Digital Transformation Through People

Unlocking People Potential Through
Digital Transformation

Often when the term “digital transformation” comes up, our minds go straight to the technologies that are our hopes (and maybe some of our fears) of the world to come. Machine learning, light field holodecks, robotics—it’s the stuff of science fiction. Yet, while the conversation about digital transformation starts with technology, it often comes back to very human questions. How are we enabling people to be part of the digital transformation? How are we getting in the way of the waves of the future? And if we are blocking the potential of our organization, what can we do about it?

Leadership, mindsets, decision-making, collaboration, habits—these end up becoming our focus. And for good reason; these questions are important to ask during any major transformation. For instance, you might imagine the transition from steam power to electricity was transformative for most American factories in the late 1880s. It wasn’t. It took nearly 30 more years before electricity could bring the exponential gains to the economy that were promised.

So what happened? Factory leadership decided to keep centralized designs that clustered machines around a central steam power source…even when the power source was transformed. It wasn’t until the next generation of engineers, who grew up in electrified factories, that factories oriented around a distributed design to dramatically unlock productivity. (That old saying that innovation happens one funeral at a time? Unfortunately true for these younger engineers who had to wait for their supervisors to move out.)

When it comes to digital transformation, innovation happens through people and technology, not just technology. Time and again we see how dramatic improvements in technology have required organizations to fundamentally change how they are structured in order to benefit from that technological advance.

How we hold ourselves back from innovation

Digital transformation is capturing the imagination of organizations and pushing the boundaries of our own human understanding. The promise of machine learning has become a rallying beacon for possibility: cloud computing, facial recognition, digital simulations, and more. We have access to something that humans have dreamed about since they’ve had imaginations: the ability to cross vast reaches of space to interact with people in a different city, a different country, even in outer space. We used to dream about this ability and invent magicians and sci-fi superheroes who could do it, but now billions of people have this capability in the palm of their hand. It can be so much more, but older management thinking rooted in the 70s or 80s is holding us back.

Illustration of person using digital technology

No example can better capture the potential (and limits) of our digital future than in our modern meetings. In a digitally transformed meeting, are you realizing your potential? We’re assuming the answer is usually no. Often we’re multi-tasking—taking a call while driving to another appointment or answering an email in between conversation pauses. When this happens, we are blocking our team’s potential as we see what technology can do on our behalf. We think, “I’ll get more done with the little time I have by ‘appearing’ present while I work on other things.” But the impact is, “I’ll slow down the thinking, make it harder for next steps and actions to be identified, and bring down the overall energy level.”

The modern meeting shows that technology alone doesn’t extend the potential of our organizations. Whether you see technology as a crutch or an accelerant, your intention is what matters. When teams and organizations are intentional about how they live out the promise of a digital transformation, they extend human potential and drive meaningful results. It requires visionary leaders to leverage digital solutions not only to innovate how they recruit, lead, organize, and develop their people, but also in how people work and collaborate, in order to realize the most tangible benefits.

If you want your organization to accelerate and not need to wait for a generation of leaders to step down before true gains can be discovered, what can you do? Here are few ideas to consider that can help you assess how your organization’s digital layer might be extending vs. holding back your organization’s potential.

Discover your digital possibilities

Become aware. Start to pay attention to the digital environments that your teams are working in. Identify your team’s work habits when using digital solutions such as video conferencing or collaboration tools. Assess which habits are extending potential and which are holding the team back from engaging in the work.

Explore. Visit and immerse yourself in a digital lab space to see how digital solutions are being integrated into physical spaces and experiences:

  • Maker spaces like Creation Labs in Pittsburgh, which encourages members to build with and learn from 3D printing, robotics, and laser cutting.
  • Digital showrooms that simulate a digitally integrated experience such as the Digital Capability Center, which showcases the future of manufacturing and supply chain in Chicago.
  • Digital buying experiences like the Adidas Speed Factory that piloted a “pop-up” experience in New York City.

Investigate. Go on a digital field trip. Many companies are now making videos of what the future of certain technologies can look like. Search on YouTube for “future of…” videos in your industry and see what’s out there.

  • CableLabs has a series of videos exploring the future of a number of technologies. This video looks at the future of K-12 education with light field halodecks.
  • Corning has created a series of videos that show how glass can redefine home life and the consumer retail experience.
  • Keiichi Matsudo is a designer in London that creates concept videos for what navigating cities through augmented reality might look like.

Define your digital aspirations

Lead by example. Consider which leadership skills, behaviors, and mindsets you can commit to changing to show peers and teammates what leadership in the digital future looks like at your organization.

Identify goals. Define the ideal digital behaviors and mindsets that are rooted in your culture. The nature of risk-taking, adoption of new technologies, and collaboration will shift in a digitally enabled team environment. For example, consider how to empower your team to flip a mindset from one that views uncertainty as a paralyzing force to one that sees uncertainty as source of opportunity.

Set expectations for management. This includes acknowledging behaviors that might have led to success 10 or 20 years ago, but either don’t support or even hinder digital initiatives today.

Design your digital experiment

Develop your people. Build learning experiences that improve the digital literacy of your teams. UNESCO, the OECD, and many other government organizations and NGO’s are increasingly investing in improving digital literacy in K-12 learners to prepare students for the digital future. Organizations similarly need to improve the digital literacy of their teams in order to capture the value in front of them. More to consider here.

Launch a challenge. India’s Tata Group launches an annual “Dare to Try” challenge. In addition to celebrating all sorts of product and core process innovations, teams are encouraged to reach for an award that “recognizes and rewards the most novel, daring, and seriously attempted ideas that did not achieve the desired results.”

Curate best thinking. Gather diverse types of data and resources from different siloes that can be leveraged as an asset. Think in small- and medium-scale ways how different data sources can be used as a predictive layer for decision-making, inform new product ideas, or tell a story about customer behaviors.

Bring new perspectives. Invite an external speaker to address a digital transformation topic for your organization. Experts within your industry as well as digital leaders in peer organizations across different industries can be good sources of this “outside-in” thinking.

Unlocking your potential through digital transformation

Progress in any organization comes with an inherent tension. Digital transformation promises a connected, mobile, and intuitive future that is extended by the imagination of the machines we work with through an increasingly digital layer. To co-opt some language from civil rights visionary Martin Luther King Jr. this progress will neither be automatic nor inevitable. The willingness to examine our own behavior and how we interact through that digital layer is what will unlock the truest potential of your organization.