7 Key Traits of Successful Digital Transformations

Across companies and industries, successful digital business means getting the same things right.

The Virtual Workplace

There's no getting around it: digital transformation has a high failure rate. Studies show that anywhere from 70% to 95% of digital transformations do not meet their objectives. If it were easy to succeed, everybody would do it.

But it's just as unavoidable a fact that the "work from anywhere" future of work demands digital transformation. Recruiting, retention, collaboration, productivity: in a world where 70% of employees say the ability to telecommute will be important in future job offers, a digital transformation strategy is not optional.

What all successful digital transformation examples share

So how do the winners do it? What do the 5%-30% of successful organizations have in common? It's not just about investing in the right digital technology. At WNDYR, we've helped make digital transformation a reality for dozens of companies, touching hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide. We've worked with companies in multiple industries with varied business models.

Along the way, we've noticed seven key traits keep popping up that make all the difference between successful digital transformations and failed ones.

1. Clarity about the value of digital transformation

We've all seen it happen. Seemingly from nowhere, the company unveils some sweeping new initiative, buys some expensive new digital tools, instigates some complex new process. Uptake is halfhearted. Scolding emails don't help. Quiet resistance builds as people keep doing things the way they always have. After fruitless months go by, the would-be revolution gradually withers back into whatever conference room it emerged from, never to be spoken of again.

Why? Because employees don't see the point. Change is hard - all change, positive or negative. To overcome humans' ingrained "status quo bias", people must feel that the proposed future is clearly preferable to the present.

Research shows that whether employees agree with the value of a change might be the single biggest determinant of whether that change succeeds or fails.

"Why are we doing this?" Every manager must have a clear, strong, relevant answer to that question for every employee. If you don't understand why digital transformation will make work life better and the company stronger, you can't expect employees to understand, either.

2. Honest input from employees

Employees know their own jobs better than most CEOs or VPs do. And yet, time and again, companies institute digital transformation initiatives to change work without meaningful input from the people who do that work. The problem goes beyond "why wasn't I consulted?" syndrome. It means that the new plan may not actually address the problems keeping work from getting done.

Any meaningful diagnosis of workflow problems must include talking to employees about the day-to-day reality of their jobs. They will know where the blockers, inefficiencies, and chronic mistakes are. They will know where information is missing. They will map out the pain points in excruciating detail - if they feel like they'll be heard.

That last part isn't as common as it should be. Have you created a climate and culture that encourage staff to speak up truthfully? Do employees feel like that input will be acted upon?

When a worker tells management "here's how we should do it", they're handing you gold. Treasure it. And if they're too afraid or discouraged to give it to you straight, it's time to start repairing that trust now.

3. Leadership is "all in"

Digital transformation - at least as WNDYR practices it - is a data-driven process. We rely on data to take the emotion, the prejudices, the politics out of decision-making. And we draw conclusions from that data that are sometimes very surprising to those with a view from the C-suite.

Leaders who can take those conclusions objectively are the ones who will succeed at digital transformation. Leaders who take them personally and resist reality will not.

Yes, it can be uncomfortable to realize you have one picture of the company in your head while employees have a very different one. But getting outside your comfort zone is what change is. You can't afford to stay comfortable in a changing world.

Then it's up to leaders to model the change themselves. Leaders show what's important by the way they act, and employees take cues from them, both consciously and unconsciously. So remaining engaged and positive, even if it means facing some hard truths, is the best thing you can do to help make your digital transformation a success.


4. Complete, reliable work data

We just told you that your digital transformation should be data-driven. Where does that data come from? From you. More specifically, from the same tools your company uses to manage work.

Every email and Slack message, every entry on your company calendars, every task in your project management software: it's all got a story to tell. Companies that reliably use these tools, from logging every meeting to tracking time spent on projects, are sitting on a goldmine.

The expert analysts at WNDYR can take that information and, with the advanced artificial intelligence capabilities of our Pattyrn data analytics platform, give you holistic, predictive intelligence about your workforce. But any report is only as good as the data that goes into it.

To be crystal clear: it's not about recording second-by-second activity like keystrokes or mouse usage. Not only do these intrusive tools kill trust between employees and management, they also don't tell you anything actually useful about whether employees are hitting their deadlines or KPIs. Getting smart about the right work data gives you one up on your less savvy competitors.

5. Putting employee experience first

The digital world has been swept in the last few years by employee experience design, or EX for short. It's about taking the insights of customer experience design and applying them to work, with the employee as the "customer" and the job as the "product". The aim is to reduce stress and make work easier, more satisfying, and more meaningful.

The benefits to the employee are obvious, but the benefits to the employer are no less important. Burned-out, dissatisfied employees with their eye on the door are never going to take any company where they aspire to go.

And when they leave, it costs an average of 6 to 9 months of the position's salary to replace them.

Just as an emphasis on customer experience helped digital companies thrive in the competitive environment of the early digital age, EX's moment is perfectly in step with the increasing competitiveness and decentralization of the tech labor market. While the insanely overheated market of early 2022 has cooled somewhat, top recruiting firms agree that the competition for knowledge workers remains fierce, with unemployment rates among software engineers below 0.6%.

In short, top talent has more choices than ever, and can have more impact than ever on a company's competitive strength or weakness.

6. Training is extensive, varied, and well-paced

Imagine that tomorrow, your employer required you to throw away your familiar keyboard and use one with a different alphabetical layout. Think about what that would do to your productivity, your stress, and your general level of satisfaction with work - especially if you had inadequate support or guidance for making the change.

That's what changes in work can feel like for employees. They've spent literally thousands of hours learning their work habits. In some cases, like using a specific software platform, those habits have become muscle memory. So it's crucial that companies over-index on training, if necessary, during and after a digital transformation.

That means not only providing plenty of training, it means mixing up types of training: classes with human instructors, one-on-one tutoring, solo exercises, and plenty of space between lessons for reflection and experimentation.

7. A plan to sustain the change

Digital transformation doesn't end when the consultants pack up. In fact, thinking about it having an "end" might be the wrong way to look at it.

In a successful digitial transformation, an organization will constantly learn more about its workforce, its operations, its customer experience, and its use of digital technologies. To not use that new information to refine and improve business processes would be an expensive missed opportunity.

Without accountability mechanisms, the hard-won benefits of digital transformtion could be lost. Consider regularly convening a cross-functional "digital transformation committee" with members from teams like HR, IT, Ops, and Marketing to consolidate these changes and implementing future ones.

Digital transformation is a journey, not a destination

The ideal end state of digital transformation should be an organization that has not only changed, but knows how to change.

As you can see from this list, the obstacles to successful digital transformation can be formidable. But WNDYR knows firsthand that those obstacles can be overcome, because we achieve it for our clients every day. Contact us when you're ready to find out more.


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