Digital Transformation is Not About Technology

Technology is just a part of the larger equation


Jimmy Soh

3 years ago | 13 min read

An effective digital transformation encompasses the entire spectrum of business and technology elements. What I have found surprising after moving from a technology-oriented to a business-oriented environment was the significance of technology in driving digital transformation—it’s much less than I thought, whereas there’s a huge dependency on business and people elements to ensure an effective transformation.

The two worlds: business and technology, are becoming more intertwined together such that it’s difficult to talk about one without talking about the other.


The shift in the environment

I recently moved from dealing primarily with machines to humans. Instead of writing scripts, codes, and managing infrastructure, now I’m writing and designing more proposals, road maps, screen flows, and managing stakeholders.

The new environment focuses more on art rather than science to move forward and succeed. Skill sets such as understanding psychology and communicating effectively became more important, as compared to being technically adept and managing project timelines.

The common theme, however, was that both of these environments have the primary goal of driving digital transformation. I realised that to transform successfully, organisations have to move beyond seeing business and technology as a different unit.

Two sides of the same coin

Previously, I thought that the proper execution of transformation road maps and successfully delivering products and solutions that customers love constitutes an effective transformation. However, that was just one side of the coin.

So far, I have learned some of the important elements of the other side of the coin that contribute significantly to effective digital transformation. They are:

  1. Decide on the business strategy—form the north star to guide downstream decisions
  2. Establish metrics and incentives—progress and win together as an organisation
  3. Design around the customer—design experiences from the outside in
  4. Manage change at the various layers—address the fear of replacement and additional workload
  5. Choose the right mix of skills—create and foster a digital culture

Without an adequate focus on the abovementioned elements, digital transformation initiatives would be an uphill challenge for most organisations.

I will further elaborate on the lessons below in the context of large organisations. These elements are less overlooked in startups and SMEs compared to large organisations due to the size and scale of their operations. Digital transformations are generally more challenging when there are more factors and areas to consider.

Decide on the business strategy

Set the north star

The overall vision serves as a north star to guide further downstream decisions made by executives without having the need for constant realignment and clarifications.

The importance of having a concrete vision communicated are highlighted in examples in the military and airline industry.

In the military, there would be briefings before the battle, and the commander would usually communicate the main objectives, e.g. capture a hill at X hours, and leave the rest to the downstream commanders to plan and work towards achieving the objectives however the way they prefer. The reason is that during battles, there would often be unforeseen circumstances that could change the battle plan—but the objective remains the same.

The objective can still be captured despite the changes in the battle plan because the commanders on the ground are clear on the mission objectives, and are able to adapt their tactics to achieve the goal.

In the airline industry, I recalled a story about an airline’s CEO having the vision to become the cheapest airline in the world. The vision is then communicated to the downstream stakeholders to make effective decisions that align with the vision. Decisions became much easier to make and is clear across the various layers. All one has to do is ask oneself: “Would swapping an egg sandwich with tuna sandwich enable us to become the cheapest airline in the world?” If the answer is no, then it’s clear on the actions to take.

Both examples illustrate how the alignment of vision throughout the organisation helps to reduce confusion and aid downstream decision making.

Approaches and tools

There are a couple of approaches to establish a north star for your business. Popular approaches include engaging an external consulting agency to conduct an assessment and advise leadership, conducting an internal workshop among leadership to establish deliverables, or it can be a combination of the two.

I usually prefer a combination of the two, because the external consulting agency provides a broad range of expertise and knowledge (which the business doesn’t usually have), and the business provides the context and situation on the ground (which the external consulting agency lacks). The combination would enable both approaches to complement each other’s blind spots to cover more ground.

I recalled being part of a workshop that involved external consultants and military leaders, and one of the main deliverables was to come up with a vision for the battalion.

The vision was communicated in the form of drawings and sketches with underlying significance and rationale for each object in the illustration. Today (after more than five years), the image of the vision is still clear in my mind. The external consultants provided the approaches and tools, e.g. use sketches to communicate vision, while the leaders provided the context.

