True Digital Organizations Put People First

Digital transformation means significant and sweeping organizational change. It is not something that will be led by IT, it is not something that a chief digital officer can do alone. It requires culture change, and lots of it.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

September 3, 2015

6 Min Read
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The phrase "digital transformation" has become the buzz du jour. Predictably, the usual suspects in IT and in the vendor space have tacked on "digital" and "digital transformation" to their resumes. (Hashtag-yay.) But digital transformation isn't only about IT or vendors.

Digital transformation means significant and sweeping organizational change. It is not something that will be led by IT, it is not something that a chief digital officer can do alone. It requires culture change, and lots of it. If you thought that switching ERP platforms was all about organizational change, belt yourself in, because ERP changes pale in comparison to digital transformation.

Real digital transformation involves the entire organization. It involves people and culture as much as -- or perhaps more than -- it involves technology. To be totally clear, there is no organizational change without sweeping and rapidly spreading individual employee change. Organizations don't change, only employees do.

Is your organization ready to go digital? This is not a trivial question, and most of all, it is not a question posed solely to IT.

My staff and I at the City of Asheville, North Carolina, have been fortunate to be a part of some really neat digital projects. We've adopted startup techniques, we've implemented hiring practices that we've observed at digital-savvy organizations, and we've finally started to change the conversation with our citizen-customers to begin to deliver true value.

People are quick to point out that "everything begins at the top." And that's true: We would be dead in the water without visionary C-level leadership. This has allowed us to step outside of IT's usual role at a large organization. But transformation is about much more than having the right leadership at the C-level. Ultimately, it's about employees.

[ Is no one buying into what you're offering? See Usability: The Road To Digital Transformation. ]

How do employees need to change?

Helpful hint: Look at the digital natives who have started to arrive at your organizations, the 20-somethings. The employees who sometimes come with their own laptops, might prefer to have a tablet instead, and who don't want to go through IT to order a printer. Not only that, generally they don't want a printer and would prefer to use Evernote and Expensify to manage their "paperwork." They don't understand why they have to use the organization's super double-secret-probation secure WiFi inside of the perimeter, when, outside of the organization, they use coffee shop WiFi on a daily basis

And really, who can blame them? They have tasted the efficiency and speed of digital life in their personal lives and are reluctant to enter the tar pit of the typical techno-bureaucracy.

Look at them, because they are exhibiting the characteristics of digital employees: self-reliant, demanding, tech-savvy, automation-focused, with a relentless need for speed.

I cannot say this loud enough: Digital organizations are peopled by digital employees.

Every day, IT is doing work that digital employees don't need done. Should IT be delivering desktop printers? Why? What a waste of time. Get the desktop printer delivered to a digital native, and she'll set it up. A digital native doesn't need to log an IT help desk request to "run a report" or "set up a survey tool," they simply use SurveyMonkey to get their collection done and export it to a Google Sheet if they need to do deeper analysis.

Smart digital natives still want and need IT where appropriate; they simply don't need IT to wipe their bottoms. They understand and appreciate (ok, with a little pushback) when IT recommends and implements things like endpoint security. Sometimes they push back "because security," but only for the best of reasons. They want to confirm that the risks are real and that inconvenience and slower processes are the only ways to address those risks. Smart execs want employees to question things that slow the process.

And smart execs will demand that IT articulate the real risks.

IT, in the new, digital age, also wants employees to question things that slow the process and screw up speed of delivery. IT, after all, is vitally interested in the need for speed, responsiveness, and business agility.

IT is a major organ of the body. If the body dies, so too does IT. 

Naysayers in the old-style organization will be quick to point out that everything will go down in flames without IT having a tight span of control over everything. Tell that to Automattic, Spotify, or other organizations that have been wildly successful without insisting on a tight span of control everywhere.

IT is starting to get it. What I fear is that other leaders in the organization may not get it, and that this may be harmful to these businesses and institutions. 

I don't want to say that span of control isn't important sometimes. I am not suggesting that hospital emergency rooms or police and fire emergency radio systems be run in a loosey-goosey manner.

What I am suggesting, is that leaders flip the equation. Instead of defaulting to a tight span of control everywhere, start to consider where a tight span of control is actually needed. You probably want a tight span of control over anything to do with life safety, but do you really need to micromanage a product?

The notion that IT needs to relax a little bit never fails to generate scorn from control freaks. (As an aging ex-security guy, I do confess to being one; I've just had to re-think it.) 

To combat this, I offer an example of a situation where you might think that super-tight span of control would rule the day but actually harms outcomes.

You might think that hospital emergency rooms always require super-tight span of control, but consider this story from a colleague who is an MD in charge of a large emergency room. At her hospital, IT wants everyone to log into the system with a unique ID in order to check a cardiogram. Because security. And HIPAA. 

Yet, my colleague has strongly argued that the time required for login, typing passwords wrong, and getting locked out of the terminal is killing people. She says that seconds, not minutes, count when there is a cardiac event.

You know she's right.

And if it was your dad or mom in that emergency room, you'd choose speed over compliance.

Employees -- the digital ones you want to attract and keep -- are smart. They know how much span of control is harmful. Ponder that the next time IT or management starts pushing for a "digital business" while simultaneously refusing to give employees more autonomy.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at

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