’s long been said that people are the key to successful digital transformation. Given the failure rate of such projects, it’s clear that many companies aren’t getting the right talent onboard. 

The overwhelming majority of transformation projects aren’t completed on time or within budget, or simply fail. It’s not hard to see why – far from being a simple upgrade to a company’s operating systems, digital transformation involves a complete overhaul of an organisation’s ways of working. 

So what kind of people can make this happen? Professor Christopher Tucci, director of Imperial College Business School’s Centre for Digital Transformation, breaks talent down into people with digital skills and those with legacy skills around older IT systems, hardware and software. 

“You need people with digital skills, including senior executives with an awareness of technology and a vision of where digital transformation will take the organisation,” Tucci says. “But when we talk about people being the key to successful digital transformation, I think it’s those with legacy skills who we are referring to.”

A question of culture

What does this mean? One of the biggest challenges of digital transformation is convincing everyone in the organisation to engage. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, many people are naturally resistant to change. Some might worry that digital transformation will lead to automation, replacing their jobs. 

Legacy skills are key to bringing these people onboard. Employees with such skills can readily identify with more familiar ways of working, helping to support and guide others through the transformation. 

“That’s not an easy proposition, which is why it takes so long for companies to implement these things,” says Tucci. “A lot of efforts have been unsuccessful because companies have been too focused on the digital skill recruiting element.”

Others argue that it is culture rather than talent that influences the success of digital transformation. “Organisations have thrown money at the situation by hiring ‘the best of the best’, yet the dial on being more intrinsically digitally or data-driven hasn’t shifted,” says Emma Robertson, chief executive at Engine Transformation.

Involving everyone who can add value means more ideas are generated and implications are more easily spotted and understood

Robertson thinks an organisation’s culture should enable talent to thrive and drive progress forward. The commitment to change, the empowerment to take risks, and the alignment to a shared goal and purpose must emanate from leadership and throughout the business. “Without it, digital transformation will fail, regardless of the calibre of talent you bring on board,” she says.

For some, the failure rate can be traced back to a single issue: a lack of genuine company-wide collaboration. All too often the task of implementing change falls to one siloed team or dedicated task force and falls flat as a result. 

Dr Gero Decker, co-lead at Sap Business Process Intelligence and the co-founder of Signavio, cites the “Wikipedia effect” as the perfect illustration of why successful digital transformation must engage everyone within the organisation. In the days of old-school encyclopaedias, knowledge was curated by a few experts who determined which information was relevant or important. With Wikipedia, everyone can contribute and collaborate, so knowledge sharing has exploded; it’s no longer limited, outdated, or unilateral. 

 “The same principle must be applied to digital transformation. Involving everyone who can add value means more ideas are generated and implications are more easily spotted and understood,” Decker says.

Skills for success

But even with a culture that supports organisational change and effective collaboration, having the right people, with the right skills and attributes, in the right roles for any given transformation project is pivotal to a successful outcome. And right now, people with good experience in digital transformation can be hard to find.

According to Pete Hanlon, chief technology officer at outsourced business communications provider Moneypenny, the best people to lead a digital transformation are those who are comfortable with change, operate well in a fast-paced environment and can make quick and pragmatic decisions.

“They will have excellent communication skills to communicate with both stakeholders and the wider business, coupled with a holistic understanding of the business: where it is today and needs to be in the future,” he says. “Most importantly, they are resilient, which is critical given that digital transformations can take years and there will be many setbacks and evolutions along the way.”

Experience in supporting and leading change in more than one environment is essential, as is the ability to combine knowledge of all aspects of digital – such as Robotic Process Automation, chatbots and machine learning – with an understanding of business processes and operations.

Avoid the rock-star CDO and focus on catalytic talent and leadership and a culture of transformation that operates as an integrated hive, rather than a top-down hierarchy

The recruitment criteria also depend on the seniority of the role. At board level, candidates don’t necessarily have to be digital natives, but they will need to understand the importance of effective data use and the value of empowering skilled people to make decisions at the coal face of the transformational processes.

However, James Hallahan, director at Hays Technology UK & Ireland, advocates recruiting candidates based on their attitude, potential and willingness to learn, rather than simply their qualifications, skills and experience. Focus on the essential skills and experiences required over those that are merely desirable. 

“Striking a balance between technical and soft skills will stand potential staff in good stead to adapt to technical change, both now and in the future.”

People power

High-performing digital transformationalists also need exceptional people skills, arguably one of the most important attributes. Much of their job will involve communicating and engaging with other individuals within the organisation, gathering crucial information on the progress of the transformation project to make any necessary changes.

 “Many businesses are still migrating from legacy systems to the cloud, managing large-scale change programmes, and others have an increased need for experts in cybersecurity and software developers,” says Hallahan. “In short, the opportunities for IT professionals have probably never been better and many may be tempted to move, meaning competition for that talent is high.”

In the current climate of skill shortages, organisations need a compelling talent acquisition strategy. Clarity around values and culture is essential, along with an attractive package of benefits. Professionals are still motivated by salary, but other elements can also be important, such as greater flexibility, remote working, career development opportunities or a particularly interesting transformation project.

Hiring the right people makes a huge difference to digital transformation success, but as Robertson points out, they must have the potential to deliver exciting change. These include digital leaders, tech architects and visionary data scientists: people who can amplify a company’s assets, leverage the full breadth of skills available to them and mobilise teams through leadership or subject matter expertise.

“Avoid the rock-star CDO and focus on catalytic talent and leadership and a culture of transformation that operates as an integrated hive, rather than a top-down hierarchy.”