A Digital Transformation Framework, using a Bricks-and-Mortar Metaphor

The Bricks and Mortar of Digital Transformation

This digital transformation framework calls for strategic leadership as the architect and is built on a foundation of strategic goals and objectives.The building blocks are tactical leadership, governance, digital competencies, education and training, and change management. An organization’s culture is the mortar that connects and binds everything together. Each element requires a unique set of considerations that differ from traditional success factors, and in some cases are unprecedented. Many Industrial Era mental models, principles, priorities, and processes are not transferable to or effective in the Digital Era.

Many people are trying to wrap their brains around the applications and implications of social and digital technologies, particularly from professional and organizational perspectives. In addition to questions about the barriers to digital engagement and transformation, I’m also often asked what I think are the primary components of organizational success in the Digital Era. Building on the ideas in Becoming a Digital Organization: A Three-Phase Journey, I’ve developed a digital transformation framework that leverages a bricks and mortar metaphor:

With strategic leadership as the architect, successful digital transformation in organizations is built on a foundation of strategic goals and objectives.The building blocks are tactical leadership, governance, digital competencies, education and training, and change management. An organization’s culture is the mortar that connects and binds everything together.

Each element in the digital transformation framework requires a unique set of considerations that differ from traditional success factors, and in some cases are unprecedented. Many Industrial Era mental models, principles, priorities, and processes are not transferable to or effective in the Digital Era. The digital transformation of organizations – and the people who comprise them – requires fundamental changes and long-term commitment.

The Bricks and Mortar of Digital Transformation

Strategic Leadership

First and foremost, the digital transformation framework calls for strong strategic leadership. We all know that leaders determine strategic direction and allocate financial and human capital resources to the initiatives that are deemed to have the greatest strategic value. Digital Era success requires leaders who recognize that digital engagement and transformation are worthwhile long-term investments and not just short-term tactical initiatives. Digital transformation is neither easy nor cheap, but it can absolutely pay dividends in terms of outcomes like increased revenues, decreased expenses, more innovation, better client service, less inefficiency, etc.Smart leadership is key to reaping those rewards.

Given all they’ve seen in the past few years in particular, leaders should recognize that digital transformation is a question of when not if, and they should start to plan accordingly. Why wait for the big disruption and revolutionary change, when evolutionary change is more manageable over both the short and longer terms? Delaying action until the presence of more immediate and critical threats is not in their organization’s best interests and could be viewed as a breach of their fiduciary responsibilities.

Many organizational leaders would agree with these ideas in theory of course. But they have to be able to enact them, not just espouse them. In other words, they have to be prepared to “walk their talk.” As I discuss in Social and Digital Engagement: You Can’t Outsource Leadership, Digital Era leadership requires making a personal commitment.

Strategic Goals and Objectives

An organization’s strategic goals and objectives are the foundation of any digital transformation effort and are therefore the foundation of the digital transformation framework. Leaders must identify long and short term organizational priorities, both in general and with respect to social and digital technologies. Some of the longer-term technology-related goals may be big, hairy, and audacious (aka, BHAGs), and not necessarily realistic, but their value should be viewed as aspirational and directional. From there, using a crawl-walk-run approach, leaders can develop a more pragmatic set of near-term objectives that enable them to gradually transform their Industrial Era orientations and operations in ways that reflect Digital Era realities, opportunities, and challenges.

Related piece: The SAPLING Approach to Leveraging Social Media

Tactical Leadership

Whereas strategic leadership is the design component of the digital transformation framework, tactical leadership is the execution component. In addition to determining and facilitating the pursuit of strategic priorities, leading for success in the Digital Era requires developing sophisticated, informed, and forward-thinking answers to questions like the following:

  • What kinds of fiduciary and governance responsibilities do Boards of Directors have with respect to addressing Digital Era opportunities and challenges?
  • What are new and evolving legal and regulatory requirements specifically related to digital technology that could impact the organization?
  • What are the primary Digital Era risks, and how should they be managed?
  • How must human capital management practices change to adapt to Digital Era realities?
  • Should CEOs and other leaders be directly engaged in external applications of social media? What about internal initiatives?
  • What traits and behaviors must leaders have and demonstrate to be effective and successful in their roles as the Digital Era evolves?


