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Digital Transformation: It’s the people, not the technology that matters

In a 2019 survey of senior executives, directors, and CEOs, digital transformation was collectively cited as their biggest risk concern. Why then with over $1.3 trillion spent annually on such initiatives, primarily driven to improve efficiencies, do so many end up wasting money?

What is digital transformation?

Whilst the term is many a corporate favourite, a meaningful definition is hard to come by. According to Salesforce “digital transformation is the process of using digital technologies to create new — or modify existing — business processes, culture, and customer experiences to meet changing business and market requirements”. However, a recent Harvard Business Review article looks at why, contrary to popular belief, talent rather than technology lies at the heart of true transformation.

Unlike technology, that can be bought, adapting your team to a new future with the next generation of concomitant skills required, means that for many businesses a stark gap in talent supply and demand looms.

As humans, we are pre-wired to feel comfortable with familiarity and routine, and this extends to our working lives. For those with years of experience in a particular role, autopilot usually kicks in at the expense of new learning. As we feel less need to take up new learning opportunities, we may end up doing ourselves a grave disservice by going through our entire professional lives without reaching our full potential.

Wait. I thought this was about digital transformation, not philosophy. Am I lost, or is this just another consequence of extended isolation with my own thoughts?

To digress, here we share some ways in which we can all use this period of crisis as a time of reflection and yes, you’ve guessed it, self-improvement, to be prepared for the inevitably even-more-digital future. With little indication that our more virtual way of life will be reversed any time soon, it seems fair to bet that developing skills to make you better adjusted to a more digital career would be a wise move. Here are a few top-level pointers:

Put people first:

To see value in technology it must be paired with the right human skills. If we are to replace human positions with machine automation, we must be creative and innovate to create new ones that augment technologies. We can leverage the innovation that only humans are capable of by reskilling and upskilling the workforce. Without human thinking and skill, all this expensive tech is irrelevant. Leaders considering tech investments must, therefore, think first of the people they need to source and invest in to make use of the technology.

Focus on soft skills:

The fundamental technological skills are not those exclusive to data science or software engineering programmes, but the next generation of IT skills for the masses. By nature of higher education, universities gage employer demand and so craft their curriculums accordingly, thus a surplus of marginally out-dated skill sets are created. Therefore, the best way to create a more data-centric organisation is to selectively hire and invest in the most innately adaptable, curious, and flexible individuals. As no one knows what hard skills the future will demand, the second-best option is to hire those most likely to develop them. As the authors of the HBR article wisely put it “technical competence is temporary, but intellectual curiosity must be permanent.”

Drive change from the top:

A grass-roots ideology in regard to digitalisation is an unrealistic ideal, as change is far more likely to be meaningful from the top down. Change cannot be expected without first selecting and training your top leaders in how to affect it. Their competence will be the differentiator in transformational success or failure. So invest wisely in leaders who can get others to perform as a cohesive team.

Act on your data insights:

Don’t let the hype of AI or other technologies, distract you from your company’s biggest competitive advantage: can you harness your valuable data, translate those data into valuable insights and, most importantly, act on those insights? It’s far more likely that properly acting on your data insights, will be a greater differentiator to future-proofing your organisation that investing in the most ‘in’ pieces of tech. It’s not radical algorithms, that have made the Amazons or the Googles of this world the market leaders, but instead how they have harnessed what data sets they have and by acting accordingly, through a culture of absolute data-centricity.

Fail fast, succeed slowly:

In such a rapidly changing present, the need for speed in your business response is implicit. And while, the opportunity to learn from quick, failed experiments and emerge stronger is not one that all companies can afford, conversely you need to make sure that your long-term bets are working out. If you can’t afford to fail fast, you should be succeeding slowly. The most important thing is not to let an obsession with success breed a false sense of security.

How does this relate to pharma?

Bryn Roberts, SVP and Global Head of Operations for Pharmaceutical Research and Early Development at Roche, on LinkedIn commented:

“Digital transformation: we keep hearing the term but are often disappointed to learn that there is little transformation going on in many cases, just technology implementation. This deceptively simple article nails some of the fundamentals of effective digital transformation. “… advantage is to harness valuable data, having the necessary skills to translate [those] data into meaningful insights, and above all being able to act on those insights”. For us, at Roche, that means insights that help us understand disease, and how best to detect, treat, cure, and prevent it. What does it mean for you?”

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