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The key to digital transformation is people, not technology – this is why

In its simplest definition, digital transformation is nothing more than change by technology. It is the exercise of improving existing business processes and supporting the emergence of new ones by making use of (new) advanced hardware and software technologies, tools, platforms and applications.

Name an industry and anyone can find a job description or job title that entails digital transformation as a role or responsibility. After all, it is easy to agree that businesses in virtually every field understand the importance of advancing with technology in order to meet their evolving market realities and continue to operate and deliver value to customers.

However wide-spread digital as a topic within business strategy is, it is still a challenging matter within organizations. And the reason why highly skilled digital transformation teams with advanced technologies fail to bring about change is more often than not the same: the varying degrees of digital literacy outside the boundaries of their teams’ silos.

Digital capability building is, therefore, the exercise of bringing people into the digital transformation equation and sending out a message that it is not all about changes in technology, but also about enabling and empowering people to carry on the change while focusing on outcomes and consistently delivering value.

Therefore, in a wider-scope definition, digital transformation can also be seen as change by capability, for only a mix of skills, knowledge and understanding of the role of technology in supporting business functions can establish an organization-wide digital culture, where people are empowered to continuously get comfortable in digital spaces.


Digital Capabilities Fundamentals: as long as we all know it, it is OK if only some of us understand it and even fewer of us can do it

Knowledge, understanding and skills. We might have seen these capability words being used interchangeably because they are intrinsic parts of our educational and professional lives. Sometimes they seem to work out as synonyms, but in our case, they don’t. Here’s a practical example of the difference between these within a digital business context.

Definition Example
Knowledge refers to the absorption of information. “I know that I must obtain an opt-in permission from my customers in order to reach out to them via email.”
Understanding is the ability of taking knowledge and make meaning out of it. “I understand that emailing customers whose opt-in I do not possess may bring legal and financial consequences to my company and that I have to use an email marketing platform to filter out those customers when sending out mailings. Moreover, I have to explicitly offer an opt-out option to customers I send messages to.”
Skills refer to the proficiency of applying acquired knowledge and the quality of being able of doing something. “I can manage my customers’ opt-in & out via our email marketing platform and I am able to create and send out mailings to opt-in customers only, as well as include an opt-out link in the body of the message.”

While these three capability words differ in concept, they all have one thing in common: they can be obtained through learning, training and experience – and this is exactly where the magic happens. The higher the degree of digital literacy of a company, the faster and more efficient its migration into digital spaces will be. And this is why digital capability building is key to digital transformation.

Having said this, it is important to highlight that it does not mean that everyone should possess the same level of skills, the same degree of understanding or even the same amount of knowledge. Not at all!


A Customer-centric approach to Digital Capability Planning

Customer-centricity has become the buzz word of every marketing plan for a reason – it is the only way to survive in an ever-more demanding and competitive ecosystem. So if external customers are at the center of every marketing plan, digital transformation leads should also put the internal customers first too. Here’s a possible approach:

  • Start with mapping the stakeholders, profiling the audience and creating personas with different needs and roles within the bigger digital transformation picture of the organization. Make sure to include people at all levels and go for the key influencers and the most likely ambassadors and advocates first.
  • Different personas take different amounts of time and resources in developing understanding and skills. This is why capability building is not a one-time event, but rather a customer journey with multiple touchpoints that give the target group a regular opportunity to think, start conversations and most importantly, build up a community.
  • Keep in mind that touchpoints do not imply training or coaching. To explain that, a quote from the Nobel Prize winner in Literature Bernard Shaw is brought forward: “If you teach a man anything, he will never learn”. That is to say, learning is an active process. People learn by doing. Thus, to empower people with digital knowledge, understanding and skills, let them think and do digital.

Last but not the least, since digital transformation is a subject within the domain of change management, I close this article with a personal and holistic comment from my own experience. Having worked with start-ups, SMEs, governments and corporations, I have navigated through a variety of organizational (digital) cultures, all of which taught me several lessons on managing change from the bottom to senior levels of a company. Out of all lessons learned, I cannot think of a more precise and indisputable truth about change management other than consistency.

To illustrate that, imagine an eyedropper filled with red ink. When we let a drop of ink fall into a large glass of water, the red color will dissolve and we would see no change in the color of the water in the glass. But if we do the same thing continuously over time, however, the water would slowly turn pink until it fully embodies the tones of red. And this is how change happens – one drop at a time… consistently.

Well, having said that the key to digital transformation is people, then every person this article reaches means one more droplet of red ink in some company’s digital transformation glass.  Cheers to that!


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