Twenty years ago, I joined a 10-person trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest free-standing mountain in Africa. I packed some gear, read about what I was in for, and paid for accommodation, sustenance and support from a team of local sherpas. Four of us made it to the summit. There is no way we could have without the expert guidance, infectious energy, quiet encouragement and endless patience of our sherpas. 
Since then I have worked on many complex IT-enabled business transformations in my corporate roles and in consulting engagements. I've learned that the transformation task is about so much more than having the right equipment, appropriate resources and adequate funding. The greatest successes I've seen benefited from someone who had been there before and could guide us through the inevitable ups and downs of these challenging journeys. In short, success was supported by the role of a Digital Sherpa.
While my personal mountaineering challenge was a vacation choice, today’s business leaders are compelled to embark on the digital transformation journey. With heightened expectations among users and customers and huge opportunities for operational excellence, digital capabilities are essential to every organisation – from a university to a health department, bank, super fund or energy utility.
But as most executives who have grappled with the task can attest, digital transformation is fraught with difficulty. Common problems include cost overruns, scope creep, loss of key staff, security vulnerabilities, privacy breaches and reputational damage. Unaddressed, these problems often add up to outright failure.
A critical challenge is to integrate the impacts of your transformation agenda through time and across people, processes, technology and governance, so that staff and customers experience a sustained and synchronised improvement in their experience.
In many transformation efforts, zealous and uncompromising project leaders, backed by executive sponsors impatient to see results, drive untested changes out to staff and customers in a disjointed manner, creating unintended consequences that makes their journey chaotic and frustrating.
In a survey of executives, only 14 per cent said their digital transformation efforts have led to sustained performance improvements, and only 3 per cent reported complete success at sustaining change.  This is evidence that senior leaders are struggling to address the navigational, logistical, technical and people challenges of their transformation journey.
Leaders must embark on two distinct missions to their digital summit, as MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research has highlighted. Firstly, digital offerings for customers must be supported by a digital platform that acts as a foundation for personalisation and innovation. In tandem, leaders must digitise enterprise processes with an operational backbone that can unleash cost savings and enable transformation. 
A Digital Sherpa can be vital to helping you reach your transformation goals, acting as an experienced sounding board and working from an independent yet empathic perspective.
Like when climbing a mountain, a Digital Sherpa is a vital ally
Even the most talented mountaineers will use a sherpa to guide their way to the summit.
A Digital Sherpa helps leaders succeed through deft and decisive actions:
- Supporting organisation of your transformation effort, accelerating progress, and anticipating and mitigating risks. With experience across similar client journeys, a Digital Sherpa can advise on transformation team design and governance, help resource your Program Management Office and support reporting on progress and risks to executive leadership and the board.
- Empowering your critical leaders and staff, enabling them to step up to their transformation tasks while sustaining day-to-day activities. The Digital Sherpa can help define the key skills and tools that leaders and staff will require in their roles, when and in what sequence, and equip them to succeed through leadership and capability development.
- Building your network of external business partners. Very few organisations can make the digital journey on their own. Often you will need to redefine and reset existing outsourcing and supplier relationships and create new ones. A Digital Sherpa can help you build the external business partnerships that will make or break your digital journey and establish ways of working that will ensure the partnerships are effective.
- Helping you decide whether to persevere, pivot from, postpone or perish key initiatives on your digital pathway. Working rapidly and iteratively towards a minimum viable product is great – in principle. In practice, you will be confronted by the need to back the best ideas with serious funding to scale up, and to acknowledge some of your cherished ideas need to be discarded. A Digital Sherpa can bring dispassionate objectivity, an enterprise-wide view and the capacity to shine a light on blind spots to these critical decision points.
Digital Sherpas will often engage with C-level leaders in their own domain – be it strategy, operations, technology, people and culture or risk and regulation. From this intimate understanding of the parts of the transformation task, they can support leaders to come together. The Digital Sherpa will highlight ways leaders can support each other, spot misalignment and help galvanise unity of purpose.
You may be tempted to commence your transformation unaided, waiting to decide on the need for help along your way. But a Digital Sherpa can add enormous value from the first moments of your transformation journey and even more so as your climb proceeds, by being with you from the start. From Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953 to Australia’s Alyssa Azar in 2018, most Everest summiteers have been supported by indomitable sherpas. (Only those with an extreme appetite for risk, like Bear Grylls in 1998, succeed without one.)
