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News@Ivey · Joanna Shepherd

How human resources leaders can be catalysts for driving digital transformation

Nov 14, 2023

Ivey Talent Leaders Forum - L-r: David Loree, Janet Rodas, Tiffany Smye, and Lawrence Hughes

L-r: David Loree, Janet Rodas, Tiffany Smye, and Lawrence Hughes

As the world becomes more digital, many organizations need to undergo extensive digital transformation or risk being left behind by competitors. With new technologies rapidly emerging, such as blockchain applications, the metaverse, generative artificial intelligence (AI), and other machine learning applications, leaders need to constantly look for ways to manage and explore digitalization at work.

Human resources (HR) professionals will find themselves at the centre of this shift, facing many challenges. These include attracting talent who can support digital transformation across multiple departmental functions, cultivating an organizational culture that encourages innovation, and developing the tools to help interest groups at all levels involved in driving digitalization.

For the 2023 Ivey Talent Leaders Forum recently hosted by The Ivey Academy, David Loree, Assistant Professor, Organizational Behaviour; and Nicole Haggerty, HBA '89, PhD '04, Associate Professor, Information Systems; facilitated a full day of interactive and collaborative learning with senior HR and talent leaders from leading Canadian organizations. Through experiential learning featuring peer breakout groups, a panel discussion, and a live simulation, the group collectively explored HR’s role in driving digital transformation at work.

Building a mindset for organizational agility

To drive digital transformation, you need talent within your organization who can create a vision for innovation as well as the leadership, organizational culture, and supporting systems that allow that talent to flourish.

Using a video case, participants explored how leaders and teams can create an environment and process that enhances collaborative innovation. This includes examining conditions such as what hierarchies/power structures exist in the working group, removing the fear of failure, gathering information from experts and end-users, and having someone to keep timelines in mind so the project advances appropriately.

However, talent management for innovation has some complications.

“There is often a paradox at play when you want to value experience, but also drive change,” said Haggerty. “Experienced individuals often have a good understanding of what has worked in the past but can have blind spots or biases that limit their ability to strategize for an uncertain future. In contrast, someone with less experience can bring innovative ideas to the forefront but might lack the context needed to execute a strategy successfully. It can be a balancing act for what talent you need to have at the table.”

To foster a mindset that is prepared to generate innovation and tackle transformation, Loree said leaders must take risks even if they do not view themselves as innovators.

“Organizational agility can be developed through periods of rapid change or uncertainty when leaders choose to use decision-making as a learning tool: make a decision, evaluate the results, adapt accordingly, and try again. You can’t predict the future through analysis – you must learn by ­doing,” he said.

Driving transformation through collective purpose

When implementing a change initiative, plan for pushback from certain interest groups and figure out how to increase receptivity. When strategizing, consider the reasons that certain groups might feel resistance to change – resource concerns, alignment with departmental interests, uncertainty about why change is happening in the first place. Then create clear communication channels and curate data to support your initiative.

Tiffany Smye, Senior Director, Talent Learning & Development, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), highlighted the importance of mitigating change resistance through organizational transparency when driving large-scale digital transformation.

“People need to know the future, and we need to be transparent about where we are now, where we are going, and why we are moving in that direction,” she said.  “Everyone is there to drive the same results. Where there is resistance, there is often opportunity.”

Rather than focusing on digitalization as a general organizational goal, Haggerty and Loree stressed leaders should emphasize the overarching results that each specific digitalization project can enable the organization to achieve.

Leveraging data to enhance decision-making

Digital savvy was once considered an IT competency, but in a digital world, it is important for leaders at all levels of an organization to understand the link between business success and emerging technologies. This includes having the skills to evaluate these technologies according to your organizational context.

Now, more than ever, organizations have access to a wealth of data and technology. But it is important to remember that these applications are tools that need to be used strategically in relation to an organization’s specific needs, culture, and overarching goals to make a digital transformation successful.

“It is an enabler, but tech does not solve all your problems. You need to have the data that can translate to actions and processes to really make sure you are using these tools effectively,” Smye says.

Janet Rodas, MBA ’16, Director, Human Resources, Aurora Cannabis Enterprise, encourages leaders to adopt a mindset that prioritizes progress over perfection and adjusting to information and insights to fine-tune a project’s rollout.

“You are more likely to make valuable change when you view the process as a journey. It is not going to be perfect from the onset, and it will take trial and adjustment to get to the larger end goal,” she said.