Digital Transformation is Failing. Why?

“A key reason why true mobile working isn’t being implemented is because of management culture. The case for mobile working has been proven; it is the people who are the biggest barriers.”- 2017 Deloitte Human Capital Trends report


The way we work , it seems, is no longer working.

What we’ve long suspected – that organisations are failing to maintain pace with technological advancements – is now evidenced.

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

We were promised that digital would revolutionise the workplace. Although the use of mobile devices is practically ubiquitous, true mobile working is not growing at the rate predicted.

  • Despite huge advancements in video messaging and conferencing workers still spend a year of their lives in physical meetings. If you’re employed in the public sector it’s worse – with nearly 2 years clocked up for every worker.
  • Commuting to work – far from being a thing of the past – is actually increasing. The number of people with a 2 hour commute has risen 72% in the last decade.
  • We spend about 60% of our time on email, a crude technology from the 1970’s. The UK’s biggest employer, the NHS, hasn’t even got that far and still sends pieces of paper to contact patients.

As the 2017 Public Sector Mobile Working Report makes clear – our leadership is certainly in question. There’s a lack of strong pioneering leaders prepared to take the plunge and spearhead change.

The UK is a now a high-employment, low-productivity economy lagging behind almost all of its peers.  Yet despite this and with an obvious skills deficit , seven out of ten people say they receive no basic digital training from their employers.

With such a huge gap in business potential – this appears to be a dereliction of duty by leaders. What’s the reason?


The diagram shows that individuals are relatively quick and adept at adopting new innovations.

However, whilst you and I may adapt to technology relatively rapidly, businesses and organisations move at a much slower pace.

If it is people who are the biggest barriers – why do we behave differently in a work context compared to our home lives?

The argument – so it goes – is that this may be a generational thing. That those currently at management level weren’t brought up in the digital era and may have an innate fear of technology.

To me this assumption that a new breed of younger savvier digital natives are going to usurp the incumbent dinosaurs is a dangerous one. It’s casual ageism for a start – I know people in their 70’s who can code, and people in their 20’s who can’t tweet.

More importantly though – it lets business leaders off the hook.

What if there’s a deeper problem here , what if it’s the way we work that is impeding progress?

What if work no longer works? 

The practices of corporate planning, organisational structure, job profiles, performance indicators, and management were developed in the industrial age. It could be that some, or all, of these are wholly inconsistent with the behaviours required in a digital age.

It is these legacy practices that any business transformation programme should be addressing. Too often they focus on the digital tools themselves which are largely irrelevant.

Anyone can introduce a new IT system- but as digital organisational models emerge, it’s leadership that needs change.

We are at a crossroads – at the intersection of paths towards a new digital economy or an adherence to the traditional world of work.

Being a leader in the digital era means casting aside old strategic frameworks, processes, relationships and values. It also means being brave and bold enough to step into the fray: challenging every aspect of tradition.

Digital transformation isn’t really anything to do with digital tools.

It’s about redefining the concept of work itself.


22 thoughts on “Digital Transformation is Failing. Why?

  1. Great stuff as ever Paul. I wonder if there is also a further factor at work… that many of the theorised benefits of digital and tech in general are about the its ability to do things at distance or at scale but what if well functioning work relies (at least in many circumstances) on one form of localism or another? Would that make those benefits illusory? It seems to me that localism is important to effective digital transformation on two fronts:

    – ‘local’ control and leadership rather than the systems of planning at a distance, governance at a distance etc that you have rightly spelled out as problematic.
    – a recognition of where local is essential to the work design and that tech which ignores that and promises benefits may be making false promises.

    Interested in your thoughts (of course)!!

    1. Great comment Andy and I think you’re onto something.

      Too much transformation is nothing of the sort ( as Anne McCrossan perfectly articulates in the next comment ) – rather it’s digitising existing business – which I think goes to your point. What does well functioning work look like in a digital context?

      Digital evangelists too often presume that it will solve all our problems. By doing this we risk embarking on the worst kind of technological solutionism

      1. Thanks Paul. For me, well functioning work in any context has to include (and is probably more than):

        – clarity about the difference that work exists to make in the world.
        – clarity about why that difference is of value and to whom.
        – testable hypotheses about how the processes of work come together to manifest that difference.

