Digital leadership vs digital action?

Grainne Watson, Head of Product: Digital and Innovation at Capita IT Services, discusses the digital transformation trend, exploring if organisations are truly taking action when it comes to being ‘digital’.

For nearly two decades there has been no shortage of discussion, debate, and interest in all things “digital”. This has resulted in huge amounts of corporate planning, but very few organisations can claim to be fully digital. 

What exactly is digital?

There are lots of definitions of digital, which say and promise various outcomes. Techopedia defines digital transformation as “the changes associated with digital technology application and integration into all aspects of human life and society. It is the move from the physical to digital”. In this definition, the complexity of digital transformation for organisations becomes clear through some significant words and phrases: change, technology application and integration. Now we get closer to understanding why organisations are struggling with the concept.

There is a lot of change involved in any transformation process, which can be difficult to understand as well as embed. With digital transformation, this change is compounded by the introduction of many new technologies that need to be applied and integrated to organisations before the small matter of “all aspects of human life and society” is considered.

Planning is of course essential in delivering digital transformation, however merely writing a digital strategy or transformation plan does not always get to the source of the organisational need for change nor does it tend to feature all the good current technology the company uses and should retain. Indeed, digital strategies have been around almost as long as the term ‘digital transformation’. This is where the discussion of digital leadership and digital action comes into play: how does an organisation get ready to embrace and champion this change, while simultaneously implementing acts to transform the organisation?

Digital leadership or digital action?

The answer is simple, it’s about a balanced mixture of both. Defining your intended outcome, setting aspirations and creating the plan must be balanced with delivering change through outcome-focused iterative projects that are part of the wider initiative. It’s a process that Capita is going through and one we are supporting many customers on.

The first step on this journey for any organisation, whether they are only just beginning or already in the process of transformation, is deciding what your overall vision is, and why. Merely stating that you want to digitally transform or use the latest technologies is a good intent, but it does not provide a defined business ambition or outcome that will enable assessment of ROI or track progress.

In fact, lack of clearly stated outcome explains the high percentage of failed digital projects. Without a defined business outcome, different stakeholders within an organisation have their own idea of what success will look like, leaving them disappointed if and when the end product does not match their expectations.  This dissatisfaction with the pace or implementation of digital transformation is clear in the market too, as digital transformation consulting has doubled worldwide and risen to £2.26 billon of £7.31 billon UK consultancy market. At Capita, our approach has always been as facilitators of the digital transformation journey our customers are on. We help them first define their vision through understanding their desired end-point, then set their business outcomes to be delivered iteratively throughout their transformation. What we are now seeing in the market, however, are more organisations ready to start charting their course or changing tack to get to their intended overall outcome.

Digital transformation in the public sector

At the Government Digital Service (GDS) Sprint 19 event on Thursday 19 September, GDS’ interim Director, Alison Pritchard, outlined the five outcomes that would underpin all their transformation projects to be a “joined-up, trusted and responsive to user needs” in 2030:

  • Security: “We will keep our data, users and services safe by strengthening existing cross-government standards and capabilities.”
  • Legacy IT: “We will improve interoperability across government. This will reduce our reliance on outdated systems which act as barriers to innovation and inhibit effective transformation.”
  • Digital identity: “We will provide a digital identity solution that can be used seamlessly across government services.”
  • Data: “We will make data more accessible and easier to use, while ensuring security and privacy of user data. A stronger cross-government data infrastructure creates more informed and data-driven decisions.”
  • User experience: “The government of the future will deliver personalised services to proactively meet user needs.”

What is important to note here is that these are all elements that the GDS have already been trying to achieve. What placing them as business outcome streams in the overall vision does, however, is sharpen focus and allow the organisation in its entirety to understand what the transformation is trying to achieve and why.  It is digital leadership, as it sets aspirations towards an intended outcome and allows for digital action to get there. It further points to the interconnectivity of all the pillars. Take the first and second for example: security and legacy IT.

The GDS, with the other government departments, is trying to build security by default into the technical architecture of its systems and web design. This is not an issue when developing new systems, but is very much a challenge when we look to legacy systems built long before security was so difficult to manage, as well as the debt associated with operating them. Thus, digital projects that have these interconnected outcomes at their centre will drive action on transformation to new secure-by-default systems, and speed up the process by acknowledging the challenges at the outset.

Similarly, digital identity is bound to data as well as user experience. Providing a digital identity solution that can be used seamlessly across government services necessitates making data accessible through a cross-government data infrastructure that will improve the user experience and deliver personalised services. This interconnectivity of the pillars highlights another challenge with digital:  cross-functional dependencies. Most digital transformation projects are technically complex requiring collaboration and handoffs across teams and functions. Thus, highlighting your overall vision and having a core business outcome for each project enables an iterative delivery and consistent message. In any process involving change, people are key, so having the ability to clearly articulate and reference the benefits of these changes to the organisation is essential to keeping them informed and engaged with the transformation. 

The key to successful digital transformation

The digital transformation challenges that the GDS are facing are universal to all organisations on the digital transformation journey. The key to successful transformation, however, lies in their response. Organisations in both the public and private sectors need to embrace the concepts of digital leadership and digital action. Setting an overall vision and then delivering on it iteratively is central to future-proofing any organisation as it allows you to drive projects to arrive at a business outcome and not define them by technological tools.  It furthermore empowers you to make everyone a stakeholder by setting aspirations and continually delivering value visible to all.

Capita is one of the largest IT providers in the UK, leading the way with digital infrastructure solutions to more than 3,500 organisations. Visit for more information.

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