Digital transformation is not about technology, but people

By Steve Brodrick, Chief Transformation Officer at Alteryx
Steve Brodrick, Chief Transformation Officer at Alteryx
Steve Brodrick, Chief Transformation Officer at Alteryx
Steve Brodrick, Chief Transformation Officer at Alteryx, explains why it is a mistake to think digital transformation is solely about technology

Earlier this year, I attended the OPEX Week World Summit, a forum for change-makers and digital transformation leaders to discuss important topics such as change management, process design, transformation strategy and operational excellence. I was at the event to talk about how analytics and automation can accelerate those efforts and got to speak to dozens of Chief Transformation Officers (CTOs) from a diverse range of industries, including banking, healthcare and even the US military. 

Several recurring themes emerged from these conversations. First, every forward-thinking company is embarking on a journey of digital transformation, and their leaders are looking to leverage the power of analytics to drive this transformation and create value. Second, these companies all face similar challenges, regardless of where they are in their journey. They are all operating in a period of severe economic uncertainty and are attempting to find the right balance between speed and control. And third, they are all thinking about what foundations they need to lay to thrive in the long term, even while battling to survive in the short term. 

This resonates with new research released by Alteryx examining the current state of decision-making across global enterprises. The challenging economic situation is forcing leaders to deliver answers at unimaginable speeds, but the current pace of decision-making is holding businesses back: the survey of 2,800 business leaders and decision-makers found that, on average, operational decisions take two days, tactical decisions seven days, and strategic decisions take 20 days. Meanwhile, only 24% of respondents are using advanced technology and analytical tools to help make these decisions more quickly and efficiently. Change and transformation is needed now more than ever. 

Across my career, I have learned a lot about successfully managing change, having led transformation at Stanley Black & Decker and now as CTO at Alteryx. So, what advice can I offer fellow transformation leaders during this turbulent time? Here are three principles that have guided the best and most successful companies in the world in their efforts to drive their businesses onwards and upwards. 

Transformation is more than just about technology 

We have all made the mistake of thinking that digital transformation is solely about technology. Of course, technology plays a key role in any transformation journey, but leaders must not neglect or ignore two other crucial elements: their people and their processes. Without having your people on board with change or processes that are aligned with what you’re trying to achieve, no amount of technology will create effective change.  

For example, how does your enterprise handle data sharing and access? The recent Alteryx study found that, while 80% of leaders agreed that access to data improves their own decision-making, nearly two-thirds did not think employees who make decisions for the organisation should have access to data for decision-making; 21% said data should only be in the hands of senior leadership. These findings suggest a culture of data gatekeeping that will negatively impact an enterprise’s ability to collect and analyse data and share insights across the business. 

During my conversations at the summit, the point came up again and again that while businesses need to prioritise generating insights using their data at this current point in time, they must also begin communicating with their workforce about what will be expected of them and they must start optimising their business processes. Without taking these steps, organisations will not be aligned in a way that will support and maintain enduring changes.

Move beyond the survival mindset and build resilience 

During times of crisis, most companies will focus on their immediate survival, prioritising short-term results. But the best companies will also try to implement plans and strategies that will make them stronger and better once the crisis is over. These companies focus on building resilience.  

The past few years have seen several crises, from the pandemic to the supply chain crisis and now to a global economy on the precipice of a recession. In these conditions, leaders can easily develop a “thrive versus survive” mindset. Of course, companies must do whatever will help them survive the challenges they face, but they should also keep one eye focused on building towards a future where they will thrive. Building resilience is critical to this objective. 

When companies adopt a survival mindset, they will focus on the issues immediately facing them. However, these may not be the same things that determine a company’s long-term health and wellbeing - it is equally important to take a long-term view and assess whether your current strategy is sustainable and resilient.  

So how can leaders move past mere survival and towards thriving? Crucially, a company must recognise that while it can do things to create value in the short term, being able to sustain that value may require changing and transforming its processes. For example, an organisation could generate immediate value by adopting modern analytics and automation tools, but creating sustainable value will require it to not just automate a task but to evaluate, change and transform the underlying process. The goal is not simply to bring data together but create new ways of working.  

Companies that look to thrive and build resilience take a deliberate, long-term approach to digital transformation. They recognise that it is hard to engage workers when something is treated as a priority one moment and then forgotten about. 

Similarly, resilience cannot live in one silo or one department. It must be treated as a broad, consistent company quest. Data and analytics play a key role in building resilience, by helping businesses to make better, more informed decisions now and in the future.  

Managing change requires managing people 

What is most likely to determine the success or failure of a digital transformation project? Based on discussions with fellow CTOs, there are two key factors. The first is correctly anticipating how change will affect workers throughout your entire organisation.   

When we discuss digital transformation, the individuals that make up that organisation are sometimes overlooked. Implementing change successfully requires understanding the human psyche and how different people will react to the same changes. Leaders must be empathetic and adhere to strategies that leave no one behind. They must also create an inclusive and understanding environment which respects and acknowledges people’s varying perspectives. 

From initial awareness through to full adoption, leaders must consider the impact of change at every point in the transformation journey. Culture plays a critical role here, as workers need to feel safe and encouraged to raise their concerns. 

The other key factor involves winning the support of senior leadership. Without their buy-in for your transformation strategy, you may struggle to unlock the sources of funding needed for the testing, learning, and innovating that will drive transformational change.   

Failing to achieve both objectives – winning executive buy-in and anticipating how staff react to change – will likely result in transformation projects that fall short of their ambitions. 

These are just some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years in driving digital transformation. Based on my experience, the most sensible place for any transformation project to begin with is the group of people who are closest to the data. By working with them and making them ambassadors for your project, you have a better change of building support with senior leadership and the wider workforce. Managing digital transformation and building long-term resilience can be difficult, which is why it is so beneficial to speak to fellow CTOs.

Steve Brodrick is Chief Transformation Officer at Alteryx 

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