And lest you think you can leave all the hard work to the sherpa, just like climbing a mountain, you cannot simply contract it out and sit at the base camp. You must undertake that journey yourself.
There is no single way to undertake digital transformation
When climbing a mountain, there is no single way to the top. Take Mt Kilimanjaro, the mountain I climbed in 2000 with an eclectic group of business executives and school leavers. There are seven routes to the top, some easy, some challenging. In our case, we took the Marangu Route (“the Coca-Cola Route”) to Uhuru Peak (5,895m), aligned with the skills, experience and fitness of our group.
Similarly, there is no single way to undertake a digital transformation. Approaches include:
- Large-scale enterprise-wide transformation. This has been the ambitious route taken by ANZ Bank through its New Ways of Working program. As the bank pursues its longer-term transformation goals, it must monitor staff and customers’ capacity to assimilate change and be willing to flex its transformation activity in response.
- Building dedicated, digital challenger brands. Consider Snowy Hydro’s Red Energy and National Australia Bank’s UBank. In this scenario, incumbent brands must manage the risk of customer leakage to their digital newborn and take lessons learned back to base.
- Investing in an effective customer-facing, digital platform. Many large universities and government agencies have invested in a digital front-end, enabling gains in customer experience. However, while legacy systems remain at the beating heart of the organisation, cost pressures can build up and technical risks escalate, so end-to-end digital transformation cannot be indefinitely postponed.
- Deploying point solutions targeting rapid returns. These solutions include analytics, robotic process automation or chatbots. Many organisations have tried these looking for quick wins, only to find that without redesigning processes first, meaningful results are rare.
In deciding on the right transformation route for your organisation, just as with conquering a difficult mountain ascent, you need to consider many factors:
- where your competitors are at with respect to your current position and planned transformation goals
- the regulatory environment and any mandated changes you must take on
- the skill and capability of your staff and their degree of engagement with the transformation goals and plan
- the strength and depth of your customer relationships, which will inform how you involve customers in charting your transformation journey and how you will guard against customer churn as the changes unfold
- the core strengths of the organisation you must build on
- any blind spots and weaknesses in existing operational and digital capabilities that may hamper your digital climb
- current financial performance, available funding and resource constraints, which will inform the pace and sequence of changes.
As you can see, picking the right transformation route is a tricky yet critical step that can benefit enormously from an independent, informed perspective.
There is a lot to learn from successful transformations
Nous is well positioned to serve as your Digital Sherpa, having guided many complex organisations through major digital transformations. We have shared both the inevitable pain of these journeys and the immense sense of achievement at the summit.
In the UK we partnered with a leading university to transform its technology capability to enable delivery of its new strategy and keep pace with rapid changes in the external operating environment. This work demonstrated the importance of thinking both operationally and strategically about the journey, and ultimately turning the ideas into action through a project management office.
We also partnered with Australian tourist park operator Discovery Parks to achieve its strategy through a better customer experience and uplifting its technology platforms and operational capability. The partnership showed the power of co-design activities with customers in the field, developing real-world prototypes for iterative testing and feedback. Our work was instrumental to improving user experience and helped significantly increase conversion rates.
From our experience, no matter which transformation route you choose, leaders on the digital climb focus on:
- creating a digital platform consisting of modular components to create personalised customer journeys that improve through rapid innovation
- strengthening their operational backbone, through simplification, analytics and automation, to deliver efficiency, scalability and better customer service
- building capability across the organisation, creating a customer-obsessed culture, uplifting digital skills and enabling widespread use of new metrics, insights and digital tools.
Success requires a candid assessment of your starting point. Managing costs, risks and revenues is just as important as supporting customers and staff. The need to build digital fitness and capability while you push upwards is inescapable. And a Digital Sherpa is an essential ally along the journey.
This article was written by Steve Lennon during his time as a Principal at Nous Group.
Get in touch to discuss how we can serve as your Digital Sherpa on your transformation journey.
 The title Digital Sherpa gets its origins from the Sherpa people who live in the Himalayas and have been invaluable assistants to many climbers. The word sherpa has since taken on a more general meaning to refer to the role of assistant on an expedition. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Sherpa people for their help.
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