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Digital transformation journey: How to muster the troops

A digital transformation journey, make no mistake, is no walk in the park. It involves major course corrections to technology, to business processes, to how people do their jobs and how they think about their roles. So, how does a company make something so radical as digital transformation part of its DNA?

Gail Evans, who was promoted in June from global CIO at Mercer to the consulting firm's global chief digital officer, believes an important first step is getting people to see what's in it for them, "because once you see the value, you're all in."

In this video recorded in May at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, then-CIO Evans provided some insight into how she musters the troops at Mercer, explaining that a digital transformation journey is, by nature, long and iterative, requiring people to see value all along the way.

Editor's note: The following was edited for clarity and brevity.

What can companies do to get started on a digital transformation journey?

Gail Evans: Actually, I think there are a couple of things. I think digital transformation, at its core, is the people. At the very core of any transformation, it is about how do you inspire a team to align to this new era -- this new era of different tools, different technologies that can be applied in many different, creative ways to create new business models or to drive efficiencies in your organization.

So, I think the leaders in the enterprise are ones who understand the dynamics of taking your core and moving it up the food chain. Where does it start? I think it starts with creating a beachhead, creating a platform of digital, and then allowing that to grow and swell with training and opportunities, webinars, blogs so that it becomes a part of a company's DNA. Because I believe digital isn't a thing -- it's a new way of doing things to create value through the application of technology and data.

Which departments at Mercer are in the vanguard of digital transformation? Who are laggards?

Evans: One would argue that marketing is already digital, right? I mean, they are already using digital technologies to drive personalized experiences on the web and have been doing that for many years. I would say that it starts in, probably, technology. Technology will embrace it, and also it needs to be infused into the business leaders.

I think the laggards are typically … I guess I wouldn't necessarily call them 'laggards.' I think I would refer to them as not yet seeing the value of digital, because once you see the value, you're all in.

Pockets of resistance

[Digital transformation is] humans plus technology and new business models. That is what digital transformation is all about and it's fun!
Gail Evansglobal chief digital officer, Mercer

Evans: There are teams or pockets of folks who have done things the same way for a long time and there is a resistance there. It's kind of the, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' Those are pockets, but you'd find those pockets in every transformation, whether it's digital or [moving into the] information age, whatever -- you'll find pockets of people who are not ready to go.

And so, I think there are pockets of people in our core legacy who are holding onto their technology of choice and may not have up-skilled themselves, so they are holding on and they are resisting.

And then there are business folks who have been used to one-to-one relationships and built their whole career -- a very successful career -- with those one-to-one relationships. And now digital is coming from a different place where some of what you might have thought was your IP in value is now in algorithms. What will you do differently and how do you manage those dynamics differently?

I think there's education [that needs to happen] because I think it's humans plus technology, it's not just technology; it's humans plus technology and new business models. That is what digital transformation is all about and it's fun! It is a new way to just have fun. It will be something else two, three, five years from now.

Speaking to 'hearts and minds'

What strategies do you have for getting people to sign on for that 'fun' digital transformation journey?

Evans: At Mercer, what I've done was, first, you have to create, I think, a very strong digital strategy that is not just textbook strategy, but one that speaks to the hearts and minds from the executive team down to the person who's coding, that they can relate to and become a part of it. Many people believe, 'What's in it for me? Yeah, I get that technology stuff, but what is it in for me?' [Showing that] then what is in it for the business and bringing that strategy together and having proof points along the way [is important].

It's not a big bang approach; it's really very agile and iterative. And so, as you iterate and show value, people will become more open to change. And as you train them, so build a strategy and inspire your team, inspire your executive leadership team because that's where all the money is. You need the money, so they need to believe in the digital transformation [journey] and the revenue aspect and the stakeholder value that it would bring.

Basically, create a strong vision that applies to the team, create a strategy that is based on efficiencies and revenue and also create what many call a bimodal [IT approach] because you need to continue to drive the core legacy systems and optimize. They're still the bread and butter of the company. So, you have to find a strategy that allows both to grow.

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