people in a crosswalk
Conversations about digital transformation all too often focus on technology alone. And while technology plays a large part in it, without the right people in place, you're initiative will go nowhere PHOTO: Ryoji Iwata

For fun, I typed “digital transformation” into Google and scoured a few of the 58 million results. It didn’t take long before I noticed a pattern: most of the discussion is centered on technology. Countless articles cover the social, mobile, analytics and cloud technologies you need to pull off a successful transformation initiative.

But digital transformation is not just an IT project. If done well, it drives a massive shift in human behavior that reshapes the way we live, work and what we expect from our daily interactions with friends and colleagues. A battle that big can’t be won by infrastructure and process improvements alone. It also requires companies to fundamentally rethink how they attract, engage and retain top talent to remain competitive.

In short, people have to be at the heart of any successful digital transformation. With that in mind, I’ve assembled a few top tips for nailing this critical component in every digital strategy.

First, Attract and Retain the Right People

In a 2016 Jobvite report, sixty-five percent of recruiters (pdf) said their biggest hiring challenge was a shortage of talent. That’s why organizations need to make the right impression from the get-go by creating a culture of happy, engaged workers that people want to join. To get there, look for key improvements you can make throughout the employee journey, from how you attract and onboard talent to how you develop and engage them. 

Along the way, make sure you’re hiring the employees you need for where your company is headed, not where it is today. True digital transformation requires self-starters that can thrive amidst continual change, learning and adapting their own skills to keep up. The best hires are already digital savvy, eager to collaborate via chat and social tools, contribute to your online communities and engage with the organization in a variety of ways.

Harness the Collective Intelligence of Employees, Partners, Customers

The U.S. federal government faces a big challenge: this year alone, nearly a million employees become eligible for retirement, with decades of knowledge potentially disappearing out the door. To get ahead of the problem, some agencies are deploying interactive intranets that capture and preserve their employees' work, making it visible, searchable and shareable.

These knowledge networks connect people across silos, functions and hierarchies, making it easy to find and spread knowledge. Companies using similar solutions report a 28 percent average increase in productivity, and a 43 percent reduction in employee turnover — all while creating true institutional memory. It’s not just for employees, either. The same collaborative community approach is a great strategy for educating and engaging with partners and customers, too.

Help Employees Work in Ways That Suit Them

Seventy-five percent of the global workforce will be made up of millennials by 2025 — and one of the top things they expect in a job is a less constrained environment that can adjust to meet their needs. That means abandoning the notion of “we’ve always done it like this,” and giving workers the autonomy and tools they need to get work done their way.

As automation eats up the easy, repetitive labor, human work will continue to become less routine, requiring people (and the technology supporting them) to be highly dynamic and agile. Be sure to give your employees the trust and ability to own and tweak their workflows, make decisions and even challenge old workplace policies. Don’t forget to connect with team members on a personal level: 62 percent of millennials who feel like they can talk with their manager about non-work-related issues plan to be with their current organization one year from now.

Finally, Ensure Every Employee Feels Connected

Sales and support teams naturally know how their work impacts customers: they talk to them every day. But what about back office workers? 

As companies invest heavily in customer experience to create differentiation, it’s crucial that every employee has a clear understanding of how indispensable their role is to both customers and the overall mission. Yet while nearly half of executives believe their company’s mission makes employees feel their job is important, only 37 percent of workers agree. And 74 percent of employees feel disconnected, thinking they’re missing out on key company information and news.

Companies must ensure better top-down internal communication, as well as horizontal peer-to-peer sharing. This is essential to creating closer connections between the C-suite and teams on the frontline. Start by moving executive communications away from email blasts and into blogs or communities that encourage two-way conversations. Once you’ve set and aligned company goals across the leadership team, use social collaboration tools to cascade them (and measure engagement and results) throughout the entire organization.

Encourage your leaders to go where your people are in both physical and virtual locations, working and engaging across employee communities, online collaboration spaces, team messaging and more. Companies using interactive intranet technology to implement these exact strategies report a 29 percent increase in executive communication, a 34 percent increase in employee connectedness, and an 85 percent increase in strategic alignment.

Put People at the Heart of Digital Transformation

Today, nearly nine in 10 organizations see digital transformation as a huge competitive opportunity. According to the IDC, by the end of 2018 at least 40 percent of organizations will have a fully staffed digital leadership team. And by 2020, 60 percent of all enterprises will be in the process of implementing a comprehensive digital transformation strategy.

Along the way, much of the $1.7 trillion forecasted to be spent on digital transformation through 2019 will go to massive technology and process upgrades, and rightfully so. But to foster even more innovation, don’t forget to invest in your people and harness the intelligence of employees, partners and customers. It’s perhaps the most critical — and most overlooked — success factor in digital transformation today.