10 Oct 2019

For any venture to succeed, it needs buy-in from its people. That is especially true for digital transformation, which is essential to ensure business competitiveness as the world advances into the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

At the same time, though, of all concepts, digital transformation is likely to be accompanied by the most resistance from employees, especially given a popular public narrative that associates emerging technologies, like machine learning and AI, with potential job losses. Given this context, you can’t simply load new software on all your company devices overnight and hope for the best. PwC’s research on sustainable organisational change famously revealed that around 75% of transformation initiatives fall short of their objectives because of a failure to “capture the hearts and minds” of employees, who must embed the change in their everyday work actions.

As cloud migration of key internal functions becomes ever more relevant for businesses of all sizes, the question is how to cultivate a company culture that is a pro-digital transformation? How do you make employees more open to digitisation given their comfort with long-used manual processes? Fortunately, there are a few specific culture-promoting strategies you can implement in addition to following these four general steps for a pain-free digital transformation.

1) Create channels for communication

A company owner, CEO or other senior decision-makers can advocate digital transformation and its many benefits – improved efficiency, operational agility, cost-savings and customer experience – until they’re blue in the face. However, one-way “preaching” in this manner will likely be as effective as talking to a brick wall. For deeper cultural change to take hold, and to squash any resentment from staff, you need honest two-way communication.

Along with transparency around the organisation’s digital transformation goals, there needs to be open channels for employees to talk through their concerns and make suggestions. Even more importantly, they need to feel listened to. Such an approach is key to the creation of a company culture that sticks.

At the same time, the unveiling of communication forums requires the honing of specific soft skills. Strong opinions on the topic of digital transformation are to be expected, and these need to be handled with tact and humility at all times to mitigate friction.

2) Lead from the front

Enthusiasm is contagious in a good way. When it comes to digital transformation, company directors and board members should be driving culture uptake through their attitudes and actions. They set the tone for the greater organisation. Although involvement from everyone at a company is crucial (and we’ll get to that next), for digital transformation to succeed it requires a single point of ownership at a company – one individual who consistently drives the change and ensures it doesn’t lose focus in the day-to-day running of the company.

Who this personal “driver” is will depend on the size and nature of the company, but it could be a Chief Digital Officer in a large corporation, or the MD of an SME, if they have space among their other responsibilities.

3) Involve and upskill staff

Listening to employees’ opinions and sharing information with them around the company’s digital migration strategy is just one part of staff involvement in the process. Even better is to turn workers into digital culture advocates or champions themselves. With data key to digitised business, employees can be encouraged to take responsibility for the information handled by their department, and collaborate with other teams, ensuring the data is used optimally to advance the greater business.

Meanwhile, to allay fears of job losses, a further recommended step (if budget is available) is training in the new technologies being introduced to the company. This will reassure staff that they have a place in the digital workplace – very often shifting from administrative functions, now handled by digital tools, to strategy and analysis – and further warm them to the idea. It will also reaffirm that they have value to the business.

4) Hire the right culture fits

With digital transformation a priority, all recruitment decisions should align with it. When bringing new people into the company, therefore, they must be the right people, who share the same beliefs and values as the organisation. As jobs are more fluid in the Digital Age, continually changing in their requirements, hiring decisions should be less about ticking off a set of skills and more about forward-thinking attitude and aptitude for handling multiple tasks. Resistance to change from new employees joining the company eco-system should be a warning sign at the hiring stage.

The truth is that the biggest challenge of any business change is trying to change an already built culture – getting people to embrace the changes required, and to identify the opportunities it will open up to them. With digital transformation, adopting new technology is easy. What isn’t easy is creating a company culture that embraces the concept. A united work team is the most solid foundation you can have when pursuing sustained digital transformation and a stronger organisation.

It’s something we’ve kept in mind and integrated into our strategy at SEACOM. Such an approach is helping us in our ongoing evolution in to a new-age telecom, digitising to deliver what African businesses want – and better serve our customers on the continent.