Decoding Digital

Why People Are Key to Digital Transformation Success with Dr. Gerald Kane

By Ideas @ AppDirect / May 24, 2021

Dr. Jerry Kane on Why Digital Heroes are the Key to Digital Transformation

Dr. Gerald C (Jerry) Kane is a leading authority on how people use technology to instigate digital transformation. His book, “The Technology Fallacy: How People are The Real Key to Digital Transformation,” explores how companies are embracing technological advancements and where they’re encountering roadblocks.

So, what’s the secret to successfully unlocking technological change? According to Jerry’s years of research, the key is not technology, but people.

Jerry joins Daniel Saks in this Decoding Digital discussion to share some of the compelling findings from his book. He also reveals what it takes to be a digital leader and why they have the potential to activate technological transformation within organizations.

Why people are fundamental to technological change

“The Technology Fallacy” is the result of a five-year research project led by Jerry and conducted in conjunction with MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte. The team wanted to discover how companies evolved with the influence of technology. But they quickly realized that one of the most instrumental yet overlooked elements of digital transformation is the people behind it.

The reality is that digital transformation doesn’t happen by itself. Jerry and the team pursued the idea that this change can only happen when leaders are curious, confident, and determined enough to implement new technologies.

Jerry and the team worked on the book for five years. In that time, they saw much progress towards digital transformation and maturity, even in unexpected places. Jerry recalls his hesitation at interviewing Walmart, presuming that their systems and processes would be antiquated, then his delight when he realized their commitment to internal digital development.

Why digitally mature companies have better leaders

One of the most surprising things Jerry discovered in his research was that digitally mature companies actively put the work in to develop their leaders. His original hypothesis was that this company category (on a scale of early, developing, and mature) would already have strong digital leaders.

However, the research showed that over 50 percent of the most mature companies believed that they needed more and better leaders to succeed in the digital marketplace. For Jerry, this showed an interesting link between continually and consciously improving teams and technological growth.

“What was different however, is that these digitally maturing companies were actually doing something about it. They were far more likely to say we are developing the type of leaders that we need to work in a digital world. So, it's not that these maturing companies had better leaders, but it's what they were doing about it to get and grow these better leaders.”

Jerry also expected that these mature companies would be more willing to experiment with digital tools but discovered that this wasn’t the case.

They found that all companies experiment. The difference is that when mature companies experience success as a result of this experimentation, they use it to drive change across the organization—something that early-stage companies are currently less adept at doing.

How COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation

The global pandemic forced many companies to aggressively advance and implement their digital plans, speeding up their technological changes. Many of the ideas in “The Technology Fallacy” apply to this development but in a hyper-compressed and accelerated way. Jerry is now working on a follow-up book to find out more about this impact on companies.

So far, he’s learned that many of these digital plans have been in place for a long time. However, companies were dragging their feet on embracing the change.

“COVID has been that motivating factor that has allowed them to push these transformations through. Many interviewees have said, ‘We've gone through 10 years of transformation in the past year, with none of the typical people resistance that we normally get because, frankly, we haven't had a choice.’”

Jerry suggests that there are two silver linings to this unprecedented time. The first is that it’s helped companies that were lagging behind, move into the present. The second is that it’s set digital transformation in motion for many, which could continue well into the future.

“The hardest part is getting started. My hope is that this is going to start the momentum so that when we come out of this pandemic, you're going to see even more innovation and more digital experimentation.”

While Jerry believes that this last year has been one of the most technologically innovative in history, he also thinks that the best is yet to come. He states that, at this moment in time, the untapped technology opportunities are massive for organizations who want to keep moving forward.

A digital leader’s most important skills

Part of Jerry’s research included finding out the most desired or instrumental skills a digital leader should have. Three key traits stood out:

  1. Being forward-looking
  2. Being change-orientated
  3. Having a technological understanding

Interestingly, companies don’t need people to become AI developers to lead them through digital change. Digital literacy can be a basic working knowledge of your company's technology or the opportunities for new technology within your business. Jerry indicates that it’s simpler to integrate this kind of knowledge into your organization than you might think.

“It's a lot easier for me to teach the average manager the technology they need, than it is for me to teach the technology leader the management, strategy and business knowledge they need.”

When people have this digital literacy, that’s when they can be both forward-looking and change oriented as a digital leader. But Jerry is quick to point out that while it’s possible to gain technical knowledge, it’s also a constant learning process as technology continues to develop.

Who can become a digital leader?

Jerry believes that there are three different kinds of people within an organization. One is naturally wired to think outside of the box, be entrepreneurial, and strive to be digital leaders no matter what.

The second is someone who wants to play it safe and live by the rules. These people do their jobs and are highly unlikely candidates to become digital leaders. But the third is key to helping your business achieve true digital transformation.

There's 40 percent in the middle that can go either way and are going to respond to the culture and respond to the signals from senior leadership. If you can convert that 40 percent to being a digital leader, you're well on your way to digital maturity. If you discourage that 40 percent, you're never going to be able to do enough.”

Jerry’s suggestion is to encourage these reluctant digital leaders to step forward by developing their skillset. This was another key finding from Jerry’s research, that people want to further their skills. When they’re given the opportunity to do so, not only are they happier and more content within their organization, but they’re also more likely to step into their digital leader potential.

“Digital leaders need to be inspired, empowered, and supported. And I think if you can do that, I think at least 70 percent [of people] can be a digital leader.”

For Jerry, the driver for digital success lies in empowering your people to take action. He believes that the real digital leaders are the ones who create the best environments for others to step up and lead.

To find out more insights from “The Technology Fallacy,” including what it takes for digital leaders to drive business transformation and examples from the book, listen to the full conversation between Jerry and Daniel Saks, only on Decoding Digital.

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