Digital transformation is here and it is affecting companies in various degrees. Learn what it is and why it is important.


Digital transformation is generating some of the most impactful improvements to the customer experience, with two-thirds of global CEOs reporting they will adopt a digital-first focus by the end of 2019. But the trend is transcending beyond the customer experience to also steer the employee experience. A company’s employees—all digital consumers in their personal live—are also expecting to leverage digital experiences to enhance performance and gain professional development.


The human resources industry—no longer viewed as just a support function for employee services and benefits—has stepped up to the front lines to greet the digital transformation that is disrupting how organizations worldwide operate and thrive. The HR department, in addition to talent management, is now expected to lead a company’s digital transformation journey and deploy effective change management strategies.


For an organization to succeed in implementing new technology, they must find ways to embed digital transformation—and the innovative mindset it requires—into their company culture or they risk falling behind the competition.


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Implementing new technology requires organizations to find ways to embed digital transformation—and the innovative mindset it requires—into their company culture.
Created with Sketch.



What is digital transformation?


Emerging technology is often the main focus of the digital disruption conversation. Through transformation programs, HR teams are helping companies enter the digital age and transition from using legacy technology to embracing new technologies, such as machine learning, the internet of things (IoT), blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), big data, data analytics, cloud computing, a multitude of mobile devices, smartphone integration, social media, and more.


But digital transformation is actually guided by innovative approaches, people and business processes—not just the technology itself. Digital transformation cannot be defined by a single transformation project nor a single technology. The technology is constantly changing and updating itself. The only fixed element of digital transformation is the innovative mindset that drives it.


With this mindset in place, HR teams can identify faulty processes and user challenges—and subsequently determine what technologies should be infused as solutions. The end goal is to better understand, engage, satisfy and deliver on the user’s expectations for a multi-channel experience.

Why is digital transformation important?


Adopting a digitally driven business model with next-generation capabilities isn’t just critical to beating competitors—it’s an imperative for surviving in today’s competitive corporate environment. Business leaders are focused on results, innovation and continuous improvement. To this end, they must constantly challenge their organizations to ensure that new technologies and processes are being implemented to push productivity gains and offer significant competitive advantage—all while delivering exceptional user experience for a multitude of stakeholders.


For HR teams, digital business transformation is the ultimate challenge in change management because it affects all levels of an organization (every process, department and stakeholder) and even extends to its supply chain or network of partners, in some cases. But this omni present disruption is what makes digital transformation so critical for organizations.


Digital transformation is helping companies make transitions to new business models. An external example would be a long standing retail store that is struggling to attract millennial customers who prefer to shop online. This business can leverage digital technology to optimize its website for e-commerce, set up responsive customer service capabilities online, collect location data and gain insights into customer expectations and behaviors (to drive both online and in-store interactions).


But more importantly, digitalization is impacting internal operations to help companies deliver the digital experience from the inside out, starting with employees. For the HR industry, harnessing the digital experience is critical for sustainable talent recruitment, retention and training.


HR professionals are using technology to continuously transform how they design and deliver the employee experience—anytime and anywhere. They are combining the human element with the power of technology to gain insights and adapt processes that add new value.

Important elements of successful digital transformation


Although the roadmap for digital transformation varies based on organizations’ specific challenges and demands, there are a few common attributes that a digital strategy should incorporate:


  1. Integrates digital technology to optimize process efficiency.


    As with any HR change, whether digital or not, there should be a clearly defined objective that makes a process more efficient. Most of the time for the HR department, this goal will be to solve an issue employees encounter or one that the HR department faces in its talent management.


    It is recommended that companies start simple and small and consider the areas of the HR process that might benefit from a digital makeover. This could include recruitment, onboarding, learning & development, payroll management, benefits administration, performance reviews, etc.


  2. Improves user experience.


    Digital transformation aims to solve problems and ease pain points for the end user and, when it comes to HR service delivery, the end user is the employee. Business leaders and employees are accustomed to being digital consumers and they—just like customers, clients and partners—expect a digital experience relationship with the company.


    Technology plays a critical role in the relationship that millennials have with their employer, including how long they stay at a company, how productive they are and how they contribute to company growth. The increasing importance of technology implementation—especially its implications for longevity and productivity—is narrowing the focus of HR departments across all industries on creating end-to-end consumer-grade experiences for employees.


