Why (Chief) Digital Officers alone can't create a digital transformation
The question may seem paradoxical, when organizations’ digital transformation determines more than ever their business performance. Of course, we need (senior) people in charge! Thirty years of globalization – and perhaps de-globalization to come –, increasingly complex supply chains, workplace disruptions, technological advances and rising costs, use changes... Colossal challenges all come together in organizations’ digital journeys. While legacy technologies add their share of complication, a clear vision and serious coordination are paramount. No wonder why interest in the digital officer role has been growing for over a decade.
The technology itself is only an enabler – when it supports distributed networks.
But is this role the optimal answer to these challenges?
What if creating a digital officer role slowed down an organization's digital transformation? What else could be useful, and why?
Transformation and old thought patterns
I’ll go straight to the point: addressing major transformations through structure and functional roles only perpetuates old thought patterns, which limit otherwise faster and deeper changes.
The ongoing digital transformation that the times now demand can no longer be accommodated by unchanged organizations and leaders. Author and professor Rita McGrath urges incumbents to "stop spending money trying to be a better version of their analog selves", and to really approach digital strategy from new angles. Everyone agrees that simply digitizing existing processes is not enough. Getting broad user engagement around new tools and new ways of working is another widely shared imperative.
Addressing major transformations through structure and functional roles only perpetuates old thought patterns
The technology itself is only an enabler – when it supports distributed networks. By enabling public and private communities, asynchronous exchange, language translation, visual communication, easy and mobile access, search and integration with other tools used in the organization. Despite the huge opportunity, digital social technologies often do not deliver what they promise. But one thing is rarely addressed: the way digital tools and the transformation itself is designed and implemented. As if a classic corporate approach (hierarchical, top-down, etc.) could produce truly new realities. To many organizations, the way they move into to the future is a blind spot.
The way transformation itself is designed
The prevailing modes of work and organization reflect century-old models inherited from scientific management. They rely on hierarchy, processes, functional silos, information filtering, and layered problem solving; they entrust strategic thinking to the top layers of the organization. These models concentrate decision-making power in the hands of "leaders" seen as a rare breed of people, more worthy than the other workers. And no consumer focus groups, Agile methods or other fringe innovations seriously challenge this.
As if a classic corporate approach (hierarchical, top-down, etc.) could produce truly new realities.
These models have served us well in the past, but have now reached their limits. The world has become more complex, the changes much faster. Social values – for example, our relationship to authority, hierarchy and expertise – and worker expectations have changed. Technology has opened up vast new possibilities of interaction and access to information. Other ways of working, but more broadly other mental models have become indispensable.
Fortunately, another approach is possible, which could be qualified as "people-powered, tech-enabled" or even more succinctly as "engagement leadership". It is about taking advantage of societal and technological transformations to mobilize, by leading differently, the greatest number of people and thus succeed – together – in bringing about positive collective change.
Indeed, such a transformation is all the more likely to succeed if it is:
- Co-authored by all members of the organization, wherever they are on its hierarchical ladder, whether or not they are experts in the subject
- Informed and enriched by the diversity of their personal and professional perspectives
- Experienced as an individual and collective opportunity, in the service of a greater common cause
A fantasy? Not at all. Imagine the following example: a global company wants to implement a digital technology that will radically change the way it works, in the interest of its customers and its financial ratios. This is a real revolution in the way people work, and it raises a lot of mistrust among employees. The enterprise could roll it out from the top of the "Digital" function, with the help of an expert project team, change management and internal communication. Or, it could create collective excitement around a higher, more aspirational cause, to which this project will contribute, and for which all goodwill is welcome.
In this case, the primary mission of the leaders is to create the conditions of a peer to peer mobilization for the co-construction of the project. This can be done by forming a partnership with internal volunteers at all levels, by activating communities of practice, by participating in the digital conversation open to all those who are interested... by practicing engagement leadership, far different from the overbearing models that still plague our workplaces.
Entrusting the responsibility of digital transformation to the whole company, digitally connected, is what allows the mindset change and new behaviors that ultimately produce this transformation.
This second path is the most beneficial to the business, as it develops the organization's social capital - its internal networks of mutual trust - across hierarchical layers and functional silos.
Develop the organization's social capital
In fact, this is a real-world example: the company in question was able to implement the desired technology four times faster than expected, with exceptionally high internal buy-in, and optimal customer satisfaction. By leveraging today's social and relational norms – rather than ignoring them – and by putting purpose-driven connection at the heart of an internal movement for change, the organization succeeded with a major piece of its digital transformation.
So, back to the original question, is the (Chief) Digital Officer role the right answer to the digital transformation of organizations? My answer is: it can be, if this role supports the above described approach – if the incumbent dares to un-lead.
Because entrusting the responsibility of digital transformation to the whole company, digitally connected, is what allows the mindset change and new behaviors that ultimately produce this transformation.