Digital transformations: the case for change and why they fail
There is a huge amount of strategic spend on digital transformations against a backdrop of limited success and significant future market growth.
In 2020, the total enterprise spending on digital transformations was $469.8 billion, and this spend is projected to grow to over $1 trillion by 2025, according to data from Research and Markets. And I’m sure by now we’ve all seen the well reported statistic that 70% of transformations fail to deliver successful outcomes.
Whether these numbers hold up in the face of the current global economic slowdown is up for debate, but no matter which way you look at this, the spend is very big and the failure rate is very high.
Why do digital transformations fail?
Much has been written about digital transformation programmes and why real success in this field is elusive. The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation initiatives and there appear to be some consistent themes across digital transformations that do not deliver success over anything beyond the very short term.
The human factors
The most significant factors that lead to a lack of success in transformation programmes revolve around people:
The organisation does not have the culture that is suited to successful digital transformation.
- Lack of a collaborative environment
The organisation may be heavily siloed, inhibiting cross functional collaboration. There may also be a lack of systems/tools in place to encourage and enable individuals and teams to work together and share information freely.
- Fear of failure
Fear of failure not only stifles innovation but slows the pace of change execution. Individuals/teams and functions overanalyse and spend significant time/effort getting bogged down with (often minor) details for fear of getting these things wrong and the inevitable consequences that follow.
- The transformation is seen as an unwanted distraction from the core business
Individuals/teams and functions can perceive the transformation as “just another” new initiative, sometimes overplaying the impact to the core business of delivering the transformation.
Communication and collaboration problems
The style of communication across the organisation does not support free collaboration and information sharing.
- The frequency of communication
The perceived wisdom that more communication is better is wrong and has resulted in many employees suffering from information overload.
- The method and volume of communication
It is not uncommon for individuals to receive many hundreds of emails per day as well as instant messages and telephone/conference/video calls. This impacts directly on the delivery and performance of staff. Clear, unambiguous, and targeted communication is critical during any digital transformation. However, care must be taken to ensure that employees involved in the transformation are not drowning in a deluge of information that is not directly related to the transformation itself.
If the organisation does not have the required skills or does not direct these skills correctly, then the strategy is unlikely to succeed.
- Lack of the right (or the right mix) of skills
The organisation does not have the correct skills, or enough resources with these skills, to deliver effective digital change.
- Roles, responsibilities, and objectives
Staff objectives may not be aligned with the strategic goals underpinning the transformation. Often, the different functions involved in the transformation are incentivised differently, leading to individuals and teams pulling in different directions.
- Digital leaders are not on the top team
The successful execution of any digital transformation requires digital leaders (CDO/CIO/CTO/CXO) to drive the strategy forward. The cross-functional/cross-departmental nature of these transformations requires these leaders to be highly collaborative in their approach.
The organisational factors
Every digital transformation is unique, as each evolves out of the dynamic nature and “ecology” of the parent organisation. Though less significant than the human factors, these elements require serious consideration:
Failures in leadership
One school of thought is that every failed digital transformation is a failure in leadership. However, this is too simplistic a view to be useful.
- Senior executive sponsorship
The transformation needs to be driven from the top and be seen to be driven from the top – the CEO or as close to the CEO as possible. The sponsoring executive must communicate to the entire organisation the reasons why the transformation initiative is of strategic importance to the organisation.
- Strategy and direction are not clear and are not anchored in the businesses core values and competencies
It is important for staff to understand where they are heading and why this transformation will enhance the core business.
- Professional/corporate ambiguity
Ambiguity suits a lot of executives as it allows them to change their mind/approach/delivery scope without losing face. There are some instances where a degree of ambiguity is expected (e.g., vision/mission statements), but if ambiguity exists within the transformation function (particularly with regards to the scope of the transformation), then this will lead to delay, mistrust, and in some instances, failure.
- Complex and sometimes conflicting reporting lines
Accountability and delivery can be compromised by overly complex/conflicting reporting lines.
- Strategy review cycles are too long and are not data driven
The perfect strategy no longer exists, and even if it did, by the time any strategy is executed on the ground the world has moved on. Having a mid- to long-term strategy is clearly still required. However, the frequency with which this strategy is reviewed must increase. Feedback cycles from transformation initiatives may also not exist or do not deliver clear enough metrics to allow strategic initiatives to pivot. Better quality and timeliness of information leads to better decision making.
- The right mix of C-level leaders are not involved early enough
Digital transformation requires cross-function/cross-department collaboration driven by the CEO, CIO/CTO/CDO, CXO, CHRO and so on. Frequently, the technology functions have early input, but HR are either late to the table or in some instances not included at all. Given that the most significant factors that lead to failure in transformation programmes revolve around people, any transformation initiative must have HR involvement at an early stage. The HR function will not only offer assistance with cultural transformation, but also in defining the workforce strategy and identifying skills gaps that will need to be filled to drive the transformation forward.
A clearly defined and limited scope of the transformation is critical for success. More bloat leads to more complexity, more cost, and more delay.
- Scope is too broad
The scope may involve multiple functions/business units or the whole enterprise. 80% of respondents to a recent McKinsey survey said their recent change efforts either involved multiple functions/business units or the whole enterprise.
- Scope is too deep
Transforming the whole organisation’s operating model significantly increases the complexity of the change. Targeted changes to the operating model will be necessary for success (e.g., removing silos) but care needs to be taken to ensure that wholesale operating model change is not in scope.
The perception that digital transformations are principally about, or fail because of, technology is inaccurate. These are human changes, often conducted within the context of organisational structures that do not lend themselves to digital change.
The human – whether that be the end customer, suppliers, or the staff within your organisation – needs to be at the centre of the change strategy.
In short, we need a more human-centric approach to transformational change.
About the author
Brian Harkin is the CTO of Kynec and a visiting lecturer at Bayes Business School (City, University of London).
He is passionate about the intersection of people, technology, and innovation and has developed the Galapagos Framework to help leaders and organisations transform the way they direct digital change.
All opinions are his own and he welcomes debate and comment!
Follow Brian on Twitter @DigitalXformBH and LinkedIn.