Digital Transformation is not an IT project

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This article was originally published in German on

Digital transformation changes organizational structures within enterprises, including their social work environments in general and the specific relationships between people and between people and machines. This presents a major challenge to managers. My experience as an interim manager for transformation processes shows: transformation succeeds when the following conditions are met:

  1. Prior identification of shared goals and common denominators
  2. Creation of learning environments and an acceptance of trial-and-error approaches
  3. Establishment of clear guidelines

First Things First: The Audit

Enterprises first need to do their homework before attempting to introduce a digital transformation process. This is because many lack the clear structures and the pronounced commitments to respectful, appreciative forms of communication that are essential to creating a shared basis and preparing team members for the process. That is why managers should carry out an audit before launching a transformation process:

  • How strong is the enterprise’s team culture?
  • Does the enterprise even have a team culture?
  • What sort of management styles are prevalent within the enterprise?
  • Have self-management skills been promoted? Have all internalized the vision?

Transformation processes tend to succeed when responsible teams act in a cohesive manner, as if they’ve sworn allegiance to one another and to a common goal.

Managers often regard transformation as a matter of change management, mistakenly assuming that it must proceed according to a deterministic model. That is why they apply standard methods of controlling. As it turns out, however, these mechanisms don’t work in transformational environments. Digital transformation is not an IT project. Managers must be aware of this. Those who wish to transform a system need to change both the behavior and attitudes of those involved.

Chief Experimental Officer

Leadership style is another crucial success factor. Working in the capacity of a Chief Experimental Officer, managers should embrace strategic creativity and establish learning environments where teams are allowed to experiment and make progress by trial and error. Only those who are willing to experiment have the agility it takes to quickly adapt processes, structures, strategies and technologies to changing circumstances. Experimentation needs to be on the agenda.

This can take place in different contexts. For instance, new systems can be tested on a preliminary basis in individual units, i.e. in small, easily controllable business fields or process areas. Client projects can also serve as learning environments. For instance, advertising agencies and consulting firms often test new digital approaches and guidelines on behalf of clients before introducing them to their own enterprises.

The Transformation Office

Employees tend to be subject to greater workloads and higher stress levels at the start of transformation processes, especially given the additional tasks and a typical sense of disorientation. Managers face the challenge of integrating new processes into daily business routines while providing orientation. Transformation offices (TOs) are especially helpful in this connection. TOs are responsible for making the entire transformation process more transparent for management, employees, clients and other stakeholders. TOs set up the guardrails within which all participants operate. They are project and communication offices, steering committees and the driving forces behind transformation processes.

Recognizing Digital Transformation as a Major Task

Digital transformation is painful. In addition to conducting daily business, employees are called upon to meet new challenges. Securing an appropriate change of attitude requires smart preparation and effective channels of communication. Managers should aim for (and feel responsible for) cohesive employee action and a heightened awareness of the importance of the project and the process.

Once these conditions have been met, the transformation can begin. In this long-term engagement, it is incumbent on those responsible to create an environment in which employees can proceed by trial and error. The transformation office is to provide a framework and serve as a guide. Enterprises often commission external transformation managers to set the stage.

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