The Digital Transformation Elephant

You have probably have heard the often-told story about the blind men and the elephant. A quick reminder: several blind men surround an elephant trying to determine what the creature is. One blind man feels the elephant’s trunk and claims the creature is a snake while another blind man feels one of the legs and claims that the creature is a tree. Each blind man interprets the elephant differently depending on their narrow perspective. None of the blind men can put the different perspectives together to determine the true form of the elephant.

The same situation may happen with organizations undergoing a digital transformation. Neil Ward-Dutton writes about the four perspectives of digital transformation in a chapter written for Digital Transformation with Business Process Management (published by Future Strategies, Inc.). In a book chapter on using “digital threads” to drive lean startup models, Ward-Dutton describes how the senior leaders in an organization view digital transformation:

  • HR and Communication Leaders are focused on how social, mobile, and cloud technologies will increase employee engagement and engaging with the organization’s external audiences.
  • Marketing Leaders also use social, mobile, and cloud technologies to improve the organization’s brand and establish better customer relationships.
  • Operational Leaders are concerned with using digital technologies to refine business processes and enhance the products/service offerings.
  • Senior Leaders charged with overseeing the organization’s strategy are most interested in using the new digital technologies to create strategic advantages. The strategy leaders also look for new business models based on the digital technologies.

None of these perspectives are wrong or superior to the other three perspectives. The issue is there is usually no coordination between the perspectives. One example that Ward-Dutton gives is that a marketing department uses cutting-edge technologies to deliver personalized offers to customers. Unfortunately, the marketing department did not work with operations to build digital processes that can handle the increased demand. Customers become angry with the lack of products and services promised by the marketing department. The communication department is also surprised as angry customers turn to social media to complain about the failed promises.

In the above case, the digital transformation was used successfully – but in only one part of the organization. Without a coordinated effort throughout the organization, the advantages of digital transformation are quickly erased by the miscoordination caused by the lack of a shared perspective. As more organizations adopt innovative HR IT solutions, what are HR leaders doing to share their perspective with the rest of the organization? How are HR leaders working with the three other perspectives to make sure that the new digital HR solutions:

1. Fit in with the organization’s strategy?
2. Are supported by the organization’s operational processes?
3. Will support the organization’s brand and better serve costumers?

I have never heard how the elephant and wise men parable ends but, I have often imagined that once the blind men share their perspectives with each other, the true nature of the elephant will be revealed. With organizational digital transformation, it may be up to HR leaders to help stitch the different perspectives together for the most effective digital transformation of the organization.

Bill Brantley
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Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park) and the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. You can reach him at

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