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March 2, 2021updated 06 Mar 2021 11:20am

How to communicate effectively about digital transformation

A more holistic approach and being able to tell a compelling story can be the differentiator between a successful or a failed digital transformation project.

By Cristina Lago

A well-known theme about digital transformation projects is their high failure rate, which can be as high as 70%, according to management consultancy firm McKinsey. The causes of this failure include a lack of staff engagement, inadequate management support, and poor or non-existent cross-functional collaboration. A common theme cuts across all of these: poor communication. So how can technology leaders communicate effectively to boost the chances of success in digital transformation? Tech Monitor spoke to two experts to find out.

Telling a digital transformation story

Digital transformation initiatives succeed when IT, digital and business transformation are tackled holistically and not as separate units, says consulting CIO Patrick Knight. For that to occur, there needs to be a ‘story’ behind the transformation that communicates its purpose and objectives in a way that people across the organisation can relate to.

There is no point in the IT department knowing exactly what they are trying to do unless they are able to communicate it effectively to the wider organisation.
Patrick Knight, Pathfinder CIO

This story should not be told in technology terms, Knight warns. “Often, the story in the technology space relates to ‘we’re going to implement this, that and the other’. That talks to nobody and doesn’t engage or inspire people at all.”

“It has to talk to the wider audience,” he says. “There is no point in the IT department knowing exactly what they are trying to do unless they are able to communicate it effectively to the wider organisation.”

Although the advice is simple, none of the companies Knight has worked for has got it quite right, he says. “It’s not that the idea is poor or wrong. It’s about… thinking about the individual stakeholders that are involved and what their levels of resistance or motivation might be. Getting them on board is absolutely crucial.”

Knight has sometimes worked with marketing teams to help with communications around transformation projects. But it has proved more fruitful to engage with the natural storytellers within an organisation, regardless of their job function: people who can construct a story that can be absorbed and understood by those affected by it.

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He recalls the case of a company that was selling one of its divisions. This meant the IT department had to separate its systems and processes. The project was complex and difficult: the systems were not easy to separate and teams had to work around the clock to get it done.

One way to tell the story of this initiative would have been to simply describe the work involved. But Knight decided to tell a different story: the sale of the business division would likely raise half a billion pounds, which could then be reinvested into the company and its IT systems.

“So you change the story completely when you say, ‘oh, bloody hell, we’ve got to do this’ to there’s a reason there: the reason is associated to half a billion pounds worth of reinvestment in the group, which protects jobs and skillsets and gets people to do interesting things that they hadn’t been able to do before,” he says.

Knight’s conclusion is that transformation and digital are meaningless terms by themselves. What is at stake is how IT leaders keep pace and get ahead of competitors by doing something that only they can do better than anyone else by telling the right story and presenting it in a compelling way.

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How to communicate digital transformation: “purple people” and guerrilla marketing

Ashleigh Monagle, a digital transformation consultant at management and engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald, agrees that transformation initiatives succeed or fail based on their ability to engage and motivate people across an organisation. “Organisations can write strategies and try to operationalise activities, but they forget the people element of digital transformation and the cultural change that needs to happen,” says Monagle.

Monagle and her team recently undertook a digital skills project for the Centre for Digital Built Britain, a UK government-funded body. They interviewed 18 large asset owners and operators and all named communication as one of the greatest blockers to the project’s progress. Some of the reasons behind this were identified as the lack of a common language that everyone could relate to, inability to influence, and inability to tell compelling stories.

Focus on people as your channels by having change leaders, change agents and change makers – it’s like Instagram influencers but for corporates.
Ashleigh Monagle, Mott MacDonald

To overcome these communication obstacles, Monagle has some tips. Firstly, she advises technology leaders to step out and learn from the business and target audience. “Collaborate with internal comms to map the audiences you are trying to reach and have different channels and tactics to reach them,” she says. “Focus on people as your channels by having change leaders, change agents and change-makers – it’s like Instagram influencers but for corporates.”

Secondly, Monagle recommends identifying “purple people” in the organisation who can translate technical jargon into meaningful and relatable concepts. Like Knight, Monagle says that too much technical jargon creates fear and resistance among stakeholders. ‘Purple people’ are intermediaries who can reconcile business and IT to deliver value to an organisation.

Thirdly, investing in designers who can turn digital concepts into visualisations that tell stories are a positive way to overcome death by PowerPoint. Monagle says that contributing to existing comms to get the message out can avoid initiative and comms fatigue.

Lastly, Monagle recommends trying guerrilla marketing techniques while keeping things topical. Internal comms can often be a ‘box-ticking exercise’ but messages are more impactful if they are communicated creatively and in a timely fashion.

“When I worked at Arup, we wrote a comms story about digital [intellectual property]. It was released the same time that McDonald’s was being sued for their Big Mac IP so the main image was a hamburger,” she says. “We would never use a picture of a hamburger usually in corporate news and it was so out of place and unusual [that] loads of people clicked on the story and remembered it.”

In short, as in all communications, it pays to be distinctive, clear and to address the needs of your audience, not just your own.

Home page photo by Bigone/Shutterstock.

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