A workshop can be conducted to involve business leaders and consultants to work on delivering outputs such as (non-exhaustive):

  • Mission and vision statements
  • Key strategic priorities
  • High-level road maps
  • Operating model

The abovementioned deliverables serve as inputs into the subsequent stages whereby departments and teams divide and conquer via their own respective workstreams.

Potential pitfalls

The north star should be clearly communicated to the team and have minimal adjustments after it has been set. Having an unclear and constantly changing north star would likely result in confusion, burnout, and wasted efforts.

Establish metrics and incentives

Grow and win together

Achieving a transformational goal in an organisation often require the involvement of stakeholders from multiple departments and teams. To bring everyone together onboard your transformational journey, it’s essential to consider metrics and incentive systems so that everyone wins together.

Each department/team, e.g. technology, design, HR, may have its own KPIs. Depending on the operating model (established during strategic planning), your digital transformation program would likely have its own set of KPIs, e.g. adoption rates, daily active users, operational efficiency, etc. There needs to be a tagging of program KPIs to the team’s KPIs such that they would have skin in the game. Sometimes, team restructuring or secondment arrangements may be required.

The setting of target metrics is an important exercise because the incentives often determine the outcome of programs and projects. The exercise would have to be done as early as possible, i.e. during product/transformation roadmap planning. Starting the performance measurement exercise late in the project would result in a failure to capture relevant data/metrics in the product or processes, e.g. incorporating usage analytics into the product, tracking change requests in a document/tool.

Having clear performance metrics for digital transformation projects would also give you a better idea of the types of team and skillsets required for success. Metrics can also be used to benchmark progress and allow you to make the necessary adjustments (to metrics, processes, or both) to improve execution results—which leads to success and subsequent funding for further initiatives.

Approaches and tools

Measurements can occur at several layers, e.g. organisation, project, customer, individual, and there are various tools at your disposal. Here are some examples:

It’s also essential to recognise and celebrate progress and small wins. There are some KPI frameworks that measure progress on top of the results, which can boost team motivation and morale to sustain in the long-run.

My team used to receive shopping vouchers and celebratory drinks upon achieving project milestones. I have found these mini-recognition gestures helpful in promoting team motivation—albeit a short-term one. However, small things do add up over time to become big things such as closer team bonds and culture.

Potential pitfalls

It’s easy to overlook the “how” segment while focusing on the “what” while planning your metrics and KPIs.

For each metric, be sure to decide beforehand on how to measure them and obtain an “as-is” metric as much as possible, to benchmark against future targets. Some of the “how” require you to design systems and products to capture the relevant metrics.

Also, teams onboard the transformation journey together should be incentivised in one way or another or there would be a high amount of resistance, resulting in prolonged delivery or stagnation.

Design around the customer

Human first

Businesses revolve around the customer, and the customer is often the reason for the businesses’ existence.

Today, with the proliferation of competitors and emerging disruptors, customers have options to move whenever they feel that they are unsatisfied with a company’s service or product.

There are usually two camps of thoughts with regard to prioritising digital solutions within an organisation:

  1. Design and build a product in a way that benefits the company—cost savings via architecture governance and reusable solutions
  2. Design and build a product that people will love—increased revenue via adoption and customer retention

Both of the above factors have their merits and it’s up to the organisation to decide which is more important at the point in time given its situation—it’s a delicate balance.

Generally, technology should follow and adapt to the business and not the other way around. There would be little use to no use of technology when there isn’t much customer adoption rate.

Approaches and tools

To effectively prioritise customer experience (CX) into the transformation journey, it’s recommended to first include improving experiences as part of the strategic objectives to be communicated to the rest of the organisation.

Subsequently, the relevant project execution plans can involve the CX teams to conduct design sprints and workshops to validate product designs before moving onto solution delivery. In these related projects, CX should take precedence over other factors.

Potential pitfalls

Often, solution delivery teams jump straight into building a solution without conducting proper user research and surveys to understand the actual needs of the user. Some of the common reasons are 1) the timeline is tight and user validation can be done after the “prototype” has been built, and 2) delivery teams have “CX designers” to ensure that the solution is usable.

