Digital transformation: why it’s hard and how to make it work

3 minute read

Content design is the front line of digital transformation. As a content designer, you’re right there in between the subject matter expert and the user, and often between your team and the wider organisation.

Digital transformation requires the hard work of developers, designers, UX specialists, user researchers, agile coaches, and many others, but often it’s the content designer that talks with subject matter experts, lawyers and others in the organisation.This means content design is as much about relationship management as it is about writing. A content designer, and the way they manage relationships with stakeholders, can make or break a project.

I get to talk to a lot of content people about their work. Public sector, private sector, charity sector – wherever I go, the story is pretty much the same.

Digital stagnation leads to a need for digital transformation

The people at the top of the organisation are excited about what digital transformation means: improving the reputation of the organisation, improving the service it gives its users and reducing the cost of doing business. What’s not to love?

The content designers are also excited. People working in content are usually passionate about their users and they want to serve them. They’ve long been aware of the huge room for improvement when it comes to the content on the website, and they’d love to just roll up their sleeves and get it done. For them, ‘digital transformation’ is something they’ve been itching to do for ages, and now the bosses say they want it to happen. Hurray!

A few months go by, however, and despite lots of work and the best intentions, not much has changed. Except perhaps morale is a little lower, the vision is a little more cloudy, and the success seems a little less certain.

The problem

In short, the people in the middle of the organisation are your problem. Your project requires their cooperation, and as a rule, they don’t want to cooperate.But most teams I speak to already know that. What they don’t know is how to change things and get the project back on track.

Why some people in your organisation hate you

Before you can make changes, you need to know more about why people aren’t cooperating. Here are a few likely reasons:

  • They care just as much as you do but they have a different idea about what good looks like. They either care about their knowledge or their users or both. They’ve been involved in this work since you were in short trousers. As far as they’re concerned, the web is a fringe aspect of what the organisation is about so the web should fit in with the organisation, not the other way around. They don’t want to ruin their years of hard work just because you’re telling them to.
  • The existing organisational culture works for them and you’re trying to change it. They carry weight around here and they are enjoying the fruits of many years of hard work. The system values them, is probably something they helped create, and as far as they’re concerned it works just fine, thank you very much. Suddenly changing everything to work for users, basing it all on data they’ve never previously had to provide and user research they know nothing about, and making digital considerations a vital part of all decision-making – well, this doesn’t seem at all attractive.
  • They write you publish, so why are you getting all up in their business? They are probably used to a setup where they write what they think should be on the website and they have a web team to publish it. Those people have the knowledge, and knowledge is power. Having a ‘web team’ say, ‘We now write this stuff and ask you to check it for factual accuracy’ is not what they’re used to, it’s not what it says in their job description and it doesn’t relate to how their work has been appraised up to now. And how could a content team possibly write about the subject when they aren’t experts in it?
  • Their job may be at risk. Digital transformation is often part of a wider ‘change programme’ that involves saving money. And that means job losses. If a person’s job is being restricted from author to fact checker, and they no longer have the power they’re used to, perhaps that means they’re less necessary? When people’s very livelihood is threatened, don’t expect a warm reception in your role as ‘bringer of the change’.
  • Internal communication is tough to get right. The digital transformation programme has probably been communicated ineffectively within the organisation. So all of a sudden there are changes afoot that affect people’s jobs and they don’t really know why and haven’t been sold on the benefits, either for them or for their customers. And you’re probably busy and don’t really see internal comms as your role. So you don’t get around to writing that blog post, and you don’t quite volunteer to speak at that event, and then you’re frustrated when people don’t get what you’re trying to do.
  • You look like you’re making it up as you go along. Agile is a sophisticated way to manage digital projects. But unless you’re good at communicating why that’s the case, your whole approach can seem amateurish. Think about it. You don’t know exactly what you’re making. You don’t know how long it will take. You’re putting half-finished stuff out there for the public to see and you don’t know how many times it will take you to ‘get it right’. You won’t agree to arbitrary milestones or deadlines. You don’t have any lengthy spec documents or reporting procedures. And for some reason, you seem perfectly relaxed about all this!

How to keep digital transformation on track

Internal resistance is a big deal for an organisation in the midst of digital transformation. If inertia wins out, the organisation won’t keep up with what the rest of the web is doing, and because the web is now so important to the way we connect with customers, the organisation will eventually go under.

You need to find a way to keep things moving. In the end, to make this happen you only need to focus on 2 things:

  • Building trust.
  • Making sure lack of trust doesn’t stop you moving forward in the meantime.


To build the trust you need communication, and you need to show evidence that what you’re proposing will be an improvement.Take the time to respectfully communicate what’s happening – regularly and in different ways. Keep up a blog, do show-and-tells, write things for the intranet, speak at whatever events you can. And be friendly! I know you’re busy, but make yourself available to meet up with people face-to-face and answer their questions.When working on a piece of content, get in touch with subject matter experts early in the process and keep in touch throughout it. Collaboration in one central place is key. Maybe even try some pair writing. That way when you hack their beloved 30,000-word opus into a 300-word web page they’ll be less likely to faint.

Tools for moving forward

You won’t get, and don’t need, unanimous agreement throughout the organisation before you can move forward. Just make sure you have:

  • The backing of senior people in the organisation – so that if things really get stuck you can be confident it will get moving again.
  • A clear proposition document that says what does and doesn’t go on the website and why.
  • A governance document that explains roles and hierarchy – stating clearly who can say no to whom about what – and what happens if the other side doesn’t accept that.
  • Ways for people in the organisation to contribute if and when they decide they’re going to join in – a training programme to get them up to speed on digital, an advisory group to make sure digitally savvy people in the organisation can make sure their department has a voice in what you’re doing, a clear role as subject matter expert, or whatever fits.

Be bold

One final recommendation – be bold! You have more power than you think. You can take actions right now that will improve things. What are they?For one thing, you can change the narrative. Your organisation’s narrative is probably supporting the status quo. The system is set up to remain stable. This means you’ll hear things like:

  • “You can’t do that because…”
  • “You don’t have permission to …”
  • “You’ll need sign-off from committee X before you can…”
  • “You’ll need to submit a formal proposal to…”

Change the narrative! Be fearless, but not reckless:

  • “We’ll try it for a month, gather some data and make a decision then.”
  • “We’ll start with a low-traffic aspect of the site and test it out.”
  • “We’ve done some research and it shows that users want X.”
  • “If you can show me what’s factually inaccurate we can change it, but simply disliking the editorial style is not something that blocks publishing an item.”
  • “This has already been live for a week and we have received no complaints from users but we’ll keep monitoring and review regularly.”


Content Governance Model

A checklist that will help you pull together a simple content governance model.

About the author

Padma Gillen

Padma Gillen is a digital content consultant. He uses his expertise in content design management and agile content production to help organisations create quality content and maximise the effectiveness of their content teams.

He also advises organisations on how to set up and deliver successful web content projects, coaches them through the process, and provides content design teams to make it happen. He is currently helping the University of Southampton shape and deliver their content-led digital transformation project, OneWeb.

Previously, Padma was Head of Content Design at the Government Digital Service (GDS). He had overall responsibility for the quality of content on GOV.UK, the award-winning website of the UK Government.

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