How to navigate a digital change programme

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There are certain indicators that suggest a change programme is more or less likely to succeed

Walk into any executive meeting room these days and the word ‘transformation’ is impossible to avoid. For HR professionals a digital change programme can bring up an unexpected array of challenges and issues, especially for organisations with disjointed IT systems, processes and applications, resulting in a highly complex integration process.

Over the years I have found that there are certain indicators that suggest a change programme is more or less likely to succeed. So, for HR professionals who may never have experienced a major transformation, let’s explore the key issues and blockers that commonly arise.

Firstly, any change programme brings an element of risk, and this is particularly true when it comes to digital transformation. Internal processes need to follow customer experience, not the other way round, and this can often mean radical changes resulting in the dismantling of processes and functional roles. As a result, many organisations will have to re-engineer their entire business, find new talent and change their operational structure as they go through this process. Such profound change can be very threatening or even totally overwhelming. Hence, if there is already a culture of fear people will be averse to taking what they perceive as ‘risks’, making it difficult for them to embrace the often far-reaching implications of digital change.

From a leadership perspective, many transformations fail because the senior team doesn’t have the necessary transformational management experience to steer an organisation through this process. If this experience is also missing at board level there will be a lack of understanding from the top echelons of the business about the profound difference between operational and transformational management – in other words, the people you need to transform an organisation will possess a very different skillset to the people who run it. When this lack of understanding translates into a lack of action around assessing, maneuvering, and making the necessary changes to an executive team at the early stages of the programme, the transformation has a high chance of failure.

HR also has a tendency to become part of the problem, especially when it continues to support the old ways of working, processes, and systems that get in the way of being able to innovate and change. Building the right workforce for transformation is more of an art form than a matter of creating rigid processes by which to ‘assess’ people, which is at odds with HR’s natural inclination to ‘processize’ as much as possible.

There are numerous ways to mitigate these risks, and I will talk about the two most important ones here.

Firstly – and I cannot recommend this highly enough – every organisation should be sure to run a talent/capability diagnostic before embarking on the transformation. It’s all very well having a brilliant transformation plan, but if you don’t understand your existing ecosystem and how to bring in the right talent at the right stage it will fail. This critical timing issue can be the difference between the success or failure of the entire programme.

Secondly, ensure you have buy-in from the very beginning, both to the process, and for its outcome. While this may sound obvious, digital transformation isn’t just an operational exercise; it is far more fundamental than that. You could even say that this type of change can be so significant that it becomes a new way of thinking and being. You cannot foist something like this on an unwilling audience. There is always an emotional side to change programmes and it is something that is often underestimated. Yet this emotional component needs to be acknowledged and discussed at the outset when all the challenges and risks of the programme are being considered and discussed. People always have views about large-scale change and if you wait until the end to highlight this aspect, negative attitudes can already be embedded.

But remember, through the pain of it all, a digital change programme is very useful to have under one’s belt. Increasingly senior HR roles require professionals who have notched up this type of experience. So it will all be worth it in the end.

Diletta D'Onofrio is a partner at the San Francisco office of Wilton & Bain

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