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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2018-11-08 13:10

Cathryn Barnard



2018 was the year that Digital Transformation became a mainstream topic within most boardrooms. It can still appear an ambiguous term, however – what is it...


2018 was the year that Digital Transformation became a mainstream topic within most boardrooms. It can still appear an ambiguous term however - what is it, how is it measured and what defines its success?  

For us, digital transformation represents the inexorable march of technology and its pervasive creep into every corner of the workplace. It includes automation, AI and robotics and is quite simply the way we will do things from here on in.  

In 1970, Alvin Toffler described "Future Shock" as:

"... the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time." 

Back then Toffler was considering very different societal changes to the ones posed today by technology and the Future of Work. The psychology of change however remains the same, and to our mind, is largely overlooked in the prevailing narrative about the rise and rise of technology. 

Over 70% of transformation programmes fail due to lack of engagement. But what does this mean exactly? We asked Helen Crosby of Nimble Results to help us with this. Helen has worked on Transformational Efficiency since 2000, so is well placed to comment. Here’s what she had to say. 

1] What, in your view, makes for a successful digital transformation programme?   

Business often assumes that digital transformation will provide the silver bullet to deliver competitive edge.  But digital transformation on its own won’t deliver this unless the technical transformation is underpinned by a clear plan to transform the way people work and the processes they follow.  While technology has opened up endless new possibilities, the problems I perceive in companies are invariably the same: the need for an internal execution capability that joins up the functions and the people so that everyone is aligned and focused on delivering the same outcomes:


  • Are you really listening to your customers and what they think about your offerings, or are you hearing what you want to hear? Do you have a clearly defined and widely understood Product roadmap that is realistic, prioritised and focused on maximising benefits, or are you trying to do too much at once? Are the Sales strategy and targets aligned to the product strategy and the ability to deliver technically, or are Sales selling capabilities and features that you don’t have?  Is your Support operation trained and geared up to manage the volume and type of customer queries, or do they learn about new product features once they’ve already gone live?  Are Tech onboard with the programme and adding valuable insights, or are they fighting to keep up?   

In essence, are you a learning organisation that is working cross-functionally to deliver business and customer benefits quickly, or is your organisation functionally siloed with the customer a distant voice in the background?  You can have excellent digital transformation but the ability to reap the benefits will depend on your overall operating model and people buy-in to the changes.  

2] We feel that the flipside of digital transformation is workforce transformation. When business adopts digital technology to deliver both efficiency and enhanced customer offering, it’s inevitable that both how people work and the work itself will change. What do you perceive as the obstacles to a successful transformation programme?   

For teams to truly back a digital transformation programme they have to really understand what you’re trying to achieve and why, together with their role and future in that organisation.  If people don’t feel valued and fulfilled you won’t get the benefits.  So how you introduce and manage change is key to success.  Top-down communication is not enough.  


  • Sell your vision!  Be clear about what sort of organisation you want to be and why, and what you are trying to achieve.  Keep reinforcing your message in everything you say and do. 
  • Breed infectious enthusiasm!  Role model change with passion.  Sell the excitement of where you’re trying to get to and how the changes will benefit not just the company but the individuals working there.  
  • Show you mean it!  Make your office look like a digitally transformed company, and change how you interact with your teams to match your vision and values. 
  • Make time for the people changes!  Coach and support your teams in how they need to change the way they work.  Give them examples of what you expect, and provide regular constructive feedback and positive reinforcement. 
  • Listen and let go!  Listen to your teams and let them work out the detail for themselves.  A bit of gentle nurturing is often enough.  
  • Showcase the quick wins!  Show the transformation is real by celebrating some early successes.   
  • Stick to your vision!  Finish what you started and make it clear that the status quo isn’t an option, but give people a chance to get on board.  People need time to absorb the implications and work out how this benefits them.  Once they engage, they will add value and improve on your ideas for change.   

3] As the pace of technology evolution accelerates, we foresee successive transformation cycles overlapping previous ones, such that change becomes constant. What challenge does this create?   
There’s a real risk of transformation fatigue.  Digital companies need to be agile and flexible, able to respond quickly to changing circumstances.  But people get turned off if they feel you’ve moved onto the next big idea before finishing implementing the previous one.  Remember, you’ll have been thinking about digital transformation for a lot longer than your teams.  

It’s essential that your digital transformation forms part of a broader vision and direction, with each transformation cycle taking your company closer to that end goal.  Keep making changes in incremental steps rather than via large-scale programmes that take months to deliver or never end.  And when you need to change direction and priority, explain the change rationale to your people.  Managed well, successive change can soon become part of "the way we work"; managed badly, people perceive chaos and confusion.       

4] If you could impart any advice to CIOs considering digital transformation strategy, what would it be?   
Design your operating model first so that your tech transformation is aligned with your people and process transformation.  All three need to work well for digital transformation to be a success. 

Make it someone’s job to act as the glue of the organisation - align what everyone is doing and ensure that the technology strategy and product roadmap are backed up with the capability to deliver across the whole business.  

Remember the people.  How you implement your digital transformation is just as crucial as what you implement.   It’s unlikely that you will get your system changes right first time, however well you specify and plan them.  You need your people to be fully engaged in finding the areas that aren’t working well and brainstorming ways to fix them.  Continuous improvement and acting on real learnings are the only ways to capitalise on your digital investment.  Without team buy-in, this won’t happen.       

Finally, but most importantly, your people are key to delighting your customers.  Do you really understand what your customers think about your products, services and your brand?  Your teams need to be your customer champions, constantly finding out what your customers do or don’t like, and brainstorming ways to make things better, be it the product itself, or how customers feel every time they have to contact you.  Analytics and research systems are key here to gaining objective feedback.  But acting on true customer insights will not come from systems alone - they need your people to really care.  And to care they need to feel part of your digital transformation.    


Mainstream narrative rarely addresses the people aspect of digital transformation. It’s easy to think digital transformation is all about technology, but at a time when technological efficiencies are more likely than ever to displace or disrupt human contribution, it’s critical to consider the people element of transformation, as ultimately, your workforce will have a significant impact on your transformational success. And it’s worth considering that the way you manage your digital transformation strategy has the potential to impact your brand reputation for generations to come.   


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Looking to dive deeper into some of the areas covered in this blog post? Check out our Recruitment and Retention and Foresight Focus reports and products.

Toffler, Alvin. (1970). Future Shock. New York: Random House

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