Driving Digital Transformation: Why—And How—HR Pros Should Play a Pivotal Role

Digital transformation is being talked about a lot in HR (and other) circles these days. But, too often, these discussions take place in silos. HR leaders are in a good position to approach digital transformation more strategically by reaching out to and engaging colleagues from across the organization or enterprise. While HR is unlikely lead the effort, the HR function could play a pivotal role in the process.

It’s a topic that’s certainly top-of-mind these days.

According to The Hackett Group’s report “World-Class HR: Redefining Performance in a Digital Era,”
nearly 60% of business leaders from a variety of functions say that digital transformation has already had a high or very high impact on their industry.

  • 46% say digital transformation is strongly affecting their operating model; and
  • 72% expect that it will within 2-3 years.

Breaking out responses from HR executives only reveals that 70 percent believe digital transformation will have a significant impact on the HR function.

What Does “Digital Transformation” Mean?

In some regards, the definition of digital transformation will vary depending on who you ask. This brings to mind the fable about a group of blind men who come across an elephant—an animal they’d never previously encountered. Each man’s perception of the elephant is driven by the part of the animal they touched; none gain a full, or accurate, perception individually.

The same can be said of digital transformation in most organizations. Depending on the function each leader is responsible for—accounting, marketing, finance, customer service, HR—perceptions and expectations will differ. As the six blind men were advised by a wise Rajah: “Perhaps if you put the parts together, you will see the truth.”

So it is with digital transformation which Salesforce defines as: “…the process of using digital technologies to create new — or modify existing — business processes, culture, and customer experiences to meet changing business and market requirements.”

Clearly HR is just part—albeit an important part—of the digital transformation process both in terms of modifying their own function’s business processes, and also in terms of helping to manage the impact of digital transformation on the company’s culture.

Recognizing this dual role, HR leaders can play an important part in proactively reaching out to colleagues to begin discussions of what digital transformation means to the organization as a whole.

Reaching Out to Build Strategic Relationships

Digital transformation is, by definition, broad. It must take into consideration the needs of the entire organization. “The transformation needs to be broad in order to have enterprise impact, so involving the leaders up front and designing the high-level approach, or plan, is the only way to achieve the impact,” says Harry Osle, principal in charge and global HR practice leader for The Hackett Group. How? “Simply by architecting an enterprise solution with the CTO, CIO, CFO and CPO,” he says. “It starts with simple dialogue.”

Any initiative that HR undertakes to streamline its own operations will have an impact on other parts of the organization and other leaders. These activities need to be communicated and coordinated, while gathering—and listening to—input along the way.

Logically, the first step to take in reaching out to colleagues should start with the IT department—the group most likely to be spearheading any digital transformation effort by asking key questions, including:

  • What is the status of the initiative?
  • Who is currently involved?
  • What types of activities are taking place?
  • Has a plan been developed? Initiated?

These are all important questions for HR to ask. Perhaps the most important, though, is: “How can we get involved?” Part of that involvement should be focused on helping to identify and overcome barriers.

Overcoming Barriers

With any major initiative, barriers will be part of the process. It’s important to anticipate and be prepared to address them as they arise. Some barriers are real; others are perceived.

“Leaders need to break through the perceived barriers and tackle the real ones,” Osle says. “Most of life’s problems are solved with open dialogue,” he adds.

HR leaders have an opportunity to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem. Digital transformation will not be easy, and it will not be without errors, missteps and mistakes. Importantly, though, HR leaders can make a difference by focusing more on possibilities than problems and setting an example through their own communication and action.

Education and Communication

Klemens Hjartar is senior partner at McKinsey & Company, and the global leader of McKinsey Digital in the telecommunications, media and technology sectors. Based in Denmark, Hjartar is coauthor of Fast Times: How Digital Winners Set Direction, Learn, and Adjust (Amazon Publishing, 2020).

“McKinsey research suggests that good communication—particularly about progress—is often perceived as the single most important ingredient of a transformation,” says Hjartar. “In our experience working with successful leaders, we’ve found that they are relentless in finding successes and communicating them obsessively.”

This serves a dual purpose, he adds. “When done well, this has the effect of not only reassuring often-skeptical employees—most people in a large organization will only know if the transformation is working if you tell them—but also injecting a shot of adrenaline into the organization.”

HR leaders, Hjartar says, “need to combat fear by demonstrating unwavering, infectious belief in the new direction.”

That positivity, support and energy must be real, however. “All the written and verbal communication in the world will fail to get people on board if they don’t see you living up to what you say,” says Hjartar. Research shows, Hjartar asserts, that “transformations are 5.3 times more likely to succeed if their leaders role-model the behavioral changes they seek from others.” HR is poised to lead the way in doing exactly that.


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