20 November 2019

Change Management and Digital Transformation: Tips for HR

Digital Transformation
change management


Karen Jaw-Madson

Think about how much money and how many people are required for a large change management initiative like digital transformation: the scoping, the budget, the RFPs, the selection, the contracts, the integration, the adoption, etc. The stakes for harnessing the ROI are high, and success rates are low. Research shows that most change efforts will fail. Some say 50%, others as high as 70%–mostly due to people-related issues.

A company could have the best processes, technology, tools, and resources in the world, but without people on board, everything is at risk.

That risk can be mitigated when potential pitfalls are preemptively addressed. HR (in partnership with company leadership) can do something about that. For starters:


This begins at home in HR. Reframe the initiative from an execution project to a learning experience. Seek out, dig into, and be able to answer questions such as:

  • What is digital transformation?
  • What problems does it solve?
  • What problems does it create?
  • How do you make it effective?
  • What steps are required for a successful digital transformation?

Learn enough about change management, digital transformation, and your own company to speak intelligently to the landscape, anticipate the major challenges, and plan strategically. Be forthcoming with what you don’t know so you can learn from others.

Learning is demonstrated by changed behavior, i.e. “I have encountered new information, gained new knowledge, and they are applied and demonstrated through my actions.” Incorporate learning into everything you do.

When HR refers to digital transformation as an ‘IT’ thing, you know they don’t get what it means to truly transform.

soft skills
Soft Skills Development
Building the critical skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace
soft skills
Soft Skills Development
Building the critical skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace

Get it

Learning will help HR “get it”. “Getting it” means having the right mindset and perspective around why digital transformation is necessary, what it hopes to accomplish, and its impact on both business and people.

According to Roopa Surapur, IT executive and founder of INIT6, a business transformation consultancy, “When HR refers to digital transformation as an ‘IT’ thing, you know they don’t get what it means to truly transform. Treating their role as just being the stewards of human governance results in a perception of us vs. them.”

She continues, “HR needs to understand that digital transformation has very little to do with technology and so much more to do with hiring the talent and giving them space to innovate without fear or reprisal.”

Get others to get it

Many HR departments function with few resources, budget, or even decision rights when it comes to projects. Sometimes the only (and arguably the best) thing HR can have is influence, but it must be earned. Become a change agent and use social capital as a force for change, especially when it comes to correcting common misunderstandings.

Hendri Widiarta, Sr. Vice President, Human Resources, Asia Pacific for B. Braun

specifically notes “the perception that an organization can accomplish a successful digital transformation without the involvement of all divisions and stakeholders behind it, be that HR or others [is wrong]. A transformation is a big task and without teamwork and synergy across the organization, it will be difficult to achieve successfully.” HR can play a huge role when it comes to pulling it all together for the organization.

soft skills
Soft Skills Development
Building the critical skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace
soft skills
Soft Skills Development
Building the critical skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace

Address Culture

No one needs reminding that a digital transformation (or any major change initiative) is good for business. Sadly, leadership sometimes forgets that:

  • their success depends on their people
  • current company culture (and its requisite norms) will either enable or cripple whatever change they hope to implement.

If the company is not already actively managing culture, a deep dive into the current state upfront is imperative. That knowledge ensures strategy and change management planning (including any culture change) are informed and relevant. Credibility in the eyes of employees depends on whether the journey from “where we are” to “where we want to go” is intelligently mapped.

HR must step up to ensure both people and business needs stay “front and center” the whole way.

Manage Change

Change management is not a catch-all for “To Do” lists. It is the process of successfully shepherding an organization through transformation. Strategically plan for:

  • management of the change process itself (big buckets are Plan, Manage, Measure, and Sustain)
  • the change narrative (content/meaning, interactions, organizational adaptability, and other resources and competencies that will enable the transformation).

What’s more, “There has to be an equal emphasis on the digital technology and [the] transformation process,” says Hendri Widiarta. Put infrastructure in place to continually gauge the balance throughout the initiative.

Further reading

What if HR is the one being digitally transformed? Hendri explains, “In principle, the differences would be minimal from the change process point of view. The differences are in the discussion about the digital technology and the detailed process design that we have to undertake during the project period. If HR is the project owner, then the team should be much more involved in the beginning.”

He continues, “As for the change process, when it comes to having conversation and communication with HR team members who may be impacted by the change (i.e., change in work scope [and/or] position), the same conversation shall be conducted with other divisions that HR is supporting as well. From experience, it’s best to speak as transparently as possible about the possible changes and therefore minimize the uncertainty, rather than keeping most of the information out from the impacted group of employees.”

What HR does for their internal stakeholders and clients should also be done for HR. They are employees too, ones that can also benefit from effective change management.

The one takeaway

Remember that every change management initiative is different, even with similar objectives. Therefore, always learn, get it, get others to get it, address culture, and manage change as if it’s the first time, every time.

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