When is transformation truly transformational – and when’s it not?

Peter Lunio
Peter Lunio

Peter Lunio, 09 January 2020

I’ve been doing some research for a social housing client which has meant reading a lot of corporate strategies and Value for Money statements from housing associations. The word that crops up time and time again is ‘transformation’ – and in many cases, it’s preceded by the word ‘digital’. It made me think about whether these transformations were reality or fantasy – and how you tell whether an initiative is truly transformational?

I’ve been doing some research for a social housing client which has meant reading a lot of corporate strategies and Value for Money statements from housing associations. The word that crops up time and time again is ‘transformation’ – and in many cases, it’s preceded by ‘digital’. 

It made me think about whether these transformations were reality or fantasy – and how can you tell whether an initiative is truly transformational?

This is my attempt to provide you with some criteria of what transformation is, what it’s not, and how to spot the difference. I’ve leant heavily on the work of Emma Stace, Chief Digital Officer at the Department for Education, and in particular her article ‘Transformation is not a programme’.

Misconceptions about transformation

In my experience, several misconceptions often surround business or digital transformation in the social housing sector. These relate to the role of technology and the role of process in achieving meaningful change. Both are required to deliver a better customer experience, but neither addresses everything that is necessary to provide real value to customers.

  • Transformation isn’t just about technology. There’s no doubt that many transformations involve the use of new technologies. However, a recent survey revealed that only 5% of digital transformations actually meet the expectations of the executives who mandated them. This is because isolated technology initiatives alone are not enough to deliver better customer experience. Providers need to leverage technology in conjunction with other strategies and shifts in thinking to satisfy customer needs.
  • Transformation isn’t about getting lean or going agile. While changing underlying processes is a necessary aspect of transformation, it should not be viewed as the primary reason for transforming. How work gets done is secondary to what work needs to get done and why. The ‘why’, ‘when’, and ‘what’ should always come before the ‘how’. Do you understand what your customers want before accelerating the development and delivery of new services?

Investing in new technologies and improving process efficiency are important aspects of change, but they are not an end in themselves. How often do you hear that an association has gone digital by giving its housing management staff a tablet or a smartphone and then claiming to be agile as well? At a high level, it takes the right combination of changing a mindset, people, processes, technology, and measurement.

The five tests of transformation

So, if those misconceptions tell you what digital transformation is not, how can you tell what it is? Here’s my reality checklist for you (again courtesy of Emma Stace):

  1. Does it present a positive view of the future? Will it be engaging to your staff and welcomed by your customers? Or will they just see it as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, some form of cost-cutting exercise. If it is, then just say so.
  2. Is it irreversible? To use a housing analogy, is this a repainting and repairing exercise or is it a complete overhaul through remodelling? A true transformation should be the latter, not the former.
  3. Is it inconvenient? To continue the housing analogy, you’ll have no heating, no carpets and dust everywhere. So, if it's not messy or uncomfortable and everything appears straightforward, it's probably not transformational.
  4. Is it cultural? It’s not just the infrastructure that changes – it’s also about people and their skills and behaviours.
  5. Is it personal? Culture change starts with people changing their behaviours. So, if you’re not doing anything differently, then it’s probably not personal – and it’s probably not transformational. 

So if your organisation is going through a change or transformation initiative – try these five tests to see whether it’s truly transformational.

 


At our Board Excellence in Housing Conference on 6-7 February in London, we’ll be discussing a range of topics relevant to housing association board members, from investing in new technologies to climate change and diversity.