Digital Transformation — how HR can ‘get digital’ — the personal journey

Author: Laurence Smith, Chief Talent and Learning Officer at Digital Billions

[This article was originally posted by Laurence on Linkedin on 4 April 2016]

This is a follow up to my article Digital Transformation — is HR even part of the conversation?

It’s best to read that first to get the most out of the below — and thanks to everyone who sent such great ideas and feedback.

The previous article revealed that 80% of CEOs consider HR the function least supportive in enabling them to transform their organisations to compete in this era of digital disruption.

This article will give you some ideas of what you can do as a progressive HR leader to strengthen your skills and capabilities to develop a digital mindset and put yourself on the path to becoming an effective change agent within your organisation. A follow-up article will look at some organisational actions you can then take to transform your organisation and increase it’s ‘DQ’ or Digital Quotient.

(Over 2,000 CEOs surveyed by Russell Reynolds in their Digital Pulse 2015)

If you recall one of the big challenges mentioned in the previous article is for CEOs to create an ambidextrous organisation that can exploit and manage the current business model, but also explore and discover new business opportunities and new ways of going to market and take advantage of those as well. The challenge for CHROs and HR leaders then becomes creating an ambidextrous culture and ambidextrous leaders that can both manage the day-to-day business as usual and run experiments and innovate around future possibilities, and do all this through the lens of a fast evolving digital mindset.

Now let’s get practical. I cannot describe this article as a playbook or user’s guide, but here there are some lessons learned, both personally, and absorbed through dozens of conversations with HR and business leaders, start-up founders, academics and thought leaders worldwide, that I hope will be useful to you in your own journey of learning about the digital world and becoming a digital native.

I see my role as a pioneer or trailblazer in exploring the digital world from the HR and organisational transformation perspective. In better understanding how you get thousands of people to develop an ‘explore and discover’ mindset, how to help them get both curious and comfortable about the massive opportunity offered by digital. Identifying the road blocks and dead-ends and marking them for those that follow, such that they can more quickly and safely make the journey. By implication, that means I make more mistakes, discover more things that don’t work, and find more dead ends than most others! But below you have what seems to work best, in other words, the ‘true trails’ and short cuts that I’ve found. I cannot guarantee they will always work for you, but feel free to try, and explore, and let me know.

So here are a few ideas on personal development for HR leaders embarking on this digital transformation journey.

