Digital Transformation needs more than Digital Leaders; it needs a Digital Philosophy

by Jeff Wiener on March 11, 2016

Digital-Transformation-boltAs companies grapple with the emerging realities of the digital age—be it Big Data, or cloud technologies, or social networking and other such services, or constant connection, or virtual presence or what have you—the popular approach to such innovation has been to assign a “champion” of sorts, a digital leader who is responsible for ushering the business forth into this brave new digital world.

Granted these digital leaders go by different names—CTO, CMO, CIO, the sky is the limit really when it comes to official titles—but at the core their jobs are all the same, as ZDNet writer Colin Barker explains: to “be the one person in any organization who shoulders the responsibility for promoting the need for change.”

But according to recent research from executive search consultancy firm Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA), the focus on one champion to usher in an entire digital transformation is exactly where companies go wrong, as truly transforming a business in the digital age will require far more than naming a few new executive positions, it will require a comprehensive digital philosophy, one that starts from the top down.

“It is a mistake to rely on one or two people to execute a digital transformation but too many organisations do this,” said Rhys Grossman, co-lead of the digital transformation practice at RRA. “To execute on this, you need a group of people who all understand what needs to be done and how to do it. One person alone cannot do that.”

Simply put, while the prevailing opinion is that employee considerations such as training, equipping and maintaining an up-to-date knowledge base are the greatest inhibitors to digital adoption, RRA’s research has found the greatest obstacles to digital transformation are most often the corporate brain trust, the high level executives, and the board of directors.

In fact, as Grossman explains, the first step companies (particularly larger ones) will need to take is to assemble a “digitally literate and capable board,” with digital expertise available and “embedded” across all corporate divisions. Again, instead of assigning one hapless individual to wrestle with the leviathan of digital transformation, to battle just an obstacle successfully requires an entire corporate rethink, a new philosophy that embraces this new digital world at its core, not simply as something that can be tacked on later.

Of course most companies, particularly at higher levels, resist such change because its much easier (and safer) to operate with the status quo, to keep things working as they always have. To that end, many businesses become particularly sceptical of new ideas, they develop an aversion to risk and they become comfortable working with tried and tested processes and well-established structures. In such an environment, I already think that the job of CIO or CTO or whatever, is virtually impossible from the get-go.

So how does a company get from “scared of the digital age” to “embracing the digital age”? According to RRA’s research, the first step is to find the right people, forward-thinking innovators who have the ability to disrupt the norm. Second, don’t find too many, as too much change too quickly will undo everything, as haste can be the greatest enemy to enterprise these days. Instead, mitigate discomfort and potential disaster by implementing incremental yet steadily ongoing change, embracing new digital ideas where possible. Third, see what flourishes and what fades, and adjust your business focus accordingly.

In the end while digital leaders are vital for any business to successfully traverse these turbulent waters of change, what is needed more than a new executive here or there is a comprehensive shift in corporate philosophy, one that embraces digital disruption from the top down and works to implement new digital tools, ideas, and services as simply part of doing business.

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