        In respect if that third point, I think it’s common enough to use received wisdoms, conventions, fads or ideologies rather than hypotheses. Alternatively, those holding the hypothesis are conducting their test at such scale that the feedback loop is slow and weak, confused by the multitude of variables that kick in at scale.

        I guess what I’ve seen is that rapid, local experimentation often solves problems more quickly, more precisely and in ways that enable the value of digital to be pulled to them. When disbursal is pushed at scale it seems to me that we get high cost, high profile but often low impact implementations.

        So I’m definitely not anti-digital, just – like you – interested in how the opportunity of digital is approached and leveraged.

        1. Well said – the problem I have with digital cheerleading is two fold:
          A) The implication that all our problems are ‘solvable’
          B) The subsequent rush towards at-scale technology – as if digital is the only game in town

          Thanks for comments

  2. Paul, I agree with the first diagram, and I’ve been defining things in a similar way myself, but I don’t agree so much with the second diagram, and here’s why.

    The reason digital transformation is failing is because organisational professionals are looking at the first part, the digital bit (and so are the many vendors who are part of that ecosystem), but there isn’t so much of a focus on the second part, the ‘transformation’ bit.

    Transformation means ‘radical change’. And few companies truly countenance that because it’s, well…too radical.

    Digital transformation inevitably falls short when it’s applied as an overlay onto the existing status quo. Yet, that’s what’s mostly happening (and what senior executives will feel comfortable with) because digital processes and digital business modeling aren’t sufficiently well known and understood. There’s too much at risk, too many unknowns.

    The essence of transformation isn’t incremental. People need to be able to work together on a range of scenarios in depth, in completely new ways, to fully realise the potential of what’s on offer in digital business. It involves acquiring new skills, new capabilities around data management, processes that support rapid, iterative design and collaborating more openly.

    What’s really happening is we have a skills deficit and many organisations don’t have end-to-end data functionality. Until digital transformation becomes an elegant, emergent expression of what an effective organisation can be and we leapfrog a few sacred taboos around governance, digital transformation will be play acting. It won’t achieve the business value it’s capable of producing.

    1. Super comment Anne you should turn that into a post! I don’t agree with all aspects of the Deloitte report to be honest and think you are far closer to the real problem:

      Transformation is being played out in a very ‘safe for work’ context when as you say the essence of true transformation is anything but incremental (and that’s by it’s nature NSFW!).

      Transformation is not about the illusion of radical change but rather a fundamental rethink of why you exist – and a reshaping of the ways you deliver upon it.

      I’m with you 100%.

  3. IT is a business tool…but so is a paper clip.

    That saying was drummed into me 25 years ago when working as what was then called a “hybrid manager” – meaning someone who knows the capability of IT AND business uses and purposes and a systems analyst who became a ‘business analyst’ and then the ‘hybrid manager.’. The phrase still holds good today and where would we be without paper clips?

    IT, what we now call ‘digital’ (as its sexier and more vague) has and always will have the same ‘problem’ that people buy from people and want to and indded need to buy from people because of human interaction and a whole lot more.

    Ther are also practical reasons why we still need paper – eg legal reaons, audit trails and the avoidance of I don’t recall that conversation strategies.

    In housing like any other sector we can’t force ‘digital’ onto people they have to be persuaded why it is better for them and not imposed as doing that causes resentment and a bigger practical wall to break down in order to benefit.

    To portray non digital as traditionalist, old-fashioned, inefficient and to do so in very broad brush terms is precisely why we dont get the many benefits, the transformative benefits of ‘digital.’ Imposing it is only the same as imposing a 50% wage cut and suffers the same outcome – resentment and a reduction in productivity.

    All of these same issues were around 25 years ago (and more) and still we talk up the technology not what it can do and we still fail to sell the benefits and only the features of this ‘digital’ … and we wonder why productivity lags behind what it should … <>

    1. Thanks Joe – I think one of the reasons for slow progress is the insistence on using digital to overlay rather than transform broken systems.

