Defining digital transformation: Long-term evolution, not just a moment in time

Digital screen against buildings with the sun in the background.

As our world evolves at breakneck speed, the requirements for succeeding in the digital-first era are constantly changing. With such sustained and persistent change, brands can find themselves losing sight of the strategy and rationale behind why they embarked on a digital transformation journey in the first place.

After all, digital transformation is not achieved overnight. In fact, it’s not something that is truly ‘achieved’ at all. Just because digital transformation doesn’t have a tangible ‘end point’, it doesn’t mean it can’t be a fulfilling and ongoing journey — and one that is critical to undertake.

That’s why leading brands don’t view digital transformation as a cliff-edge moment, but rather a continuous evolution, that their entire organizational culture revolves around.

Technology is only one part of the equation

When it comes to the ‘what’ of digital transformation (i.e., what areas of the business are being digitally transformed), there’s no denying technology serves as the bedrock of the entire operation, and often as the catalyst for broader change. But, as with any business venture, technology only forms one piece of the puzzle. The how, why, and who of digital transformation is equally important. Why is that technology implemented, how is it being applied, and who is using it?

These considerations form the four key pillars of any successful digital transformation: strategy, technology, execution, education — and they all carry significant weight. In fact, research shows that the primary barriers to digital transformation are largely non-technical. These blockers revolve around people, structure, and strategy — the biggest hurdles being siloed organizational structure (19 percent), lack of focus on customer needs (15 percent), lack of strategy (13 percent), and company culture (12 percent).

It is for these reasons that brands must escape the notion that technology is a silver bullet to all their challenges. Rather, technology is an enabler — after all, one supporting pillar is not enough to hold up a roof. Conversely, technology is meaningless if it doesn’t align to an organization’s core strategy, or if the people using it don’t possess the proper skills to execute it effectively or use it to its maximum capability.

Leadership’s role in maintaining a strategic outlook

Strategy can often be the biggest pitfall for brands, especially when embarking on a long-term digital transformation journey. As with digital transformation itself, success is not achieved overnight, and it can often take a long time to identify ROI. Without those tangible ‘wins’ to encourage people in the short-term, it’s understandable that a team’s motivation can wane, and why the wider business potentially loses sight of the bigger picture (why the technology was implemented in the first place).

This is where leadership plays a critical role. It’s their job to prevent the business from straying too far from the original digital transformation path, to keep beating the drum of the underlying strategy, and to consistently communicate relevant KPIs and metrics.

And, while it’s the responsibility of all senior leadership to ensure their teams are remaining aligned to their brand’s long-term strategic vision, the overall success of digital transformation is increasingly benefiting from a single advocate or sponsor to carry the torch and keep the business motivated and focused throughout the journey. That is exactly why job titles revolving around digital transformation are becoming more commonplace among innovative and forward-thinking brands.

Education must also constantly evolve

Successful digital transformation relies on all four pillars — strategy, technology, execution, and education — evolving constantly in tandem.

Research has shown that low digital literacy among employees and leadership (32 percent) is actually hampering digital transformation efforts. However, education is often left for later, with little or no budget commitment. This leaves companies vulnerable to failure or limited ROI. Why go so far, only to trip and fall during the last mile?

Successful digital education can’t be achieved with an annual workshop — it must be a daily exercise that is embedded into the core of the business alongside regular opportunities for more formalized learning to consistently expand upon the existing foundation of skills and knowledge. Employees should be encouraged within a culture of continuous learning to test and learn, to put forward suggestions, and to share success and failure in equal measure.

These insights should then form new and creative ideas, and leadership must continue to encourage this process by actively seeking ways to embed employee insights into new ways of working, or openly letting them influence campaigns or projects.

Peter Drucker famously said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Brands need to constantly nurture a culture of learning — both from the perspective of digital capabilities, but also from emerging market trends and conversations with customers — which will ultimately drive long-term, strategic digital transformation success.