At BAE Systems Applied Intelligence, we have the privilege of helping to make our clients’ digital transformations happen across government, the military and financial services – and when you’re in the trenches, you can’t help but pick up some war stories. Here’s some things we wish we’d known at the outset…

1) The difference between ‘digitalisation’ and ‘digital transformation’

Knowing the difference icon The former is about adapting products/services and offerings for the digital age by taking advantage of new technology within an existing context. The latter is about a fundamental shift in what an organisation delivers and how it does it. When embarking on the latter, recognise that delivering a transformation is about far more than just new ways of using technology and data. If actually doing the former, stop confusing people by calling it a transformation – you’ll only set them up to expect (or fear!) big changes that may not come.

2) Prioritise people

Prioritise people icon Leadership consistently talk about the importance of people as part of a digital transformation but fail to articulate what it will mean in a people-centric fashion. Be ready to explain what will be different, what great skills and behaviours people will pick up, and anchor it in an ambitious vision that your workforce excited. Looking longer term is not a failure to be ‘agile’, you won’t get it 100% right (this is fine!) but longer-term change needs guardrails – don’t leave your people to stumble in the dark!

3) Digital transformation must be championed from the top

From the top icon
This requires leaders to be credibly ‘digitally literate’ whilst embracing the view of SMEs around them. Up-front investment in senior management’s understanding on the subject plus them subscribing to noticeably different digital leadership behaviours will drive their investment in the change and give them the ability to play their part.

4) Empowered employees are typically more effective

Empowered employees icon Empowered staff members are a key characteristic of a digitally transformed organisation, but managers should avoid simply telling their teams “Go. I empower you.”  Effective empowerment requires a manager to balance the gifts of direction and autonomy. Delegation without empowerment is abdication – so set a useful context for people and watch them flourish.

5) Most organisations are not highly flexible

Organisations not flexible icon The belief that organisations can jump straight to operating in a highly progressive and digital fashion because others are doing it forgets how complex the journey is. The push for digital often comes through ambition to dislodge an incumbent, disrupt a market and, in some cases, survive external threats. This is different to, for instance, a public sector organisation where the imperative to change may be less driven by survival in a competitive market and more from intent to improve how it delivers its value proposition. In this instance, the challenge to change can be far greater.

6) Central orchestration is necessary

Central orchestration icon Whilst the command and control approach associated with a Portfolio Office has fallen out of favour in many organisations, there needs to be some form of central orchestration. The function should work with senior leadership to set direction, align delivery, spot the cross-cutting opportunities to drive effective collaboration, provide leadership with the data and information to enable their decision making and provide the spark of innovation and effort to mobilise people at the working level into effort aligned to the transformation.

7) Don’t forget tried and tested

Tried and tested icon
The compelling case for change and a guiding ‘North Star’ vision remain imperative. Failure to get these right results in constant ‘row backs’ as people question and re-question why they are going through the disruption that inevitably comes with significant change.

8) Redefine the employee experience

Employee experience icon There are hundreds of touchpoints that an employee experiences when joining, working and leaving your organisation. Considering what changes can be made to nudge these experiences more in line with your digital strategy can yield big results. Change the context and you’ll change the behaviours – leading you to a culture that is more in keeping with where you want to be.

9) Change should be data driven

Data driven change icon
Baselining and measuring improvements in change maturity, change readiness and engagement offers the opportunity to show tangible and demonstrable impacts from effort focused on managing people through a process of change. By quantifying some of the classic intangibles of change, you’ll be better equipped to manage them and course-correct when needed.

10) All about agile

All about Agile icon
Digital transformation and the shift to a more ‘agile’ mindset go hand in glove but often fall foul of agile zealotry. Transformation can benefit from many agile principles such as learning by doing and bringing the customer into the design and delivery process. This does not mean everything needs to be run in two week sprints where concepts like scope are seen as an anachronism.
Digital transformation is complex and success is not guaranteed. But celebrate each step forward, learn from every failure and make sure you put the right focus into the most important ingredient for every successful transformation – your amazing people.

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About the author
Ben Starkie is Head of Change Capability at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence

Further reading

  • Digital transformation is about culture, innit. Mivy James explains why digital transformation isn’t really about the technology at all, it’s about culture and ways of working
  • The Transformer. For a variety of reasons, digital transformation continues to be a step too far for many organisations. Here, Sandy Boxall says that they can be done, pointing to the success of the Royal Navy’s NELSON programme to illustrate his point
  • Don’t go chasing waterfalls. Hannah Green says adaptability and mindset are all crucial when it comes to the ever-evolving field of software development
  • Transformation – combining agility with learning. How can organisations and their employees adapt to rapidly changing times? The answer, says John Cumming, is to recognise the value of learning…
  • Transformation in the Time of Corona. The Corona Virus has turned our lives upside down but that’s not all, says Mivy James. It’s also highlighted the plight of the digitally excluded, as well the systemic changes which should be made permanent, not temporary
  • Whitehall’s Digital Transformer. Having data is one thing, effectively exploiting its potential is quite another. In this guest blog, Yvonne Gallagher, digital transformation lead at the UK’s National Audit Office, examines how government can turn data into delivery

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