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Belinda Gannaway

Digital transformation – sound a bit scary?

Digital transformation. It’s a phrase that gets bandied around frequently. It seems to cover a lot and yet, when you look at it hard enough, not really anything at all unless everyone agrees on its actual definition.

That was just one of the things we pretty much all agreed upon at a recent NM hosted roundtable to which we had invited a whole bunch of companies from the public and private sector.


We wanted to spark a discussion and get everyone to share experiences of what digital transformation, which we perceive as any change inspired or required by the emergence and evolution of digital culture, brings to an organisation.

We had a really interesting group of people in the room with similar roles and shared concerns, experiences and wishes but from a fascinating, diverse range of organisations. The public sector, private sector, NGOs and start-ups were all represented. And without really having to lead the discussion at all, what happened was that a really rather wise, coherent story emerged almost by itself.

Everyone that morning reckoned that one of the problems with a phrase like digital transformation, apart from the fact that it was hard to pin down exactly what it meant, was that it sounds (drum roll, long pause before you come out with it…)

A Bit Dramatic and Scary.

That’s all well and good and looks cool in a Marketing Week headline but it’s a bit of a liability when you’re trying to encourage people to embrace it. It sounds big and unfamiliar and, to a lot of people, terrifying. It can also be pretty foggy. What’s included and excluded? When a phrase is as broad and vague as this one, people project whatever they want onto it.

As the attendees observed, it either injects the fear of God into people or gets used as some kind of hopelessly optimistic panacea. Those things are unhelpful when trying to encourage people to experiment and be rational and appropriate in how they respond to change.

So, as if being scary weren’t hurdle enough in the process of recruiting people into the process of digital transformation, it turns out from the roundtable session that the idea of risk-taking and people’s aversion to that is an issue too. Most people don’t like risk at all.

The discussion of these risks was broken down into three areas:

  • Your company’s policy for digital transformation requires you as an employee to engage in a new balancing act between the personal and the professional. If your role requires you to be yourself, to be personal and to be connected – whilst also representing the company and its values – then how do you know where to draw the line? Can you ask the people who work for you to engage in public conversations when you know there’s a risk they might be criticised personally (and sometimes in an unpredictable and extreme manner)? That’s a difficult call.
  • How do you free people up to try new things? It might still be anecdotal at this stage but we hear more and more of companies struggling to adapt to a new environment, where the people who are most enthusiastic in embracing it are the CEO and the intern. They are at opposite ends of the hierarchy but they both share a licence to experiment, the former being free to do as he or she wishes as the boss, the latter having little to lose. The people in the middle? Not so much. Their professional reputations are at stake.
  • The last and most pervasive area of risk is this. How do you make decisions about completely new situations where there is no precedent. What should be made public and what shouldn’t? Who should have access to what? Who should be allowed to publish what?


For these three areas of risk, the responses – invariably – around the table at our pow wow seemed to be the importance of clarity. We need to be honest and clear about what the challenges are and then address each one. The organisations at the round table set out their challenges – about getting employees to engage online, about re-ordering websites, about changing their brand (we say, don’t change it just invent a fresh one on the side) and then talked about how they could address these changes and recognise, without seeming to lose face, that this was a real challenge brought on by change.

Another fascinating topic that came up was the dissipation of the notion of personal versus professional for staff at every level. The digital age in corporate terms requires a mindshift so now we need to toss out the concept of professionalism having no room for individualism and accept a new paradigm which is personal, official and corporate while also adopting an organisation’s particular code. A clear approach to this should free up middle tiers of employees to feel as liberated as the intern and CEO when it comes to embracing the change.

A few underlying principles emerged too:

  • Be humble, not proud (it’s OK to use someone else’s software and not develop your own)
  • Be honest, not secretive (involve people)
  • Listen and help people who need help (develop collaboration tools)
  • Admit your mistakes and be ready for change (eg if your website just isn’t working)

Let’s face it, none of these are new principles when it comes to establishing good business practice. They are just new within this changing digital landscape.

We came up with the notion that, really, these markers for best practice just add up to what it is like to be an adult in 2014. We all know that the most helpful and often most successful people around are happy to utilise the specialist skills of other. An architect doesn’t build the joists and staircase of a new house, she leaves that to the master carpenter. The new home is created through collaboration with lots of professionals. And when problems arise and the unexpected occurs, the team changes tack and learns from mistakes.

It was interesting to note too that being an adult and being a professional can mean two quite different things. Being a professional has always been about showing your best side and being more concerned about reputation than anything else. It’s a static notion and it’s those kinds of accepted business wisdoms that make change difficult. What was once applicable to professions like medicine or law just doesn’t cut the mustard in our digital world. Being an adult is about thriving and adapting to change and that’s where we saw ourselves now.

We’d like to thank all the organisations that took part in the discussion and we really hope you took away as much from it as we did.

If you’d like to join a future NM roundtable then get in touch with Louise Ash.

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