Six People Strategies for Successful Digital Transformation

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Even before the twists and turns caused by COVID-19, digital transformation was top-of-mind for today’s business leaders. Companies everywhere are reimagining their workforces and doubling down on digital capabilities and systems with an accelerated timeline. 

But success isn’t guaranteed. 

In fact, 75% of digital transformations fail to generate returns that exceed the original investment1. Why? Because companies often fall into the trap of focusing on systems rather than people. Leading companies recognize that, in order for their digital transformations to work, employees need the structure, mindset, skills, and vocabulary to support and drive new strategies — from senior leadership to those on the front lines.

Through collaborations with global organizations like L’Oréal, Booz Allen Hamilton, Guardian, and many more, we have identified our top six people-first strategies for driving success in digital transformation. We first published this list in 2018 and have refreshed them to meet this moment. Despite rapid market evolution, they still ring true.

1. Create a Leadership Agenda for Change

Given the far-reaching implications of a successful digital transformation — especially in 2020 — it’s critical to have full leadership support and encouragement from the top. To translate theory into action:

  1. State a bold goal simply and repeatedly. Adopt a simple-but-bold vision for the future, and frame every key milestone — including company updates, staffing shifts, new launches, and training initiatives — in the context of how it is impacting that goal.
  2. Hold an executive sponsor accountable and give them access and authority. This C-suite member must take responsibility to carry initiatives forward and make the organizational changes necessary to bring your goal to life. 
  3. Campaign internally and externally. Reinforce transformation goals by developing talking points and slogans that are easy to grasp and remember. By building a reputation as a tech-forward employer, your company can attract the right tech talent and create an internal culture that motivates employees to drive initiatives forward.

2. Embrace Agility & Uncertainty

Agility is key to success when undertaking digital transformations. Gone are the days of three-to-five-year strategy cycles and two-to-three-year product and marketing innovation plans. Today’s technologies and consumer needs change faster than historical business roadmaps can deliver. 

Winners in this environment learn to adapt and adjust, finding digital equivalents to the traditional processes that guided business thinking and development in the past. This is as much a mindset shift as it is a physical shift in work, as — at least for the short-term — face-to-face consumer interactions have been largely replaced by virtual consumer encounters. 

Take Procter & Gamble, which recognized this need and established P&G Ventures to create new, innovative direct-to-consumer brands. “The disruption of DTC was biting on our heels. How consumers are discovering new brands is different than how we grew up. [P&G Ventures] gives us a more nimble, agile way to get closer to the consumer,”2 Leigh Radford, the initiative’s vice president and general manager, said. P&G Ventures brought us on to offer capability training in digital marketing disciplines, including Facebook and social media marketing, eCommerce strategy, and marketing analytics. As a result, most of its product design and brand creative is done in-house, and leaders across all levels and functions know how to remain close to the customer.

3. Organize Around the Consumer 

The consumer and customer must be at the center of any successful digital transformation. This is the only way to stay grounded in the reality of the market and resist the urge to chase every new trend or platform.

First and foremost, it’s essential to understand your consumers — their tastes, habits, ways of communicating, and pathways to purchase. Leading companies implement tools such as journey mapping, personas, and user research to learn about consumer needs. Then, assess the best way to organize and address your findings through different departments such as product development, marketing, and sales. 

Finally, allow for new injections of people, ideas, and technology within your organization to incorporate new abilities, approaches, and ideas. We’ll explore this further in Strategy 6.

4. Measure & Reward Based on Metrics

Digital transformations often fail to take HR into account, particularly when it comes to managing employee performance against executing on these goals. This is often a severe blocker to real change — if people’s personal goals, compensation, and motivators aren’t aligned with the organization’s, there’s unlikely to be much positive impact.

Update performance management tools to reflect the business metrics and desired behaviors that matter to individual roles, and track the metrics that employee efforts can directly impact. We recommend using “micro-metrics” such as:

  1. Number of digital media A/B tests executed per month to monitor the company’s embrace of experimentation.
  2. Time-to-deployment for new products to measure hours saved by using new coding applications such as React libraries.
  3. Number and scale of manual data processes automated to measure efficiency gains from using Python instead of Excel.

You can further support employees by describing key behaviors and competencies that will help them achieve success.

5. Bring Data to Every Conversation

We believe strongly in “data-driven people strategy.” In practice, this means that hiring, development, and team structure are all underpinned by robust assessments, and the resulting data helps to understand and pinpoint each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. 

GA assessments are built in partnership with top industry executives on our Standards Boards who help define excellence in their fields. By designing and deploying practical skills assessments, we provide employers with a clear and consistent understanding of their teams’ abilities in key high-demand domains, including marketing, data, and tech.

Collecting this data can shape a variety of goals, including benchmarking existing talent against the industry, evaluating job applicants, designing learning paths for employees, and making decisions about organizational structure. 

6. Invest in a Culture of Lifelong Learning

Given the speed at which change is taking place, our recommendation is simple: Companies need to invest in learning, both at the institutional and individual levels. Leaders not only need to embrace new technologies but also build digital mindsets at all levels of the organization to power new ways of working.

Keep in mind: Talent with in-demand skills is not only scarce and expensive but also difficult to retain, so companies cannot rely on “buying” talent alone3. Prioritizing up- and reskilling is a necessary measure in order to transform teams and organizations for the future. “Building” talent through training programs is often a more efficient route to acquire these skills versus searching for them externally. What’s more, research suggests that education is among the most-valued benefits for modern employees, boosting retention, engagement, and loyalty.

Thomas Malone, professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and director of its Center for Collective Intelligence, told Deloitte that: “Many decisions in a company are made by communities — a kind of informal consensus involving community norms. If you want to accomplish almost anything in the world and if you’re realistic about it, you need to be thinking about how to work with [collective community intelligence] to achieve whatever you want.”4

As you build a culture of learning, the foundation of digital transformations, it’s essential that everyone — from the CEO to individual contributors — is involved.

Learn more about how General Assembly can help guide your company’s talent transformation.

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1PwC Front-Office Transformation, Walking the Talk: We prioritize people over technology, and you should, too, June 2018
2Forbes, Big Firms Can’t Innovate: How P&G Ventures Is Dispelling The Myth, April 2019
3Josh Bersin, Rethinking the Build vs. Buy Approach To to Talent, October 2019
4Deloitte, Superminds: How humans and machines can work together, January 2019

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