In many cases, “prototypes” which were built to prove a concept ended up moving at a quicker pace or straight into production (using the same codebase). Unless there are strong governance measures in place, the solution is likely a house of cards—which could become unusable to the customer.

The priorities of a delivery team are often to ship products quickly, and although there may be actual CX designers (not to be confused with frontend developers/designers), the voice of the designer is unlikely to be influential enough within the team. A dedicated CX team would usually be more effective in influencing the product experience.

Moving too quick into delivering a technology solution without going through design sprints would likely result in 1) constant repivots due to false starts — leading to team burnout, and 2) a “Frankenstein” solution that has no clear target audience.

Manage change at various layers

Break habits and ditch inefficient ways

Transformations are usually challenging and can often be painful. Digital transformations are in a different league, where human and technology become intertwined and having to progress and transform together as a single unit.

Imagine yourself undergoing a transformation to become physically and mentally stronger to achieve a goal of becoming a national bodybuilder. The journey from a regular guy to a bodybuilder with huge muscles and winning championships requires significant changes to your habits, routines, and mindsets, etc.

At the individual level, you’ll probably start planning your transformation strategy, milestones, diet and workout plans, investments in equipment and coaching, and a whole list of things to do. It takes time and effort for proper transformation, and for transformation to be sustainable, it’s usually gradual to avoid burnout.

If you look at the organisation level, there are individuals, teams, departments, divisions and the organisation as a whole; essentially, individuals at scale. The types of challenges that you would be dealing with are generally similar to the individual level, except that there are some nuances when scaled—mainly due to group behaviour, i.e. politics, influences, and variations in ideologies.

Back to the example of the bodybuilding championship, to take the transformation digital, you’ll have to look at weaving in digital technologies into your entire process to optimise your sponsorships, enhance and maximize your workout routines, save costs, etc. The goal of digital is to eventually allow you to progress at a faster rate with better results—doing all that at a lower cost.

There are various layers in which you’ll be able to incorporate digital technologies to help you achieve the above. Here are some examples:

  1. Strategic marketing via social media—document and share your bodybuilding transformation journey with the hopes of reaching the eyes of a sponsor or partner, e.g. nutrition/mass gain producers to accelerate your growth
  2. Operational core efficiency via productivity apps—use a calendar app to effectively manage and plan your routines and schedules, track and measure workout progress via health apps, etc.
  3. Financial cost optimisation via apps and innovative product packages—engage with global trainers remotely via online video streaming workouts, conferences etc. and research on gym pass package deals to optimise costs
  4. … and many more

To successfully leverage digital technologies, there are adjustments that you’d have to undergo, i.e. skills upgrade, ditching of old “tools” and mindsets, etc. Likewise, the list of changes with the incorporation of digital technologies would be quite similar at the organisation level as well. Some nuances include working alongside old and new technologies, people with different levels of digital savviness and learning curves, etc.

Managing change is a delicate process, and depending on factors such as the strategy, e.g. cold turkey (reorg), a gradual process (transform), and organisation size, etc. there are various ways to transition to digital.

Approaches and tools

Although the approaches and tools can vary depending on organisational factors such as industry, size, etc. Below are some key approaches that you can prioritise and incorporate them into your transformation plan. At a high level, they are:

  1. Build capabilities for the future digital workforce—hire, train and empower people in new ways of working
  2. Upgrade processes and tools—plan and implement workstreams to transition and upgrade systems and architecture to cater to new processes
  3. Communicate changes and updates frequently—schedule meetings with relevant stakeholders to obtain feedback, highlight key issues, and make changes to change management plans when necessary

As mentioned previously in #1: Decide on the business strategy, I have found workshops the most effective way to establish approaches and plans around managing change. Some of the deliverables include:

  • Change and stakeholder management plans
  • Governance structure and architecture
  • Training plans
  • Communication plans

The right combination of some of the abovementioned approaches and tools would enable you to move forward and deal with changes in an objective fashion. However, the devil is in the details, and in reality, change management involves more art than science—with human psychology being at the core.

