Digital Transformation: Lead with Culture, Enable with Technology

by Phil Le-Brun, Enterprise Strategist, AWS

All too often the business value of digital transformation is not realised. One on the most common causes is that many are treated as technology projects first, rather than the business culture transformations they actually are. AWS Enterprise Strategist, Phil Le-Brun, explores three habits of successful transformation.

Beyond simply allowing organisations to compete and survive in an increasingly volatile economic and political climate, digital transformations promise a wealth of other benefits. Among these are a path to further growth, more relevant products and services, increased customer satisfaction, reduced delivery risk, and superior employee retention. Those organisations I’ve witnessed becoming more digitally mature are not only reaping the rewards in their own businesses; they are also raising the bar for entire sectors in ways that would be simply unimaginable a few years ago.

Naturally enough, advocates for digital transformation play up these successes, citing example after example of organisations that have disrupted their markets and pushed competitors to the side-lines. Unfortunately, this is not the common story. In reality, too many transformations are failing to achieve some or many of their cited benefits.


The challenge of transformation is more cultural than technical

One of the most common causes I see for the failure of transformation projects is that many are treated as technology projects first, rather than the business culture transformations they actually are. As Gartner highlights, 46% of CIOs identified this culture change as the biggest barrier to scaling digital transformation efforts.

Culture is a double-edged sword, embedding previously successful working practices and rituals, whether good or bad. This makes changing culture fundamentally difficult – a reason many companies revert to changing technology as a substitute. Inertia is created by biases towards the status quo and an over emphasis on the importance of past successes. Without a clear, pragmatic cultural and behavioural change strategy, large scale digital transformations are likely to fail in the face of complacency, suspicion, and hostility.

But before we start to consider a cultural change, it is important to step back and clarify what such a change is designed to achieve. At the top of the list, might be increasing responsiveness to changing customer needs and expectations. Agile organisations embrace new ways of working such as experimentation, true customer-centricity, and autonomous teams that take end-to-end ownership for outcomes. All of these are centred on the need to deliver a better service to customers. They must also appeal to the heads and the hearts of employees if they are to be embraced and effectively implemented.


Any cultural change must also appeal to the hearts and minds of employees if is to be embraced and effectively implemented.”

That said, a successful transformation agenda must differentiate between what needs to change and the long-standing, pervasive qualities of an organisation that continue to make them successful. An ill-considered, indiscriminate behavioural transformation strategy is as big an existential risk to a business as not transforming at all.

Many leaders understandably view such changes with trepidation, given the potential barriers and time and resources required. This can lead to ‘transformation paralysis’ with the scale of the change preventing even the most basics steps forward. So how can this be addressed?

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