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Where does the fire burn?

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Avdesh Mittal

Senior Client Partner & Managing Director, Digital Practice

Korn Ferry Hay Group, Asia Pacific

Recently, every other conversation I have with a client or a candidate seems to come around to the issue of ‘digital transformation’.



To quote from a whitepaper that we recently published, “It seems everyone’s talking about digital transformation. But at Korn Ferry, we’re talking about something else. We’re talking about digital sustainability. Why? For two reasons. Firstly, because ‘digital transformation’ generally means using technology to drive change. And secondly, because ‘transformation’ tends to imply a one-off process, with a defined end-point.”


If ‘transformation’ is to be defined like this, then ‘sustainability’ should be defined as ‘perpetual transformation’! It cannot be a one-off event. Change is constant and the ability to iterate on an ongoing basis is critical. The digital world is moving increasingly faster and organizations must be prepared to keep up.


Transforming for digital isn’t just a case of deploying technology – replacing legacy infrastructure with new systems. It’s about rethinking how things are done - to achieve this, traditional organizations need to start by fundamentally changing their mindset, values, beliefs and how work gets done.


In my view, digital sustainability can only be achieved through cultural transformation – deploying technology, infrastructure and processes is just “hygiene” – at the end of it, you need the right people with the right mindset to implement and sustain the changes.

So how do we get the right people with the right mindset to do the right things all the time?!


  • Align at the top It all starts at the top – first, leaders must be convinced this is an important issue and they should be willing to invest time and money to make it happen.
  • Invest in exploring to find a solution Then they must put their money where their mouth is – invest in determining what digital transformation means for their business – there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the problem – every business must establish their own route to digital sustainability.
  • Lead by example Next, they need to walk the talk – through their own behaviors and actions, the leadership team must demonstrate that this is an important issue and they intend to do what it takes to make it happen…
  • Define success Now, how should they ensure that the rest of the organization aligns with them? This clearly requires strong leadership and skill, but I have some views and a hypothesis around this.
  • Through this journey of digital transformation, everyone still must do their day job and yet they are being asked to participate in and to drive this change as well. How can leaders encourage people to do that?
  • Reward desired behavior change One way could be to devise extensive metrics to measure how each employee is advancing the transformation journey or not and then reward them accordingly.
  • Avoid short-term motivation To me, this is like lighting a fire “under” them – and it can deliver results, depending on the context. But even when it does deliver results, it is for the short term. If fire is only being lit beneath people, it will die out eventually.

Activate purpose and discretionary energy


Consider this – suppose one could create an eco-system where individuals develop ‘fire-in-the-belly’. This fire burns within and is therefore more difficult to extinguish. This manifests itself on the ground by individuals wanting to drive this change instead of having to. Which further means that individuals are willing to spend their discretionary energy in the interest of the organization.


Discretionary energy is the energy that employees are not obliged to spend in the interest of the organization through an employment contract. This is the time and energy that is available at their disposal, to spend as they please. See more on how to unleash the discretionary energy of your people with Korn Ferry’s Superior Performance Model here.


In my view, it is critical that if the organization needs to drive a change of this magnitude on an ongoing basis, fire must be burning in the bellies of the individuals who are driving this change so that they deploy their discretionary energy for this cause, in addition to excelling at their day jobs.


That is when organizations will become truly digitally sustainable.

We’d like to hear your thoughts and experiences. Is your organization becoming more agile? How are you adapting to the challenges of the digital economy? 
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