  1. Start at home — don’t forget to take the rest of HR with you. Even in you have a mandate from the CHRO, or the CEO, they need to share the Learning Journey. Being a pathfinder is lonely and you risk getting cut off by the main body — if they don’t share the experience — they won’t get the learning. This is a real dilemma, and one I did not understand and pay enough attention to in the early stages. Here is what I wish I had known then.
  2. Control your natural instinct and enthusiasm. If you’re like me, you are far more excited about exploring over the next ridge than helping set up camp at the end of the day. But, don’t explore too much, you must not get too far ahead of everyone else and you must invest the time in getting back and re-connecting on a regular basis.
  3. Never go alone. Always bring a co-scout, invite peers to join you. Invite each of your HR peers in turn to go with you on your learning journeys, attending the startup & industry networking events and sharing the books, articles and Apps. That way the entire HR leadership team will better understand what you are talking about and will help spread the word. Do not under-estimate the importance of this.
  4. Report back frequently. Good scouts check in often, whether that is daily or weekly you can best judge in your organisation, just remember that if you have covered too much ground compared with the others, you simply won’t be able to paint them a vivid enough picture (map) for them to really feel comfortable with what’s ahead. My advice would be little and often — weekly catch ups at a minimum.
  5. Share the findings. Don’t just explain the lay of the land and describe the territory, they need to understand what you felt and experienced as you travelled through it. Get your co-scouts (HR peers), to lead the report backs as often as possible, it is so much more powerful if they are sharing what they observed and learned.
  6. Bring back ‘new species’ to examine. Pictures and stories are good, but where possible bring back artifacts or ‘new species.’ Share the blogs you’ve discovered, the cool new Apps you’re using, let them play with and examine the artifacts and tools you’ve found and adopted on the journey.
  7. Update the map continuously. Every time you return to camp, make sure you not just tell the stories and share the artifacts found, but you must spend the time to update the map and make sure everyone can read the symbols. In other words, make sure you have a shared appreciation of the landscape ahead.
  8. Collaborate broadly across your own organisation. It’s not just the broader HR team you need to take with you, make sure to reach across the organisation. In many cases they may be ahead of you, but will not necessarily be thinking so deeply abut the cultural, behavioural and organisational implications of the journey. You may well find allies in the Innovation group, Tech & Ops, Customer experience, marketing, etc.
  9. Don’t be lonely. Try to find others on the journey, both inside & outside your organisation to share the ups and downs with. This is not an easy journey, and not well travelled alone. It should be a warning if you cannot find others similarly enthused within your own organisation. Ideally it’s best if you have some within your organisation, and some externally for that outside perspective and cross industry fertilisation of ideas.
  10. Find existing groups. I cannot speak for all of Asia, but certainly in Singapore, there are plenty of interesting groups and networking events. Some also offer classes and workshops, and although many will be too technical, there are some more general interest sessions on Human Centered Design, the Internet of Things, Big Data, which are concepts you need to understand. The general networking and just exposure to all the amazing ideas that could impact your industry is also worthwhile. Here’s a few I am familiar with: ImpactHub Singapore, IdeasCollider, Startupgrind Singapore, Growth Hacking Asia, General Assembly, HyperIsland. ( — HyperIsland was the partner DBS used for it’s famous #DBSHackathon series).
  11. Start the group if it doesn’t exist where you are. I’ve also occasionally founded groups for myself to learn, discuss and share with like minded thought leaders and progressive practioners — (GreenMondays in Tokyo and LTDD, (Learning, Talent, Digital and Drinks), in Singapore). Don’t be shy, I guarantee there are dozens of people out there asking the same questions and pondering the same challenges — just wishing they could find more people like themselves. Be the one — take the initiative, start the group you want to join! An amazing example of this is Cade Tan who started the DBS Imaginarium series connecting the mavericks and trailblazers within DBS.
  12. Don’t under-estimate your own worth. While recently catching up with an old colleague, friend and mentor, he was lamenting that while he was based in Silicon Valley, and worked for a tech firm, he wanted to get more involved in the startup scene but didn’t really think he had much to contribute. But as a senior HR leader with 20+ years in a Fortune 100 firm, many startup founders would dearly love to leverage his learning and insights — he would be a wonderful advisory board member — but he needed to build his own understanding and confidence of the startup scene and process first. (He was one of the catalysts to write this article).
  13. Learn, learn, learn, read, read, read. Different people have different preferences. I like to read a lot, have people to bounce ideas off of in smaller groups, attend relevant topic based networking sessions and selectively attend larger conferences.
  14. Get digital by digital. I would also recommend that you download and experiment with the SmartUp App — after all, this is how startups learn to be better startups and is I think of even more importance to the corporate world. See here, here and here to learn more*
  15. The key is to never stop learning — and to create that hunger for knowledge and adaptability within HR and then across the whole organisation. We can all quote dozens of thought leaders who have talked about the importance of the learning organisation, but when the outside world, technology and competition, is changing faster than ever, it has never been more true.

With the lifespan of a Fortune 500 company now down to a measly 14 years — Einstein’s observation is as true of our organisations as it of each of us.

Good luck on the journey — and please reach out if you want to talk more about these and other lessons learned.

The next article in this series will look at once you are personally comfortable in this new digital world of lean startup, design thinking and experimentation — what you can do to take the rest of your organisation on this journey and make sure that they are the winners in this race to tomorrow.

*Disclosure: as of April 1st I have been invited to join the Advisory Board of SmartUp.

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