As a core element of the digital transformation framework, governance includes things like roles and responsibilities, rules and guidelines, policies and procedures. One of the paradoxes of digital transformation – particularly the use of social technologies – is that opening up channels of communication and using more sophisticated technology to facilitate communication and collaboration creates the need for more, rather than less, control. Unlike Industrial Era approaches to control, however, the purpose here is not to restrict behavior in a way that promotes standardization and conformity, but to do so in a way that liberates people to interact with each other using social and digital technology more efficiently and effectively. Furthermore, the approach should reflect a shift from managerial direction and power to worker empowerment and engagement.

Good governance does not involve unnecessary bureaucracy or excessive rigidity, and it should not be based on an arbitrary set of standards. Rather, following models created by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early days of the Industrial Era and W. Edwards Deming after WWII, it should maximize the efficient and effective achievement of organizational goals and be driven by rational, scientific approaches, including a strong reliance on (big) data and analytics.

Although there’s much to be learned from Taylor and Deming, the lessons to be derived from their work have more to do with how we approach the development of good governance models rather than what the models themselves should look like. It bears emphasizing that the kinds of models we need today are generally without precedent. The role of strong governance models in determining Digital Era success is unquestionably important, but what those models should be requires fresh thinking and approaches.

Who will be the Digital Era’s Taylor or Deming?

Digital Competencies

As a component of the digital transformation framework, digital competencies include digital literacy (or digital fluency), as well as digitally-focused management and leadership capabilities.

Digital literacy is comprised of four hierarchical components. The first three focus on basic knowledge and understanding, as well as organizational and individual applications. The fourth focuses on related skills and the ability to leverage digital technology effectively.

  • Digital era concepts. In the context of job-related communication and collaboration, these include things like platforms, channels, content creation and curation, crowdsourcing, cloud computing, and cybersecurity.
  • Digital tools and systems. Digital tools include the obvious: email, chatting/instant messaging, the Microsoft Office suite of products (and equivalents), as well as tools like photo and video editors. Systems include software applications developed for specific purposes, like accounting, business intelligence, and learning management.
  • Social technology features, platforms, and tools. Social technology features include things like blogging, customized aggregators, dashboards and portals, discussion forums/threads, media sharing, user-generated profiles, and wikis. Platforms and tools include obvious public networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube, but also tools like Disqus and ShareThis and more privately-oriented offerings like Yammer, Jive, and Interact Intranet.
  • Digital engagement skills and tactics. The fourth component of digital literacy focuses on the skills to use social and digital technologies efficiently, as well as the necessary judgment to use them effectively. Examples include knowing the right channel to use for a given communication, using email productively, creating and engaging productively in discussion threads and forums, content curation and validation, contributing to a wiki, and HTML basics.

Digitally-focused management capabilities include the ability to address issues and challenges related to the development and implementation of social/digital engagement strategies and plans (including governance, risk, and human capital considerations), as well as the use of these technologies by individual employees.

Leadership capabilities include the knowledge, skills and abilities to address the strategic issues articulated above, as well as individual traits and behaviors that are unique to or take on new meaning in the Digital Era (e.g., openness, transparency, interpersonal communication).

These six elements can be construed to comprise a Digital Competencies Model, but it’s actually several models. The details of what each element involves will depend on factors like an individual’s leadership status, functional area, roles and responsibilities, etc. As with governance models, we’re dealing with a set of realities and requirements we’ve never had to deal with before in any substantive way. Traditionally, professionals and other workers have had to develop a knowledge base, skills and expertise that were directly related to their professions and/or organizational responsibilities (e.g., accounting, manufacturing, medicine, law). Now, however, they also need to add a digital dimension to their knowledge base, skill set and expertise to do their jobs. This digital dimension may relate to the unique tools and requirements of their jobs (e.g., 3D printing, digital radiography), but it’s also strongly connected to their interactions with others. The communication and collaboration platforms and tools available today are far more sophisticated and require more advanced capabilities than traditional tools like pens and pencils, phones, and even early digital tools like email.

Though they’re loath to admit it, most workers today have low levels of digital literacy (and many are virtually illiterate). To achieve Digital Era success, organizational leaders must recognize the importance of digital literacy and digital competencies – and act on that recognition to ensure they have a high-functioning, efficient and effective workforce.

Related piecesThe Digital Transformation of Business Functions and We’re All Becoming Tech Workers… And We Need to Be Ready

Education and Training

Formal education and training is another core component of the digital transformation framework. For too long we’ve been operating with what I call a LIY (Learn It Yourself) approach to social and digital technologies. This approach has generally been ineffective (e.g., most people still don’t know how to use traditional tools like Microsoft Office products, email or the internet itself at more than a basic level), and it’s even less ideal when it comes to the more sophisticated and powerful tools now available to us. Our collective suboptimization is going from bad to worse.

