So what is digital transformation?

by Trenton Moss on 3 August 2016

Digital and digital transformation are all the rage these days, but they're words that are thrown around frequently with wildly different meanings and methods attached.

Plenty of our clients are also pushing for 'digital', whether that means having a 'digital' team, setting up a 'digital' strategy, or hiring new 'digital' employees. In truth however, those tactics are just a small part of a wider picture. Digital transformation is primarily a cultural change, in particular around product development processes and culture.

The best way to frame this need for change can be summarised by comparing two terms that claim ownership of a lot of the same areas: IT and digital.

What's the difference between the two? At a simplistic level, they're used to describe two different eras of how organisations have aimed to work.

IT and digital are used to describe two different eras of how organisations have aimed to work.

Internal systems

IT carries with it inherently more negative connotations, and this is often demonstrated by attempts to set up and implement internal systems. IT is almost defined by being a slow-moving function, having little strategic say in what they do, and encountering countless obstacles in trying to deliver on unrealistic briefs.

Briefs tend to come from senior leaders in the business, who often define the solution based on the business's needs, rather than what customer needs are. They also often lack an understanding of what's technically best, or even feasible to implement.

Teams from a digital era tend to be multi-functional, with everyone working together to define the best possible solution to the problem. Developers and implementers work closely with senior leaders to discuss how to best implement systems, products, and solutions to better address customer needs.

Product development

One of the biggest areas of change in a move from an IT culture to the digital era is in product development.

In truth, we're finding fewer clients are asking for large, one-off projects to overhaul their product offerings.

Instead, the new approach for digital organisations revolves around being agile and lean, with small and regular iterations and updates guided by customer research that's carried out on a regular basis. This can be as simple as regular rounds of guerrilla research to help inform incremental improvements to products.

Conducting ongoing customer research in this way will help to create a more customer-centred organisation, moving away from business-centred projects to smaller product updates focused on customer needs.

Way of working

Digital organisations are defined by an iterative, informed approach, but to work in a truly agile way requires culture change as well.
The most difficult change in a digital transformation is not about implementing new systems or recruiting consultants. Instead, it's the cultural change for existing members of the organisation. Organisations will need to move from a traditional, siloed structure to one that allows for more flexible working.

This flexibility will need to come from empowering multi-disciplinary teams to solve problems, requiring lots of decentralised control. This will allow for an agile style of working that lets people make mistakes, fail fast and keep moving quickly.

A flexible office space is key here. Gone are the days where IT should sit in suits and ties, sectioned off to a particular part of the office. Instead, people in these roles need to move around the organisation, sitting with relevant project teams and moving across functions more fluidly.

All of this feeds back into a culture that's built around addressing customer needs through empowered staff.

How do you get there?

In truth, none of this is revolutionary. No one wants to be in the 'IT' category, and 'digital' is all about an ideal state of work. The difficulty arises when looking at how you can transform well-established culture, habits, and ways of thinking to be more accepting of change.

Companies are tackling the challenge in different ways. One example is to set up innovation think tanks, with one section of the organisation allowed to work in a radically different way to push forward new customer-centred ideas. It's a stepping-stone to a wider change that simply can't happen overnight.

Regardless of what method you choose, remember these changes won't happen fast. They'll require a level of commitment that rises well above paying credence to the latest buzzwords.

If you believe that your business is in need of digital transformation then check out what we can do for you 

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