A Means for Survival

How businesses and individuals can prepare for the digital transformation

by Henry J. Lindborg

In the August 2017 Career Coach column, I addressed perceived threats to jobs posed by artificial intelligence.1 For a systems perspective on how digital transformation is affecting the future of work and our understanding of organizational effectiveness, I interviewed Gerald Kane, a professor, whose insights are grounded in research conducted by MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte.2 He presents some challenges and salient advice for quality professionals.

Lindborg: How did you become interested in the future of work? What are your current roles?

Kane: I am a professor of information systems at Boston College and the guest editor for the digital business initiative at MIT Sloan Management Review. As I study emerging technologies, it has become clear that the nature of work and organizations are changing, as well as the skills that employees and leaders will need to work in them.

You’ve been a leader in mapping organizations’ digital maturity. What does a digitally mature organization look like? How does it differ from organizations of the past?

We use the term “digitally maturing” to refer to the most advanced digital organizations. This refers to the fact that digital business is a continually moving target.

The trait that organizations and individuals must develop is the ability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. At the individual level, this refers to the need to update your skills continually (90% of our respondents said at least yearly), and an organization’s need to learn to experiment and iterate (which is not what contemporary organizations are really built to do).

When we asked respondents what the biggest difference is between digital and traditional business, they said the pace of business, culture and mindset, flexible distributed workplaces and continuous improvement.

They said the biggest challenges they faced were experimentation (getting people to take risks), ambiguity and constant change.

What demands does digital maturity place on educating and training a workforce?

Continual learning is key, but this goes beyond formal training. It involves creating work environments in which people can learn new skills on the job. Of course, this requires providing employees time to experiment and learn these skills. Most employees are quite dissatisfied with the extent to which their organizations allow them to develop the skills they need to work in a digital world.

How does digital maturity affect our practice as quality professionals—for example, as it relates to Six Sigma?

I think Six Sigma is counter-productive to digital maturity. That level of efficiency is helpful in stable environments, but less helpful in turbulent ones. General Electric, for instance, has developed a program called FastWorks alongside its Six Sigma programs, which is an effort to cultivate disciplined experimentation, iteration and testing. I think quality professionals must help develop frameworks for disciplined, quality experimentation in organizations.

How does it affect decision making, such as for teams?

We found a strong correlation between digital maturity and organizations that were organizing along cross-functional teams, and pushing decision making down further into the organization. The result is that the organization is more adaptable. Teams have more autonomy for pursuing goals, and managers can reassign teams as organizational priorities change.

Is leadership different?

Certainly. We asked respondents what skills they wanted digital leaders to have. The most common responses were direction (providing vision and purpose), innovation (creating the conditions to experiment), empowering people to think differently and collaboration (getting people to collaborate across boundaries).

Interestingly, the biggest differentiator between maturing organizations and others wasn’t whether they had strong digital leaders—respondents at organizations of all maturity levels reported a need for better digital leadership—but whether they were taking steps to develop that leadership. That finding was striking to me.

Do you have examples of digitally maturing organizations? What have been their greatest challenges?

I get this question often, and I wish there was just one organization I could point to that is getting it right across the board. There are several organizations that we highlighted in our research that are really making productive progress, such as Walmart, MetLife and John Hancock, just to name a few. These organizations have made productive steps toward becoming more digitally mature.

I highlight these specific organizations because they recognize that digital maturity cannot be bottled up in a single function or initiative, but requires organizationwide changes. The challenge is that these are huge organizations, so the type of change that is required is hard.

One of W. Edwards Deming’s core principles in quality transformation was to drive out fear. How is this accomplished in digital transformation?

I wish I knew the answer to this question, but I think that fear likely is the biggest challenge in digital transformation. The organizations that are getting it right are those that are making the big bets and a conscious effort from the top to transform (although change also must bubble up from the bottom).

The flip side, however, is that fear can be a powerful motivator, too. None of these successful organizations are transforming because they think it’s an interesting thing to do. Instead, the organizations’ leaders recognize that digital disruption represents a fundamental threat to their business models. They realize that if they don’t change, their organizations might not be here in 10 years. So, maybe the difference is that we must recognize the fear before we start taking steps to drive it out.


  1. Henry J. Lindborg, “Preparing for the Revolution,” Quality Progress, August 2017, pp. 14-15.
  2. Gerald C. Kane, Doug Palmer, Anh Nguyen Phillips, David Kiron and Natasha Buckley, “Coming of Age Digitally: Learning, Leadership, and Legacy,” MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte Insights, June 2018.

Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement in Fond du Lac, WI. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board. He is a past chair and current member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Career Workforce Policy committee.

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