Digital Transformation Needs a Workplace Revolution

Technology doesn’t sell itself

Digital water technologies are here to stay and will only increase in adoption. The digital transformation of the water sector was taking off before the pandemic, yet this unprecedented event has been a trend accelerator.

However, now more than ever, it is too easy to fall in love with innovations and believe that the technology will “sell itself”.

As full disclosure, personally, I am very bullish on digital water technologies. I have a tendency to fall in love with technologies first and then double back and ask the important questions regarding the business model, team, and strategy. While improving, this remains a work in progress! The major challenge the utility and industrial sectors face when adopting new technologies is centered on the ability of the workforce to capture the full value of digital technology. To accept moving past the status quo, it requires a culture of the enterprise.

People and processes; not technology

Adopting digital technologies requires a clear alignment with business strategy, leadership commitment, and ensuring the workforce has the capabilities, training, and agility needed.

There are multiple examples where digital technologies were not adopted or failed to deliver their full value to the customer for the reasons cited above.

One of the best sources of research and insights on digital transformation is The Technology Fallacy. I often cite this book as a must-read to understand how utilities and the private sector can embrace digital transformation.

The book lays out why an organisation’s response to digital disruption should focus on people and processes and not necessarily on technology. Based on my experience, the most important conclusions from the research include:

  1. Digital disruption is primarily about people, and that effective digital transformation involves changes to organisational dynamics and how work gets done
  2. Every organisation needs to understand its “digital DNA” in order to stop “doing digital” and start “being digital.”

Building absorptive capacity

Other key takeaways from digitally mature organisations are provided below, based on my interview with book co-author, friend, and former Deloitte colleague, Jonathan Copulsky.

  • Absorptive capabilities (the ability to identify new innovations).
    • The ability of an organisation to absorb new technologies: building absorptive capacity and improve the velocity of internal information flows.
    • The knowing-doing gap: the need to get better about knowing what’s out there and doing something about it.
  • Affordances (how to determine the value of technology in terms of how it is put to use).
    • Sometimes we have technologies that we don’t quite know how to handle
    • Organisations need to experiment (pilot) with technologies to find out what value they can get out of technology.
  • Digital agility
    • Organisations need to be good at testing, learning, and scaling fast
    • Develop business cases after doing the test on a small enough scale, so the price isn’t inhibiting to repeat the experience
    • Organisations that are digitally mature not only test more, but they scale better.
  • Talent magnets
    • Digitally mature organisations hire people that have the appetite for learning and give them the opportunity to learn.
    • Successful and digitally mature organisations attract and retain talent.

Originally published on

Will Sarni

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of water strategy consultancy, Water Foundry. He is also the CEO of the Colorado River Basin Fund, the first placed-based water-focused investment fund in the United States. Prior to Water Foundry, Sarni was a managing director at Deloitte Consulting where he established and led the water strategy practice. He was the founder and CEO of DOMANI, a sustainability strategy firm, prior to Deloitte. Sarni is the author of five books. Sarni is a co-founder of WetDATA and a host of the podcast, The Stream with Will and Tom. He is a board member of Flowater, Silver Bullet, Project WET and the Rocky Mountain Rowing Club. He was the Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board for the WAITRO Global Water Innovation Summit 2020 and was on the Scientific Program Committee for Stockholm World Water Week from 2013 through 2019. His advisory work includes working with the 2020 X-PRIZE (Infinity Water Prize), as a Bold Visioneer for the 2016 X-PRIZE Safe Drinking Water Team and a Technical Advisor for the Climate Bonds Initiative: Nature- Based Solutions for Climate and Water Resilience. He is also on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Water Security.

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