Digital Publishing Guest Columns
4 mins read

Opinion: Digital transformation isn’t just a tech project, it’s an organisational culture project

According to IBM, “Any digital transformation project is going to take around four years, and 85% of them fail.” It’s a statistic that’s been doing the rounds since 2016 but many publishers are still scratching their heads looking for ways to increase their chances of success. Why is it so hard?

Having existing legacy businesses certainly makes it harder for a traditional publisher to transform compared to a small start-up. Even so, the ability to continuously adapt remains paramount above all requirements today.

Publishers certainly have what it takes to stand the test of time – powerful and loved brands, expertise, insight and of course an enduring and trusting relationship with their audiences. Where many go wrong though, is an under-investment in people. Specifically, developing people.

Tech, Process And People

Publishing companies know that they’re competing with the platform triopoly (as well as each other) and that in order to succeed they need to be digital innovators too. Unfortunately though, the market doesn’t regard them as such. In order to make digital transformation really work, all organisations need to have technology, process and people at the core of each strategy whether that’s platform, advertising or product.

The issue is that digital transformation is seen as just a tech project and not an organisational culture project. A huge amount of time, and often money, is spent on the new technology. Tech changes are laboriously analysed and debated before the go button is pushed. And the people who are perceived as being tech experts have a perceived high value.

Likewise with process. Even though processes are allowed to slowly and organically change over time; at some point, some bright spark will point out that there are too many hacks upon hacks and it’s obviously time to reinvent a new, efficient process fit for purpose. A new process ensues and people, quite rightly, are expected to go with it. But what happens if they find it difficult at first?

People are expected to ‘get it’. The perception of the ones that don’t get it immediately is that they’re not that good. The ones that do, are seen as smart. What’s missing, is the investment in the people and the onus on the company to get them where they need to be.

Transform, Not Replace

My observation of publishers is that there are all too often, two camps. It tends to be about replacing rather than transforming. The two camps are usually, but not exclusively, identified by the people within them. The old and the new revenue streams. Press and digital. The old guard and the new, rising stars. Programmatic and direct sold. Advertising and e-commerce. The people who operate in the ‘way we used to do things’, and those who have been tasked with ‘changing the way we do things’.

Having two camps leads to separation and divide between what’s seen as the ‘old’ and the ‘shiny new’. Often, their goals are not aligned. It’s this misalignment plus the lack of faith and under-investment in the incumbent (and proven) talent that limits the opportunity. Ultimately the perceived value of the new, means that the ‘old’ becomes under-valued. A coherent sense of purpose, and investment in to already engaged employees is one way to avoid this.

Growth Mindset

The best workplace cultures believe in and promote a growth mindset. In the talent triad of attract, retain and develop, the ‘develop’ part should be absolutely key for publishers right now. Yes, sometimes there is a business case to hire someone different with different skills. Of course that’s true. However, when looking at tech, process and people, publishers are often guilty of being too quick to believe that the solution is to replace rather than transform.

Looking externally for highly paid talent to oversee and operate new initiatives rather than investing in their current employees must seem like an easier option. Otherwise, why would they risk disenfranchising their current talent? Spending big money on someone new, rather than tailored training and development for existing talent on the assumption that ‘there’s no one here that can do that’?


The opportunity is to develop existing talent. It always has been. Publishers need to shake off their own self-perpetuating label of being a traditional media company by starting with a growth mindset rather than a fixed one. They spend a lot of time trying to predict what the organisation of the future will look like rather than building an organisation that can adapt.

Today’s workforce genuinely values development and aren’t just after a traditionally linear, upwards career. But they shouldn’t be expected to get that on their own. What would be the success rate of digital transformation if publishers recruited on a candidate’s ability to learn and had a culture of learning and development to go with that? If it’s good enough for the triopoly, then it should be good enough for publishers too.

Elaine dela Cruz, Co-Founder, PROJECT 23

About Elaine dela Cruz: After more than 18 years working in publishing, Elaine co-founded PROJECT 23, a performance consultancy, passionate about people. Specialising in organisational culture and diversity & inclusion within the media sector, their mission is to get more people to love their jobs. PROJECT 23 was created in order to give commercial value to organisations whilst having a positive impact on the media industry and the individuals within it. In January the AOP began a 2019 partnership with PROJECT 23 to improve workplace culture.