      The volume of failed large-scale IT projects in the public sector is troubling for many reasons. However rarely is it that the IT itself has failed – rather that flawed and dysfunctional dynamics within organisations have impacted projects.

      Reports into many projects note internal behaviours of avoidance or blame amongst staff. We back to management culture again!

  4. Great post. In my personal opinion, and from experience, many current technologies enable us to work with Purpose and unleash our true potential rather than an old fashioned way.

    That’s why I think that we are still seeing a gap in employee engagement targets and actual results.

    Many still feel that work has pushed from the top down (email, meetings) rather than it happening because of individual connected and collaborative leaders putting their shared visions of work to life. By innovating at any level to ensure customers, society and employees alike benefit from any efforts put in.

    1. Thanks Ralph and I think you are right in highlighting the disconnect.

      In the digital era information will need to flow transparently and fluidly across the organisation. Roles and projects will need to be created, and disbanded all the time. That’s out of sync with how many organisations work.

  5. Stumbled across this and really enjoyed all these thoughtful comments on a topic I’m not so familiar with. Although I have to say, I’m with Anne and the answer is obvious – it’s these pesky people as usual! I also don’t agree that all the old rules need to be thrown out the window. In my view, the need for good strategic thinking is never going to go away – to know what you are trying to achieve and to engage people to deliver. Technology is a tool to enable that. I also sometimes think we forget the importance of contact to build the trust needed for truly great work. It’s hard to have a difficult conversation with someone you only connect with digitally.

  6. Thank You Hannah appreciate that!

    Just to clarify – I’m not suggesting for a minute that all the old rules need throwing away, just challenging and refreshing.

    As you say – good strategic thinking never goes away, indeed digital working puts onus on knowing the right problem to solve more than ever.

  7. For me the critical issues is a broader economic ones.

    The first is the question of who is paying for the inefficiency? Take the issue of remote working and teleconferencing as an example. If as an employer, my staff are commuting to and from work that is their cost not mine. If they are travelling to meetings and then having to work longer hours it doesn’t cost me anything in cash terms though it may impact on quality. One way to drive innovation would be to include travel to work time in the working hours and to enforce a 35 hour working week.

    If that seems unrealistic the other challenge is even more difficult. Innovation aimed at efficiency is often aimed at reducing the use of staff. It also often creates a demand for a smaller number of higher skilled staff. This has the effect of reducing demand for lower skilled staff reducing their cost and increasing the demand for higher skilled staff and increasing their cost. Particularly in public services where there is less competition pressure this will tend to reduce the return on investment in any innovation.
    I have already seen examples of where the National Living Wage (better called the National Just surviving Wage) and the Scottish Living Wage have driven organisations to review the role of care staff and invest in training and technology. How we put those drivers into the rest of the economy is a real challenge.

  8. That’s an excellent comment Nick and real food for thought.

    Indeed you could argue that automation isn’t happening as fast as it should be as – outside of care – labour is so low cost that it’s easier to employ people than robots.

    Goes back to how do we redefine work – and maybe how we redefine leisure too!

  9. Hi Paul,
    Really interesting article and discussion.

    In my experience, the biggest area where you can see digital transformation and agile practices in action is in the world of startups. It is pretty amazing to see them using co-working spaces, cloud technologies and agile development to get their business ideas off the ground. I have been working with some startups who have been in 3 different co-working spaces over the last 12 months, based at the offices of an accelerator programme or paying for desks in places like

    It is the clash of these business cultures which will make the next few years interesting. The chart from Deloitte bundles all businesses in one single group but ultimately the startup culture is the blend of the individual and business domains powered by ‘pay as you go’ services.

    We are fascinated to see how our sector can work with these young companies and hopefully not only benefit from their products and services but also learn from their culture.

    1. Exactly Arturo – essentially they are not trying to overlay digital over a legacy business model.

      Incumbents need to adopt this more startup-like approach and realise that digital transformation is about entirely new business opportunities rather than just efficiency

      Working together as you say is probably where we can truly get the learning

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