Strategies for Tackling Digital Transformation Resistance

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Read more about author Vrinda Khurjekar.

The often-overused phrase “digital transformation” instills a sense of excitement and progress for many executives. But for some business leaders, digital transformation means intimidation or mystery. When the former group is tasked with selling data-driven technology initiatives to the latter group, they face formidable challenges. They must win hearts and minds to get buy-in, sometimes faced with psychological impediments and organizational cultural resistance, as well as the burden of proving the ROI for a new, sometimes unproven technology.

Digital transformation has been a particularly challenging sell in sectors famously resistant to leaving behind manual processes, like construction, shipping, and pharma. But these and other industries are already realizing that the fourth industrial revolution is no longer a matter of if, but when. Plus, it’s a neverending revolution, with new technologies and tools coming down the pipe all the time. Whether trying to sell digital asset tokenization to a bank, generative AI to a regulatory compliance department, or a data management platform to a digital advertiser, technology champions can follow a few fundamentals to succeed in winning buy-in.

Don’t Try to Do Too Much at the Outset

First, the do-nots: If a technology champion joins an organization that has clung to manual, paper processes, the champion should resist the urge to push big or multiple technology solutions across the entire company, even if there is a lot to be gained by transforming. By the same token, if you have discovered a great data-driven sales enablement offering, for example, the champion should not try to convince leaders to roll it out to the entire company at once, especially in large global enterprises. Instead, focus on a pilot testing phase within one group or region in order to generate proof-of-concept. Finally, it is unpopular to sell an initiative that tries to achieve too much by addressing too many business challenges at once.

Focus on the Technology Solving One Critical Business Question

The best way to break down resistance to digitization is to prove the concept by answering a single, concise business question with a pilot. A data technology champion will have difficulty if they attempt to pitch an expensive company-wide or department-wide data offering. The leader will more likely embrace a more methodical, less expensive implementation that doesn’t require extensive operational change and doesn’t thrust new systems and processes onto the company overnight. Restrained business leaders will be more apt to give a solution a chance if the test demonstrates quantifiable impact by solving one key business problem.

Let’s discuss examples. Perhaps a revenue team has seen dropping inbound lead conversion rates, or a company has poor data analytics supply chain capabilities and needs real-time data capture to ensure key inventory and forecasting insights. The selected business question should speak directly to the pain points of a certain department, manager, or function. Data technology champions can win over top management by highlighting the benefits and positive impact it will have on their day-to-day tasks, productivity, and overall performance. In this manner, not only are you proving the value proposition of the offering but you are also creating evangelists within the staff who witness the improvement firsthand.

Winning Internal Stakeholders’ Hearts and Minds

Starting with small data-driven initiatives sets the stage for successful implementation of the digital solution across the organization. Once a short-term pilot test has demonstrated success metrics that address the single key business issue and improvements in the work lives of a small group of key stakeholders, those stakeholders can act as advocates as the company moves to scale the solution to additional offices or departments. Once the test period elapses, IT and other managers should collect candid feedback from the involved individuals, which will inform the next phase of adoption. By stratifying the implementation strategy based on stakeholder groups, data evangelists are fostering tailored positioning of the technology and addressing specific needs and concerns as it expands across the organization. Also making the pilot users evangelists will further adoption with their peers.

Tell a Compelling Technology Success Story

Great results from a new AI or SaaS solution should be immediately trumpeted within the organization to demonstrate relevance and value, thus creating positive momentum for a promising technology initiative for other leaders and teams. Conducting training sessions, publishing white papers and blog posts, and discussing business use cases internally can help achieve the organization’s larger goal of embedding technology into the DNA of the workplace culture.

Especially important in larger organizations, storytelling drives technology adoption. And don’t stop telling the story after the first phase. Executives can create a positive narrative around new technology by showcasing the ensuing stages of impact and user adoption — think From > To. Positive reinforcement cultivates trust and belief in the practical value of the solution and demystifies the technology for those naturally skeptical about big data.

Transformative Technology and Democratizing Innovation

Certain tech initiatives are so transformative that their full potential can only be realized by (slowly) empowering everybody in the organization to use and experiment with them to innovate, and exploring new ways of creating value in the processes and procedures they deal with every day. For example, generative AI and AI in general, have such broad implications and extensive applications that they shouldn’t be labeled merely as a departmental job. New AI rollouts are often overly technical and convoluted. To foster AI buy-in from the ground up, it’s important to meet people where they are, making the data and analytics tools accessible to everyone in the organization. This includes democratizing the data, making it easier for everyone to access by investing in a robust data warehouse solution to keep the data centralized.

Simply put, sensible rollout of AI solutions including generative AI and low-code tools will “democratize innovation.” The most successful implementations will provide employees the opportunity to experiment with analytics tools by leveraging no-code analytics solutions that are easy to use and don’t require in-depth analytics knowledge. Internal storytelling on AI successes should drive the message that AI tools and company data are around to help everyone succeed, both as individuals and the organization.

Dealing with Rejection

Let’s face it, it happens. Business leaders will often balk at your technology elevator pitch, specifically if it means a large investment and/or a long-tail journey toward ROI. While keeping up with the “competitor Joneses” on technology adoption can be important because no one wants to fall behind in creating operational efficiencies, pushing innovation from a fear of missing out (FOMO) point of view could result in rejection, or worse, failure. As noted by Harvard Data Science Reviewapproaching digital transformation from a FOMO lens “results in rushed, ad hoc products that don’t provide the expected returns to customers and stakeholders.”

Tapping External Stakeholders to Help Win Internal Buy-In

Additionally, if a data champion is trying to sell a digital platform to a company that lacks a culture of innovation, it may be necessary to initially sell the idea to a single decision-maker who can become a champion for the proposal. Such an evangelist can identify a colleague within the organization who understands the potential benefits and is willing to advocate for the idea. Another effective approach is to seek an advocate outside the organization, like a friendly customer, vendor, or industry colleague. These external stakeholders can provide valuable insights and third-party credibility to augment your proposal. A customer’s point of view will prove particularly compelling to leadership, as they can speak directly about how the technology would benefit them – and enhance their satisfaction with your company’s services.

Certainly, it takes considerable work to win buy-in on a successful digital transformation solution within a company tethered to legacy processes. However, such a win can pave the way for the company’s success – and your own success. It’s important to prioritize attention and resources toward what truly matters to the organization. This focused approach allows for successful proof-of-concept wins, builds momentum, demonstrates return on investment (ROI), and paves the way for scaling technology effectively.