  3. Modernizes company culture.


    Digital leaders focus on vision, management, agility and empathy for the end-user. Digital transformation is therefore more about company culture than it is about installing one particular type of technology or improving a single process. Transformation efforts can only succeed when company culture inspires innovation and creativity in its human capital, inspiring workers to adopt new processes, ways of working and approaches to breaking down silos and relating to stakeholders in more meaningful ways. Company culture also plays a critical role in attracting millennial talent and improving employee engagement in the digital age.


    The dynamic qualities of digital culture are different than, and often in conflict with, analog culture at traditional companies. Where analog culture is defensive, digital culture aims to be proactive. For processes that analog companies choose to complete in-house, the digital company seeks out a network of expertise. Analog companies report on past performance while digital companies gain real-time insights for decision-making.


  4. Reduces traditional expenditures.


    Cost savings is a primary driver of digital transformation, according to data from the Cloud Industry Forum. But digital transformation demands that companies cut costs with a purpose, namely to drive innovation and enhance competitive capabilities. An example of this would be implementing cloud platforms, which can accelerate digitization for numerous processes within a business. In addition to greater speed and agility, this innovation also offers lower costs in the long term.


    Though digitalization should be imagined as a revenue generator rather than a cost reduction function, companies should be cautioned against using cost savings as the only justification for transformation initiatives. This narrow focus can end up limiting the scope and impact of process improvements and present long term ramifications.


  5. Researches, strategies sets goals based on evolving tech/digital landscapes.


    The digital landscape is constantly in flux and companies need to strategize to adapt. The digital transformation process can be especially painful for well established companies. Some large brands have disappeared or are currently struggling to stay relevant in the digital age.


    It is important for companies to develop a formal organizational digital business strategy that involves research and goal setting. Yet just one-third of companies have this in place. As a working document, the plan should be updated in response to the evolving landscape. Regular analysis of current digital infrastructure can assess current challenges and anticipate future needs.


    A sound digital strategy, based on in-depth analysis, can help a company anticipate possible risks, formulate budgeting needs and better deliver desired results.

Why companies put off digital transformations


Human life is a constant conflict between progress and inertia. Change is often difficult, whether in our personal or professional lives. For most people, especially managers and leaders, changes within a company can feel like chaos is wreaking havoc on their once predictable workplace. This is part of why it is called the digital disruption.


In order to transform a company, the points of contention that make companies resist digitalization must be addressed:


  1. Requires a system-wide overhaul.


    It can be easy to fall into the trap of believing that digitalization needs to be implemented immediately and everywhere throughout business operations. That task can appear quite daunting, with some leaders choosing to put it off altogether. While it is safe to say that digitalization will eventually require a system-wide overhaul in the way most companies operate, processes and projects can be digitalized and changed incrementally. The main point is that companies overhaul their long term vision for how they plan to adapt and innovate in the digital age.


  2. CIO/CEO need to believe in it.


    As a company prepares to digitalize, it is often the case that employees embrace the change while management and leadership are resistant. For this reason, it can again be said that digital transformation isn’t just about technology—it’s also a leadership issue.


    Change-agile leaders have a clear purpose and can readily answer the question of “why” a technology is being adopted. They know they’re not just adding technology to add technology. It’s being implemented to maintain a strong competitive advantage, enhance productivity on a specific process and push the company toward innovation. These leaders are also willing to fix what’s broken and, in the process, take risks that may require some experimentation. Another key leadership trait, especially in the context of digitalization, is the ability to forge positive partnerships that help streamline the transition and avoid common pitfalls.


  3. Upfront costs are high.


    Very often, leadership poses two questions when confronted with digital transformation: Will digital transformation require new spend that is not currently accounted for? Do I need a specific budget for it? The answer to both of these questions is a resounding “Yes.” However, as previously stated, this can be implemented incrementally across the organization.


    Many companies are finding benefit transitioning digitalization from a capital expense model to an operating expense model. The goal for digital transformation, when implemented strategically, is to yield enough cost savings that it becomes a self-funding mechanism.


    But how much are companies spending? Expenditures for digitalization are growing worldwide at compound annual growth rate of 16.7% and by 2020 it is expected that 30% of G2000 companies will have allocated capital budgets equal to at least 10% of revenue to fuel their digital strategies.


  4. The company needs specific technology for their industry or feels comfortable with the status quo.


    Every industry is being confronted by digital disruption in some capacity. But how it plays out and the degree of impact it has on a company will vary widely depending on the specific sector and the market space in which the company operates. The pace of disruption is changes by industry.


    Digitalization can be a challenge within certain industries as some companies require highly specific technology or processes for the work they do. Many times, this specialized technology is too expensive or hasn’t even been commercialized yet.


