It was Abraham Lincoln who said  “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”

I have been some research for a social housing client which has meant reading a lot of corporate strategies and VFM statements from housing associations. The word that crops up time and time again is “transformation”, and it many cases preceded by the word “digital”. 

It made me think as to whether all these transformations were reality or fantasy just like the rise of so-called “fake news”. I am conscious that lots of things you read online especially in your social media feeds may appear to be true but often they might not always be as they first appear. For the most part, they are intended to influence you to the writer’s noble position (just like this blog) but they can also cause confusion like being outside in the fog on a cold winter’s night!

How do you test whether an initiative is transformative? Here is my attempt to provide leaders/readers with some criteria to explain what it is, what it’s not, and how to spot the difference.  I have leant heavily on the work of Emma Stace Chief Digital Officer at the Department for Education, particularly her article titled “Transformation is not a programme”[1] *


Given that most social housing organisation claim to be undertaking or are about to embark on some form of transformation. Let us try and clear up some misunderstandings.

In my experience, there are several misconceptions often surround business/digital transformation in the social housing sector. These relate to the role of technology and the role of process in achieving meaningful change. Both are required to deliver a better customer experience. But neither address everything that is necessary to provide real value to customers.

The first major misconception is that transformation is about technology. There is no doubt that many transformations include the use of new technologies. However, a recent survey[2] (Bain & Company) revealed that only five per cent of digital transformations are meeting the expectations of the executives who mandated them.

This is because isolated technology initiatives are not enough to deliver better customer experience alone. Providers need to leverage technology in conjunction with other strategies and shifts in thinking to satisfy customer needs.

The second major misconception is that transformation is about getting lean or going  agile. While changing underlying processes is a necessary aspect of transformation, it should not be viewed as the primary reason for transforming. How work gets done is secondary to what work needs to get done and why. The “why,” “when,” and “what” should always come before the “how.” Do you understand what your customers want before accelerating the development and delivery of new services?

Any organization can become agile, but agility is not a purpose in itself; it’s the means to a broader purpose.   Bart Schlatmann, COO at ING Netherlands

Investing in new technologies and improving process efficiency are important aspects of change, but they are not an end in themselves.  How often do you hear that an association has gone digital by giving its housing management staff a tablet or a smartphone and then claim to be agile as well? At a high level, it takes changing a mindset, people, processes, technology, and measurement.

Five Tests of Transformation

I wrote previously about defining the terms which can be found in my executive guide on Digital Transformation: read it again here! So, if those misconceptions tell you what digital transformation is not, how can you . what it is. Here’s my reality checklist for you (again courtesy of Emma Stace):

1.Is a positive view of the future – will it be engaging to your staff and welcomed by your customers? Or will they just see it a wolf in sheep’s clothing, some form of a cost-cutting exercise. If it is, then why not say so?

2.Is it irreversible – to use a housing analogy, is this a repainting and repairing exercise or is it a complete overhaul through remodelling? If when your Grand Design is finished could you return to your old home? Probably not!

3.Is it inconvenient – if you’ve watched Grand Designs then you know that for the next two years, you’ll have no heating, no carpets and dust everywhere? So, if it’s not messy or uncomfortable and everything appears straightforward then it’s probably not transformational.

4.Is it cultural – it’s not just the infrastructure that changes? It’s mainly about your people and their skills and behaviours. And as Emma Stace points out that means behaviour that shows:

  • the executive team are thinking about how their own behaviours;
  • middle managers are helping to make the change happen;
  • front line staff are working in new ways to make things better for your customers

5. Is it personal – “What am I going to do differently?’ Culture change starts with changing behaviours. So, if you are not doing anything different then it’s probably not personal, then it probably not transformational.

So,  I am assuming that you have read this article because your organisation is going through some change or transformation initiative so I wonder how many of the five tests did you tick or whether you still feel your organisational initiative is transformational.

When I was looking at some of the transformation initiatives on your website, I figured that quite a few, linked to say channel shift and agile working could probably be rebranded as improvement or efficiency initiatives. I think very few would pass all five of my reality tests. Let’s not kid ourselves…    

For more information about the wide-ranging debate on digital transformation please see our Digital Playlist.





Leave a Reply