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Digital transformation is a concept that has become so mainstream it has morphed into a catch-all buzz phrase that, at best, is confusing. At its worst, it’s meaningless. Truth is, the idea is going to mean different things for different organizations. Think of digital transformation as being “in the eye of the beholder.”

Let’s agree on this much: It ultimately marks a radical rethinking of how an organization uses technology, processes, and people to evolve its business performance and eventually drive profitable growth and customer success. 

But again, digital transformation can be a proxy for a wide range of innovations and strategies as organizations try to stay on the cutting edge. In fact, it can be as much about how individuals work and the cultures of organizations as it is about technology.

So, how ready is your company as you embark upon this complex undertaking? 

There are some key areas that organizations must get right to ensure a successful digital transformation:

Get everyone on the same page right at the start.

Getting any organization aligned with a new initiative – especially large, dispersed enterprises – is a challenge. But it’s also an absolute must for success. Having the right vision and getting the entire organization to agree on the objectives at the beginning is critically important. Now, this doesn’t mean that all the implementation details need to be written in stone. But it does require the right vision. This gets everyone on the same page and creates an understanding about how to realize that vision. A roadmap aligns technology resources and programs to the business strategy. Think of it this way: why start a trip if everyone doesn’t know where they’re going? That results in confusion, frustration, and in many cases, ultimately failure. After that alignment you can start to talk about implementing technologies, structuring business processes, and hiring people with the right skills to begin the digital transformation journey.

Empower a strong internal leader to drive day-to-day activities.

Without strong leadership, transformation initiatives are likely to become confused, lose momentum and fail. A strong, internal business leader is in a unique position to inspire employees and drive a new technological vision to the forefront of a company. Digital transformation requires change at all levels of an organization, so it shouldn’t be surprising that such projects require effective leadership. Remember, digital transformation simply can’t be done in siloed environments.

An enterprise-wide approach needs to be embraced.

Great, you have a plan! Now how do you implement it? Digital transformation doesn’t happen in silos, or piecemeal. Achieving buy-in from executives also is only part of the process. Everyone must be onboard. The most successful initiatives involve cross-functional involvement to ensure that all employees feel they are part of the change and have the ability to offer input. This can be achieved by redefining individuals’ roles and responsibilities so they align with a transformation’s goals. This not only helps clarify the skills and roles the organization needs, but it ensures that employees are included in the process. Far too many organizations build their technology strategies by aligning with the tactics of their business operations. The result is strategic dissonance, as IT resources are not correctly prioritized to meet strategic business priorities. This misalignment leads to new architectural debt. Leaders need to build a technology strategy that unlocks and empowers the organization’s business model to promote and encourage alignment along the way.

Plan for quick wins and celebrate progress.

Here’s a helpful mantra for organizations pursuing digital transformation: Think big, act small, move fast. Thinking big means setting a long-term vision for achieving ambitious goals. Moving fast entails building upon lessons from early efforts to tackle progressively larger and more transformative projects that will fulfill the think-big strategic vision.

But everything starts with acting small. It’s important to take manageable, concrete steps and celebrate progress along the way. This can be done through the implementation of proven technologies that will help reduce perceived risks for skeptical internal stakeholders. It’s critical that these initial, small steps help an organization achieve measurable business value. Then, with these quick wins in hand, business and IT leaders can rally their organization around continued transformation efforts. 

Companies must match technology with human resources. 

Technology cuts both ways. It’s seen both as the biggest challenge and the No. 1 contributor to a successful digital transformation. People (defined as talent and capabilities), on the other hand, are not seen as equally significant contributors to the success of digital transformation.

The new digital reality will probably feel disruptive and uncomfortable for employees. IT employees who used to rack and stack servers and crimp cables may have to become system integrators. Others may be asked to help create scripts so that automation will do some of their work. But the larger point is that digital transformation can often seem daunting. (Like people worrying about “the robots”.) The organization must emphasize the idea that people matter. They’re important. They’re valued. And they’re needed to make this work. That leads us to our next point . . . 

Communication is vital throughout the entire journey.  

A 2018 study by Microsoft found that half of employees are afraid of the changes that digital disruption will bring to their workplace. Frequent communication about the impact and challenges of digital transformation can quell those fears and motivate employees to embrace change with confidence. Frequent, two-way communication throughout the entire process ensures that individuals understand the changes that are occurring and what their role is in helping to achieve a positive result. The ability to share their feedback allows individuals to ask questions, express frustrations, and learn from shared experiences. This can take place one-on-one, in team meetings, through online discussion forums, and in larger town hall gatherings.

Measure what matters.

Choose KPIs that you can measure easily. Don’t try to build a KPI hierarchy. Select a limited number of metrics to track, report and act on. If you’re trying to measure too much, you’ll become overwhelmed by the data. The value of a metric lies in its ability to influence business decision-making. When an organization is not aligned around cross-functional metrics, each group has a set of objectives that are frequently in conflict with each other. Then, the business value of the digital transformation won’t be achieved, and executives and the board will ask why so much time and money went into a black hole. And the old axiom is true: what can’t be measured, can’t be improved.

Digital transformation, for any organization, requires both a cultural and behavioral shift. In many ways, it represents a frame of mind for both individuals and the organization as a whole. Riding the wave of change can be tricky for leaders. It requires finesse. But it can be much more manageable if the right operational insights are constantly visible throughout the organization and constantly reinforced in a positive manner. Putting people first while also working with technology innovations will unlock the company’s full potential, change behaviors and produce measurable results that will keep your organization on the cutting edge.

Digital transformation doesn’t come in a box — or a cloud. It starts with people, first.

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Lalit Singh
Lalit Singh
Lalit Singh is the Chief Operating Officer at Udacity. Prior to joining Udacity, Lalit led the digital transformation of HPE’s software business from on-premise and disjointed systems to the seamless and scalable cloud and SaaS-based architecture. Lalit began his career at GE across leadership roles in Customer Service, Engineering and Lean Six Sigma. He holds a B.S. in Electronics Engineering from Lucknow University and MBA in Finance and Marketing from Indian School of Business, India.