    Another case of resistance to digitalization comes from businesses who feel comfortable with the status quo. If a brick-and-mortar shop feels it is doing well, it won’t likely seek an online platform to conduct e-commerce.


    There may be a tendency for companies with specific industry challenges or comfort in the status quo to put off digitalization efforts. But it can be argued that these companies especially need to be outlining a digital strategy. The speed of disruption is increasing and disruption is likely to touch businesses in very industry and all sizes. The winners will be companies that combine traditional industry expertise with a deep understanding of how digital innovations could potentially disrupt their business.

Tips to get your digital transformation strategy started


Digital technology has the potential to transform HR and talent management as we know it. But it won’t come without backing from leadership and staff. Before a concrete strategy can be developed and executed, there are a few first steps an organization and its HR department can take to prepare:


  1. Get buy-in from C-level leaders.


    Having the support and understanding of executive leadership is critical for digital strategy. Digitalization, just as it impacts all roles in management and staff, can also impact the C-suite. The new COO must revamp operational processes and align front and back-office staff with the CMO’s strategy for consistent digital engagement. Meanwhile, the new CMO becomes data driven and omni channel in approach. To fully compete in the digital revolution, some companies are even adopting a holistic model where a new chief digital officer is appointed to serve as a key enabler of transformation.


  2. Identify pathfinder projects.


    In order to build momentum for digital strategy, it can be helpful to identify some pathfinder projects to kickstart a company’s digital transformation journey and help pioneer the transition. What HR processes are currently presenting challenges for the department? Or more importantly, what processes can be improved for candidates, employees and leadership?


    Some applied examples of digital transformation technology within the HR space are augmented writing technology for job postings to better focus the search, chat bots to handle commonly asked questions from employees, AI-driven insights to guide the sales team on demographic trends, machine learning training customized for a team member or nudge-based technology for managers to complete performance reviews by deadline.


  3. Communicate early and often with everyone in the organization.


    Effective communications will play a key role in launching a digital strategy and creating the innovative mindset that fuels it. The strategy should have a timeline that incorporates a communication strategy with all team members on the status.


    Before any specific initiatives are outlined and put into action, an ample amount of time and effort should go into talking with executive leadership, management and staff. These critical stakeholders should be active participants in the strategy. Ask each employee about the challenges they face and their experiences with already laid out processes. Sometimes this is done in survey format so that insights and data can be gathered to help guide the strategy.


  4. Hire people that embrace new technology and processes.


    As a result of the digital age, the workforce is shifting from fixed job titles and detailed job descriptions to ever-revolving roles. A widening skills gap is also a residual effect of the digital revolution, posing an imminent threat to organizations that don’t hire people open to learning new technology and processes.


    At the current pace of technology growth, it is likely that many of the technical skills a company’s workforce boasts today will become obsolete within a few short years. Hiring for today’s skills is not enough. Digital companies instead need to focus on upskilling and recruiting lifelong learners who have the ability to constantly learn new skills and navigate technology that might not even yet exist.


    Rather than seeking industry-specific skills, organizations are shifting toward “technology application within the industry” skills. Other core work-related skills include complex problem solving, active learning and cognitive flexibility. Curiosity, creativity and collaboration are key soft skills that are becoming increasingly valued by companies as they look to foster a high-commitment culture with strong employee engagement.


    To show how systemic the transition can be, many companies are now deploying digital technologies, like virtual reality (VR) simulations or gaming tools, in the interview process to help gauge skills that can’t always be verified on a resume or in a traditional interview setting. This allows recruiters to observe how a candidate handles unfamiliar situations in real-time or how well they absorb new information to troubleshoot problems.



A company’s transition from analog to digital requires a systemic overhaul of business operations, renewed company ethos and an influx of critical human capital to power it all. After all, technology itself does not drive success. Albeit important, the tool is merely an enabler of the innovative vision. Effectively integrating new digital technology requires the right people in the right positions, which is why the HR department has been appointed to lead digital transformation strategy for many companies.


As the voice for human capital amid an evolving workforce, HR can lay the foundation for digital strategy by cultivating the necessary elements for digital transformation. Customer experience has received much of the attention in the digital revolution. However, HR galvanizes the transition by empowering employees so a company can offer a digital experience from the inside out. This lights a company’s path toward becoming an intelligent enterprise— one that is continuously innovating, delivering, superior user experiences, creating new business models and reimagining processes to drive even more value.

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