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A grown up conversation about digital maturity models

Leaves maturing on a line - digital maturity metaphor

You don’t have to be a behavioural psychologist to know that telling someone to ‘grow up’ isn’t always the most effective way to engage them in change. Or to know that when we say something is ‘childish’, it’s usually to dismiss it. Or to acknowledge that 'naivety' is something used in admissions of guilt or softly worded blame.

And yet when it comes to approaching digital transformation, which requires vast amounts of buy-in and support to progress successfully, the default method of communicating that change leans very much into the sense of moving from being an ignorant child into a wise adult.

Digital maturity models have been around a long time. Like the internet itself, their origins are related to the US military but they are now used far and wide by all business types and sectors to establish a model for how to be a successful organisation in the digital age.

They are typically used to diagnose an organisation’s capabilities in the context of what good digital practice is and to pin-point the gaps that will lead to activities of work which will make up a digital transformation programme. There’s a logic here which is alluring for leadership teams and trustees who often ask questions along the lines of ‘What’s the problem? What’s the solution? When will it be done?’ but have little direct experience of digital change. Using a maturity model simplifies the argument and there’s reassurance in the knowledge that another organisation or business has done it before.

Maturity models can therefore be seen as a shortcut to digital success. If we just follow these simple steps we’ll have completed our digital transformation and we can move on to something else.

The risks of using digital maturity models

Hanging your transformation tightly to a digital maturity model can put you in a risky position. 

  • First of all it presumes your chosen maturity model is relevant to your organisation and your strategy

  • Secondly it assumes nothing else has changed since you first decided to use it. The gap between doing your initial assessment of your digital maturity and completing enough change projects to make significant progress can be many months or even years. Unfortunately, the need for digital transformation is caused by the pace of change driven by digital technologies. Everything is always changing except your digital maturity model.

  • The basis for the insight that the model is founded on might be sound but it is almost certainly unscientific. As soon as you start reporting on it, your trustees and leadership team can start to treat it like another KPI that has the same rigour as your income figures. (It doesn’t).

  • The method of completing the assessment can be a single person’s opinion - or so many opinions that it becomes diluted and meaningless.

  • Achieving digital maturity can become an end in itself rather than helping you achieve your objectives.

  • Most damagingly, framing your digital transformation in terms that can potentially leave people feeling degraded and ‘immature’ could get it off on the wrong foot and cause you problems before you even truly begin.

More models than London Fashion Week

An excellent piece of research by Innovation Unboxed, Think Social Tech, and CAST (published in this blog post by Nissa Ramsay) for Catalyst in 2019 looked at more than 50 different digital maturity models most relevant to the charity sector. They analysed, categorised and wrote a guide to what they consider to be the most useful tools.

Given that one of the purposes of a maturity model is to provide some clarity of direction to the change needed, there was a damning reflection in the blog which sums up one of the major issues:

"What surprised us most is that despite the ‘noise’ surrounding digital maturity, there is little shared vision as to what best practice looks like. The evidence-base for these tools is limited and milestones of progress poorly defined. As a result, it is incredibly challenging to identify the most appropriate pathways organisations could follow when taking the next steps in digital.” - Nissa Ramsay

Back to that risky position. If you’re following a particular model, how can you be sure you’ve picked the right one? Does the proliferation of models suggest it’s not possible to pick ‘a right one’? One of the challenges cited in the above research is the changing nature of digital practices which accounts for some of the diversion of preferred themes within them. 

Digital leadership maven Barry O’Reilly goes a step further to suggest the very nature of maturity models rules them out from being used at all.

“Today’s best practices can easily become tomorrow’s obsolete ones. The maturity model is one of them—far too static, a snapshot, and a single perspective and solution unable to keep up with the changing world.” - Barry O'Reilly

“All models are wrong but some are useful”

I don’t think digital maturity models should be ruled out completely. A lot of them have been built using crucial insight from people doing the work and trying to make sense of the ongoing conundrum of how to make an organisation fit for now and tomorrow. A lot of them have been used successfully to make the case for change and give direction to what can be a complex and uncertain process.

But nor do I think they should be followed rigidly or exclusively. Considering that a common feature of digital maturity is embracing the tenets of Agile in some way, it’s ironic they are mostly based on a linear path to a predefined state.

Your organisation needs a digital transformation strategy that is designed to help it reach its goals while adapting to the challenges of the digital age. It needs to fit your context or it has no purpose. Start with your organisational strategy, ask yourselves about how these challenges will influence your ability to deliver that strategy and then look at the themes you need to address. 

(Incidentally, if you don’t already have an organisational strategy to base it on then go away and get that sorted first - but take the opportunity to ask the questions about the challenges of the digital age while you’re at it and bake them in).

The Catalyst guide tells you which models offer what and the analysis went as far as to identify the 19 common themes across them. Tellingly, there isn’t a model which covers all of the themes. 

This does however gives you an overview to be able to pick which models - or which parts of which models - suit your context and from there you can design something relevant and useful to you. 

Ideally, you then work with your teams to identify what will work best for them, develop hypotheses and small scale tests to see if that’s right and build from there. Constantly adapting to the world around you, delivering your organisation’s strategy and growing together. Just don’t call it ‘growing up’.


Are you thinking about your digital transformation?

If you've been thinking about your digital transformation strategy - either a new or an existing one - and would like to talk to someone who has been there before, drop me a line. As well as consultancy and coaching, I'm also happy to share my experience and opinions on all things digital.