Digital transformation: 5 uncomfortable truths in 2020

Have big digital transformation plans for the year ahead? These obstacles may already be slowing your progress. Here's how to overcome them.
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It’s a new year, and a new decade – and for many of us, that brings excitement and optimism. But digital transformation in 2020 is not all sunshine and roses.

Success this year will require looking at some uncomfortable truths about what’s really slowing – or even stopping – digital progress. Five issues are putting the brakes on digital transformation, and here’s another truth: Most organizations suffer from some version of all five.

Let’s dig in:

1. You don't have the people you need for digital transformation – and you can't go buy them.

Organizations have been looking at the digital talent question like an exciting new recipe: They know they can’t cook it with what they have in the kitchen, but they can go buy the ingredients. The problem is, today’s digital talent market is more Soviet supermarket than Whole Foods:

Today's digital transformation talent market is more Soviet supermarket than Whole Foods.

There’s not much on the shelves. Even with an unlimited budget, certain talent populations are highly elusive, especially in smaller cities.

What can we do?

  • Ruthlessly streamline and prioritize your digital talent needs. What do you really need, and who is the least skilled person who can do it?
  • Map the gaps using data – and consider both skills and behaviors. It’s easy to underestimate the populations you already employ – and to discount the role of learning agility. You may do better reskilling a highly fluid learner with 20 percent of the current skills needed than a passive, process-driven individual with 80 percent of the skills you need. It’s critical to know on a fact-driven basis who is who.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

2. Jobs are going to be fluid for the next few years … at least.

New jobs and new job titles abound and keep morphing, with organizations frantically writing and rewriting job descriptions even as employees craft their roles into something else entirely. As a result, a hugely valuable exercise – capturing how work is transforming – veers into open silliness more often than we’d like to admit.

What can we do?

  • Shift the focus from titles and taxonomy to teams and trust. Endless work on defining “this combination of words means this person does XYZ” is the digital equivalent of … well, I won’t say it, but it involves striking a deceased equine. Instead, think about what teams of individuals need to accomplish – in aggregate – and give them just enough guidance on how to parcel out work to get them going.

Stop "writing your jobs down in permanent marker." The rate of change in digital work is poised to accelerate, not slow down.
  • Stop “writing your jobs down in permanent marker.” The rate of change in digital work is poised to accelerate, not slow down. So make sure your systems and processes around jobs and roles can accommodate constant shifts – and a “minimum viable product” approach to capturing what’s in a job at any given time.

3. The understanding gap between business and IT leaders has never been greater.

Now more than ever, IT and the business need a shared language – the work being done is ever more integrated. Too often, each side sounds to the other like the adults sounded to the kids in Charlie Brown cartoons: “Mwanh mwanh mwanh, mwanh mwanh mwanh…”

IT leaders have embraced a whole new lexicon to keep up with rapid and non-linear technological progress, and business leaders often lack the vocabulary to shape business challenges into well-framed technological questions. On both sides, constant pressure to act like a “next-generation leader” (without the right enablement to do so) often leads to leaders clamming up and not asking the right questions.

What can we do?

  • Make simple, informal communication the rule, not the exception. The hoary chestnut “explain it to me like I’m a third-grader” actually holds up in practice – most popular books, fiction and non-fiction, are written at a ninth-grade level or below. So there’s no shame in saying that your organization’s internal communications – written or spoken – should be written such that a middle-schooler could understand them, dramatically reducing the risk of misunderstanding. Also, have conversations informally and in real time as often as possible. People who speak regularly – and feel safe asking questions, especially in small groups or one-on-one – understand each other better.

Structure matters, too: Is yours strangling your progress? Let's examine:

Melissa Swift is the U.S. Transformation Leader at Mercer, the consultancy helping redefine the world of work. In this role, Melissa is responsible for the firm’s efforts in the areas of workforce transformation, HR transformation, HR digitization, diversity equity and inclusion, and workforce analytics.