Ironically (or perhaps paradoxically), the LIY approach is accompanied by a tendency to “blame” the tools for having too many bells and whistles and being overly complex (which is a fair complaint, but maybe not a good excuse), along with a corresponding expectation that it’s the responsibility of the software developers and designers to make digital tools easier to use. As important as good user design and user experience are, it’s unrealistic to expect that the standards of simplicity and intuitiveness we apply to consumer-oriented technologies can be completely extended to the tools we use for work. At some point we have to recognize that even the best designed software tools require knowledgeable and skilled users. Training is necessary to create strong users, and the required training should not just focus on the literal aspects of how to use specific tools and platforms. Rather, there needs to be an emphasis on understanding the underlying logic behind new technologies (e.g., what is a discussion thread, what do hyperlink codes tell us) and developing transferable skills that can be used across a wide range of platforms (e.g., html basics).

In addition to training focused on knowledge and skills related to digital tools and technologies, training related to tactics and governance, as well as education regarding key concepts and managerial issues, are also critical elements of the digital transformation framework. Much of the necessary training can be offered by organizations for their employees or can take place via online videos, tutorials and courses. But there’s also an important role for academic institutions from elementary schools through higher education to help workers at all levels and all career stages develop the necessary competencies. They need to know not just their ABCs and 123s, but also their 0101s.

Related piecesHow Much Is Digital Illiteracy Costing Your Organization? and Digital Literacy: Helping Learners Learn in the Digital Era

Change Management

Change management is another key element of the digital transformation framework. Unfortunately, it is too often underemphasized and undervalued. Creating a roadmap for Digital Era success requires some very powerful shifts in mental models, individual and group behavior, and organizational processes – the likes of which we haven’t really dealt with before. These changes will be profound and dramatic, but they will not – and should not – happen overnight. Digital transformation is a long-term commitment, and it is best approached as an evolutionary process that requires balancing the past, present, and future, respects the rights and needs of both individuals and the organization, is flexible but inevitable, involves both carrots and sticks – and above all is clear and transparent.

Related pieceSocial Software Implementations: A Judokan Approach to Change.

Organizational Culture

If an organization’s strategic goals and objectives are the foundation of the digital transformation framework, and leadership, governance, digital competencies, education and training, and change management are the building blocks, then culture is the mortar that connects and binds everything together.

Many organizations have moved forward with a variety of digitization efforts, at least from an operational perspective, much more quickly than they have with digital engagement (both external and internal). Although digitization is a necessary component of digital transformation, it is hardly sufficient. Leaders must recognize that the “bigger wins” will come when they integrate social technologies throughout their operations, effectively becoming what is often referred to as a “social enterprise” or “social business.”

Cultural components are critical to this aspect of digital transformation. I discuss the necessary cultural elements in What Factors are Relevant to Becoming a Social Enterprise?, highlighting the characteristics that are less important than people think (i.e., organizational type and focus, size, age, financial resources, and workforce characteristics), as well as those that are more important than people think (i.e., cultural values). The key cultural drivers, in order of importance, are:

  • Performance values: operational efficiency, organizational effectiveness, financial performance
  • Innovation values
  • Human capital and communication values

Many social enterprise advocates reverse this order of priority, emphasizing the importance of things like empowerment, egalitarianism and engagement in creating the kind of cultural environment that enables employees to leverage social tools most effectively. As an extension of that argument, they’ll emphasize that more hierarchical and command-and-control environments are not only not conducive to social technologies, but that they’re antithetical to them.

As well intentioned as these ideas may be, they’re a little bit misguided and maybe even counterproductive. The truth of the matter is that social technologies can work perfectly well in more traditional cultures because of the ways in which they can enhance efficiency and effectiveness. Especially in the short term, performance values may be the biggest drivers of adoption, so their importance should be emphasized rather than minimized.

The cultural values discussed in What Factors are Relevant to Becoming a Social Enterprise? are obviously not unique to social enterprises, and that’s part of the point. Leveraging social technologies should be part and parcel of an organization’s sound management principles. As new tools for doing old things, they should be integrated into the existing culture and mission of an organization rather than being viewed as something that requires dramatic changes before they can be leveraged effectively.

Your Thoughts?

What other elements do you think are required to build an effective digital transformation framework? What additional ideas and suggestions would you offer with respect to the elements I’ve identified and sketched out here? What questions and concerns do you have? As always, your comments and questions are welcome.

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