It’s also important to understand the limitation of the frameworks and tools with regard to change management, and sometimes it’s necessary to exercise some discretion, empathy and understanding when issues arise.

Potential pitfalls

Throughout the transformation process, there would likely be some “skeletons in the closet” uncovered. Detailed analysis of as-is processes may surface existing process inefficiencies and lapses, system vulnerabilities, flaws and gaps, lack of governance, etc.

Leadership and management must be prepared to manage and handle such situations delicately, as these findings can elicit strong emotions, e.g. fear, resistance, etc. from stakeholders within the organisation—and eventually affect transformation progress.

Choose the right mix of skills

Rally the people

The current business landscape is constantly changing and becoming more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) with rapid digitalisation across organisations. The combination of skill sets and team members that got your organisation to where it is today may not necessarily bring your organisation forward to achieve success tomorrow.

For example, today’s digital environment requires candidates (digital natives) that are properly equipped and conditioned to think and operate digitally. A VUCA environment requires constant innovation—achieved via a diverse and inclusive team culture—to remain competitive.

The acquisition of skill sets can be done via an organic (training, promotions), inorganic (external hiring) approach or a combination of both. You’ll gain more diversity and a broader range of perspectives via a combined approach; the caveat is that you’ll have to manage the team culture properly through selective hiring, e.g. involve the entire team in interviews, etc.

To determine the skill sets that you require, it’s best to refer to the operating model, e.g. Spotify model established during #1: Decide on the business strategy to see how your team fits into the entire business. A strong team should have complementary skill sets (with clear boundaries, e.g. primary/secondary skills) and may not necessarily require everyone to be rockstars—too many rockstars can potentially result in conflicts.

A substantial emphasis should be placed on choosing the team leader, as the s/he would set the foundation and culture of the team. Ideally, for digital transformation projects, leaders should have 1) ample experiences in digital and, 2) are open-minded to absorb inputs from others. Based on personal experience, those two are some key traits of leaders who have led successful digital transformation projects.

Investing in a good team with the relevant skill sets can make or break a project. A strong team can turn an inferior idea/plan into a success, whereas a weak team can lead a fantastic idea into a failure.

Approaches and tools

Hiring and retaining talent can be an extremely challenging task considering the scarcity of digital talents and increasing demand and competition.

I have found the following four steps to be effective in attracting and retaining good talent:

  1. Focus on building an influential culture and community
  2. Provide meaning and recognition
  3. Illustrate prospects for the role
  4. Visit and recruit from tech hangouts, events, and online

The details are explained in my previous article on “How to Attract Top Talent”.

You can also find some examples and references to build your own operating model at McKinsey Digital’s website. Your operating model would form the foundation of your team setup and serves as a guideline on the types of skill sets you need to hire for your team.

Potential pitfalls

The increasing demand for skills and talent can lead to “desperate hiring”, whereby the hiring manager simply qualifies the candidate as long as it fills a slot within the team to cater to demand.

Without involving the team members in the hiring process and listening to feedback can lead to hiring unsuitable candidates that would “taint” the teams’ culture—potentially causing a negative feedback loop which can be detrimental to the team and lead to churn.

Also, in today’s digital environment, the number of years of experience a candidate has doesn’t always translate to capability. In fact, experiences could lead to close-mindedness. Sometimes, a fresh candidate with an open mind to absorb and synthesize new knowledge can become a more useful asset compared to one with many years of experience.


Thanks for reading up till this point. I’ve summarised the five elements into the following groupings below:

  • Strategy: Set a clear business direction and build technology around it
  • Incentives: Measure, track and recognise progress
  • Guidance: People, product and process have to move together in tandem
  • Focus: Design solutions around humans
  • Skills: A great team can turn an inferior idea/plan into a successful initiative

Lastly, below is a diagram that summarises the impact and significance of each element.

Image by Author
Image by Author

A successful digital transformation involves the effective execution of all the five elements described in this article.

Article originally published on medium.


Created by

Jimmy Soh

In perpetual beta—playing at the intersection between digital technology and business.







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