Business transformation is getting easier. Well, in theory. Virtualized infrastructure, cloud architectures, APIs, microservices, agile development methods, consumption-based services and a host of other advances have made it easier than ever for companies to adopt flexible new operating models, systems and processes.
But many companies are still struggling with the journey. And while issues like legacy systems, siloed data and other tech stumbling blocks pose challenges, the most stubborn obstacles, it turns out, are people-oriented. Try to look surprised.
In a global survey conducted by DXC Technology and Leading Edge Forum, “Connecting digital islands: Bridging the business transformation gap,” 1,186 business executives evaluated their organizations’ progress toward a digital future. Tech priorities, executives said, are making advances. But in matters of leadership, culture and change, the takeaway was quite different. What respondents reported can best be summarized as: We have a lot of work to do.
Leaders? The survey shows it’s clearly your time to step up. Seventy percent of respondents said that the need for more effective leadership across the organization is creating a barrier to technology-enabled organizational change. But what exactly is effective leadership? To get where they are currently, company leaders must have done something right. What must a leader do differently to move the digital agenda forward?
When it comes to large-scale change, as transformation often requires, an oft-cited Harvard Business Review article, “The Hard Side of Change Management,” offers an important clue. “No amount of top-level support is too much,” wrote authors Harold L. Sirkin, Perry Keenan and Alan Jackson. In one company they studied, line managers complained their leader wasn’t supporting a new project, while the chief executive officer felt he was talking about it too much. Not so, the report’s authors said. Their research found that leaders should triple efforts to talk up new initiatives. At that level, managers will feel as if management is supporting their efforts to change.
It’s also important to overcommunicate, so you can help overcome employees’ desire to maintain the systems, tools and processes they’re already comfortable with. In the DXC/LEF study, 65 percent of respondents agreed that employee reluctance to change working habits is a barrier. Strategies such as simplifying decisions, demonstrating quantitative benefits and offering proofs of success from other business units can help employees be more receptive to change. Surprisingly though, many companies don’t do anything to address it. Just 14 percent of survey respondents in the “Connecting digital islands” survey said that improving employee engagement and empowerment, an important step in overcoming status quo bias, was their No. 1 internal priority.
Cut the clutter
Workload is another clear obstacle reported by survey participants. Nearly two-thirds agreed with the survey statement that their people are just too busy with current workloads to handle more change. The Harvard article backs this up, pointing out that transformation efforts often fail because project sponsors don’t realize the responsibilities employees will need to manage, on top of their regular duties. Ridding employees of discretionary or nonessential responsibilities and ensuring that workloads don’t increase by more than 10 percent will improve chances of success.
Make training strategic
Then there’s training. Companies spend a lot on it. One industry report says U.S. training expenditures alone topped $90 billion in 2017. But results from the DXC/LEF survey suggest it might not be enough. Sixty-two percent of respondents said that their organizations lack the necessary training and skills. Perhaps the effort being put into training needs to be aimed elsewhere. A different Harvard Business Review article suggests that training is sometimes wrongly identified as a prescription for change when stronger signals of support from leaders would do more good (see above.) Employee frustration can result from far more than lack of skills, and it’s possible that internal support systems need to be changed, rather than adding more training. Instruction must serve strategic priorities, such as programs that support new marketing strategies or product rollouts.
There’s no debate that organizations in the public and private sector will eventually achieve the agile, fast and efficient future they seek. The transformation roadmap seems well-defined. But as this survey makes clear, determining how to bring everyone along for the ride remains an open question. The survey concludes with five steps companies can take to align their strategic, operational and technological goals — and get everyone onboard.
We encourage you to download the survey to access all of the findings, including analysis and recommendations on the technologies, skills and culture needed to bridge the gap between digital dream and digital reality in the 2020s.