June 6, 2023


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Leadership, Not Technology, Is The Key To Accelerating Digital Transformation

Tom Niehaus is Executive Vice President, North America, at CTG. getty As organizations accelerate their digital...

Tom Niehaus is Executive Vice President, North America, at CTG.

As organizations accelerate their digital transformation initiatives to meet the challenges of today’s changing business environment, they must look beyond technology to ensure any new digital platform, tool or process delivers the impact and outcomes needed to succeed.

In order to achieve desired outcomes, organizations need to expand their definition of digital transformation beyond bits and bytes before they take the plunge. Technology makes things more efficient, but money and effort are wasted if we don’t understand that while technology gets smarter, it is not clever enough to compensate for the absence of strong leadership.

Tech Is Only a Tool

When companies map out plans to integrate new technologies into their operations, they should be asking questions beyond the realm of systems and software. At CTG, for example, we’re now in the middle of evaluating an AI tool for our recruiting team to dramatically accelerate the process of identifying and vetting job candidates. There’s no question about the ability of the technology to help make us more efficient. It’s a veritable game-changer when you consider how many candidates we would otherwise be able to pinpoint in a 24-hour period. 

But again, it’s just a tool. We still need to identify who will be accountable and how to ensure the right outcomes. This is because those outcomes are ultimately dependent on the leaders who must set the right objectives and drive the right behaviors that will achieve them, utilizing new digital technologies, of course.

The first order of business should be to nail down important operational questions about accountability to make sure that the system is set up to generate the outcome(s) you expect.

• What are your goals, and how will you measure them?

• Will you have the trusted data you need to understand and evaluate key metrics?

Then, map all this back to who is going to be accountable for each step. Performance is something that needs to be tracked throughout the course of the project. If you wait months to measure success and failure rates, that’s already too late.

The Leadership Imperative

When I see companies complaining about the failure of previous large digital transformation projects, the core problems usually aren’t due to choosing the wrong technology. I’ve seen companies implement the very same ERP platform — one is wildly successful while the other fails miserably. It’s no mystery why: It’s all about the people and, specifically, the people charged with driving the project.

Digital transformation is far more complex than other technology shifts we’ve experienced because of its potential impact. This is complicated stuff, and success is a function of the ability of the team to plan adequately and anticipate ramifications on people and processes. The most important factor is the leadership, particularly the person responsible for overseeing the project. That play-caller must be very clear about the objectives and be willing to hold people accountable for their performance.

Sometimes this responsibility might get entrusted to the CIO — other times to an executive on the business side. I wouldn’t get hung up on titles or technical ability. I’ve seen digital transformation projects work in either instance. Tech skills are a plus, but they’re of secondary importance. It’s far more important to set a clear vision for how digital transformation will benefit the organization, its customers, partners and employees.

That’s a lot of leadership responsibility. Whoever winds up with the job needs to be well-respected and possess the necessary managerial skills to take on such a huge initiative. Does the person designated with the authority have the strength and time to hold people accountable and drive the project through to successful completion? Have you turned to someone who will ensure that your personnel make good decisions and bring their experience to bear? Can they rally the organization behind the vision for a new digital future?

Briefly put, you need a manager who can pivot rapidly and make changes on the fly. This person needs to be strong enough to admit when things aren’t working right and won’t hesitate to blow the whistle when things are heading in the wrong direction. 

A large health provider I’m familiar with decided to implement an enterprise-wide electronic health record (EHR) system. Rather than give the job to a tech expert, they picked somebody from the business side, an executive who was running one of their hospital facilities.

Anyone who wondered why they would put an executive with so little technology experience in charge of a huge IT project would soon understood why. This particular executive was a hard-charger with a reputation for getting things done — and she aced this latest test. She demonstrated the unique value of a leader who knows how to inspire teams to work toward a common organizational goal, make people accountable to execute and complete projects on time and within budget — none of which requires detailed technical know-how.

Leading Your Organization To Success

Digital transformation isn’t something that lends itself to slapdash oversight. You can’t just check items off a list and trust it will work out. It requires a qualitative and thoughtful assessment with a strong manager actively reviewing progress and outcomes.

The later in the process you catch problems, the more costly it becomes to fix them. In my experience, the best approach is to combine a comprehensive plan with trusted metrics and dynamic managers who aren’t going to just go through the motions. They’ll make sure that things get done the right way.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the client-server era or the age of cloud computing. In the end, it all comes down to leadership. Everything else is secondary.

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