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Digital Transformation: Doom or Delight?

For all of my clients, Digital Transformation is an important theme. I have observed them in this “journey” for some time, from some distance, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to reflect on it, in a systemic way. The purpose of this post is not to advise, but merely to raise new questions, by applying three systemic principles.

Order, order!

I have read a lot of articles in which Digital Officers (often a role that is taken by the existing CIO, but not always) and their consultants complain about the context they are operating in, the lack of support, the lack of sense of urgency, and the lack of willingness to change. These complaints seem to be aimed at the CEO, and the articles contain a lot of unsolicited advice to the CEO.

From a systemic perspective, I wonder from what position these Digital Officers are working, when they “complain”. Is it their own position in the organizational system, or are they standing next to, or even above the CEO? The latter two happen a lot in organizations, and though the Digital Officers might have reason to do so, it is ultimately not a healthy position – for them and for the organization.

In the order the CEO comes first. The CEO has a variety of responsibilities, and although Digital is entrenched in many of them, there are other, equally important ones. The CEO defines the assignment for the Digital Officer, not the other way around!

The past is (a) present

In most of my observations on Digital Transformation, the focus is on the future. Digital needs to happen, because without it, the organization will not survive. The history of the organization is not part of the equation, it is seen as an unwanted barrier to change.

A sort of polarity seems to appear, between the digital believers and the digital hesitants, between the young and the old and between the future and the past.

The systemic question is: how can we see beyond polarity and use both elements as resources to go forward?

Systemic consultants have learned, over and over again, that not acknowledging (and not honoring) the past, is a recipe for failure, if an organization wants to change or transform. Strong resistance to change will appear, to protect that which might be lost.

For survival of the organizational system, related to digital transformation, sacrifices will have to be made. There is no way around it. But there will always be elements from the past, which need to be retained. So another question is: which elements from the past should we retain, to make this transformation happen?

I really enjoyed the interview with the Digital Officer of Unilever, who had a very keen sense of the origin (and history) of his organization, and how to include that in the transformation he is pursuing.

Giving back

Systems work best when there is a balance in exchange between the elements in the system. In other words, a balance between give and take.

Digital Officers take a lot. They need resources, investment, airtime of the CEO and the business, new technology that is changing rapidly etc. etc. But what are they giving back? Their projects are often IT-related, and those projects have a doubtful track record when it comes to in time and within budget delivery. And though Digital Officers cannot help this, the future digital business model is often (from a financial point of view) less attractive than the old one.

The related systemic question: to what extent are the CEO and the Digital Officer explicitly aware about the positives, negatives and unknowns of the exchange between them?