How to develop a winning digital transformation strategy

Digital transformation has been a popular business concept for years. But for your digital transformation to be successful, you need a plan that goes beyond buzzwords to create a workable strategy. Here’s how.

ARTICLE | 5m read
June 3, 2021

By 2023, global enterprisespending on digital transformation is estimated to reach $2.3 trillion. While that scope of investment makes clear digital transformation is an essential concept, it’s become a timely one as well. “The pandemic accelerated many organizations’ digital transformations by several years,” said Beau Smithback, founder and CEO of Envision IT, “Many leaders faced an existential crisis and pivoted to implement new ways of doing business and interacting with stakeholders. Organizations that haven't advanced their digital transformation capabilities just lost three years to their competition.”

However, the ubiquity of digital transformation can make it seem more like the king of buzzwords than a real path to success. This is because many companies only engage with the “digital” side by spending more money on their existing technology stack, while neglecting the “transformation”—fundamentally evolving how they do business using new tools, processes, and thinking. This could explain why digital transformation success rates are “dismally low” according to Harvard Business Review. Your digital transformation can be different if you embrace its potential to truly transform how work gets done. In this article, we’ll explore how to create a digital transformation strategy that fits your vision, illustrate leading practices for adopting transformational technology, and navigate the risks impeding digital transformation.

Why digital transformation requires a big vision

We don’t use the word “transformation” for small changes. That in mind, a successful digital transformation always begins with a big vision. Start with questions like “How is my organization going to change its entire industry and make a remarkable impact?” or “How can our company set an example with its social and environmental responsibilities?” Once you’ve landed on a sweeping vision, you’re ready to explore how technology can empower you to make those aspirations a reality. Projects like updating your data center strategy or replacing your sales’ teams aging laptops are good goals (and might be part of your digital transformation), but don’t mistake technological tweaks for true transformation.

A key part of a successful digital transformation is engaging IT as a true partner in innovation. Ask your IT leaders what technologies would most empower employees and empower innovation, then dedicate the time and budget to make their ideas happen. Too often IT teams are bogged down supporting legacy technology, and as mentioned in our IT rationalization article, you may have underutilized assets and unused app subscriptions you’re still paying for. Instead, think of IT as an investment portfolio—you’re making targeted investments that can deliver transformational returns. Some investments may pay off big and others may not, but strategically rebalancing your IT portfolio for transformation maximizes your chance of success.

Leading practices for your digital transformation strategy

Once you have a vision for what your digital transformation can achieve, it’s time to develop a strategy to make it happen. Being a true digital business means moving beyond legacy processes and reimagining how technology can augment every aspect of your work. Here are leading practices to remember:

  1. Build ownership for digital transformation across your organization.
    The success of your digital transformation depends less on adopting the ideal technologies and more on gaining buy-in from everyone in your organization as evidenced by their evolved behavior. When you replace older apps or alter common processes, you need a plan to communicate the meaning and impact of the change across business units. Find people who can serve as tech champions to help teammates master the new tools, and your digital transformation is much more likely to succeed.

  2. Use analytics to better understand how different areas of your business are performing.
    When you set benchmarks for your digital transformation, having a clear picture of your operations is crucial. Analytics and business intelligence platforms drive observability and insights by measuring the efficiencies of processes and teams across your organization. Instead of relying on gut feelings or anecdotes, analytics ideally give you answers to questions you never thought to ask. This shows where your business most needs to transform.

  3. Automate everyday tasks to free up time for innovative work.
    Every time your employees get a notification, they’re at risk of breaking their flow and getting distracted. By integrating machine learning into your workspace, you can let the workspace learn from employee work habits and automate routine tasks like calendar RSVPs and expense approvals. This reduces the number of notifications that can disrupt employee attention, helping them focus on tasks with more strategic importance—and future AI advancements will only strengthen these capabilities.

How to balance risks and opportunities in digital transformation

Like any major project, your digital transformation has unique risks you must recognize and navigate. Potential hurdles can include failing to gain true buy-in across all departments, adopting and retaining flawed technology that doesn’t adapt to your long-term needs, and simply making the wrong choices about how your business should transform. However, in our fast-paced business landscape the biggest risk of all is sticking with the status quo as competitors evolve ahead of you. Balancing risk and opportunity is vital to any successful business initiative, and digital transformation is no exception. It can help to embrace the mentality of a disruptive startup that has to identify and take big worthwhile risks in order to win.

The key is being aware of the ever-evolving risks and threats your digital transformation faces so you can continuously mitigate them. Significantly advancing your cybersecurity and data privacy capabilities is an essential element of your digital transformation. With roughly 26,000 cyberattacks per day, your organization must be prepared to protect your network, distributed workforce, applications, and content from malicious actors. And with the rise of far-reaching ransomware attacks like that suffered by the Colonial Pipeline Company, you want to have backup storage, air-gapped critical services, and well-tested business continuity solutions to ensure resiliency during disruptions.

Embrace the possibilities of digital transformation

Digital transformation is only a buzzword if we fail to recognize its potential. By adopting a bold technology strategy that transforms how you do business, you can take a giant leap forward in how your customers, shareholders, and employees realize the true promise of your organization.