How to put people at the center of digital transformation

A collaborative culture with shared goals is key to successful digital transformation. Consider these tips to pave the way for change
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Many businesses saw the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly accelerate their digital transformation plans. Going digital is imperative in the new reality, characterized by hyper-connection and an ever-increasing consumption of online products and services. Even so, many still struggle to understand and apply the concept of going digital in real life.

However, some organizations have failed in their digital transformation journey as they overlooked a fundamental aspect in these times of change ‒ the human factor.

At first glance, it may seem odd that this is considered a factor. Still, digital transformation and innovation are related to profound human transformation. A Boston Consulting Group publication, “It’s Not a Digital Transformation without a Digital Culture,” argues that “like any major transformation, a digital transformation requires instilling a culture that supports the change while enabling the company’s overarching strategy.”

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Foster a digital culture

The concept of digital transformation is much broader than simply adhering to cutting-edge technologies or migrating all activities to the online environment. It rather encompasses various elements, including the integration of technologies, people, and processes. In other words, despite its digital nature, as its name entails, this transformation must be profoundly and directly linked to changes in organizational culture.

There is no point in adopting emerging and trendy technologies if people and processes cannot keep up with the dynamism that they entail.

The main barrier is a closed, hierarchical, and non-inclusive organizational culture that lacks employee engagement or support from executives. There must be a focus on human transformation and shared goals. In this sense, adopting an open culture is an effective way to counteract this scenario. A collaborative culture is a breeding ground for new ideas, experimentation, and continuous innovation.

This may seem like a simple mindset and behavioral shift, but the reality is more complex. According to a Red Hat survey conducted with organizations worldwide in early 2021, 27 percent of companies agree that cultural change plays a major role in the digital transformation process. However, only 6 percent of them have been prioritizing this topic as they go through this journey.

The human factor and an open culture combine to drive innovation by creating an environment where everyone can freely voice their opinions and ideas. The concept of trying something new, failing fast, and recovering quickly helps get new functionalities, products, and ideas off the drawing board a lot quicker.

One such example is adopting Agile or DevOps (or DevSecOps) practices and technologies such as cloud and containers to support corporate transformation processes. The common denominator is a change in the working methods, which must be increasingly collaborative and enable workers to adapt to changes. After all, there is no point in adopting emerging and trendy technologies if people and processes cannot keep up with the dynamism that they entail.

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Create common goals

Digital transformation is feasible only if the entire organization applies the new technology daily and understands its value as an essential tool to keep the business running. For this to happen, the working methods must change, the team’s mission must be aligned, and all members of the organization must share a clear, common goal.

Innovation can easily emerge, and digital transformation can be used when teams are diversified, united, and passionate about the same purpose. With senior management support and associate training, an organization can gradually see its way of working evolve when all members understand and properly engage with the transformation process, with good acceptance and participation in the process. By giving a human touch and placing people at the core of the strategy, changes will flow organically end-to-end.

5 ways to lead people-centered change

Here are some tips to help leaders enable the significant culture change associated with digital transformation:

1. Think big, start small

Many companies fail in their digital transformation because they start with very complex projects. This can cause resistance with people not accepting several big changes at once. Instead, consider having a long-term plan but starting small with a few changes, or doing a pilot program that focuses on specific teams to experiment with something new.

2. Get upper-level management involvement

Associates will usually prioritize and dedicate efforts to initiatives that the C-level considers relevant. Ask for help from executives to cascade the message toward the entire organization and to reinforce the importance of people engagement and collaboration on the digital transformation journey.

3. Provide learning opportunities to associates and avoid imposition

It is crucial to offer proper training. It is equally critical to not pressure associates to change their way of working overnight. Be transparent about expectations, indicate relevant training, and give associates some time to absorb the changes. This approach is key to avoiding disengagement and resistance. Instead, this will help them feel supported and willing to participate in the transformation.

4. Communicate even small successful results to motivate others to engage

After concluding the pilot, share results and lessons learned and start to expand the pilot to other teams. In this way, people will feel more encouraged to embrace this kind of project and collaborate as they see its progress.

5. Look at the right indicators

Measuring digital transformation progress is not only about financial numbers or technical metrics. Organizations should consider factors such as customer satisfaction, team involvement, and acceptance among associates. They should also check other business and people-related aspects, including the level of skills developed to deal with new technologies. This also includes the perception of value and benefits added to the business, especially in less traditionally innovative layers of the organization.

Look at your company, your customers, and your partners and try to see if leaders put people at the center of the digital transformation. This is a good sign that they are on the right path.

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

Andrea Cavallari
Andrea Cavallari serves as Director, Solutions and Technology Practices LATAM, for Red Hat. She has a bachelors degree in Information Systems from Mackenzie University. She also holds an MBA in Business Management from FGV, with an international extension at University of California.