Digital transformation: from siloed efforts to shared success

Digital transformation initiatives are more successful when stakeholders are engaged through “frame alignment” rather than focusing solely on technology solutions

When organisations undertake large-scale technological overhauls, they tend to focus more on the desired technological solution than on how to achieve it. However, stakeholders’ engagement in the process – and how they engage – is an underappreciated key to such projects’ success.

This was a problem that was successfully overcome at a local city council in Sydney, which embarked on an ambitious digital transformation initiative to address significant waste management challenges. This initiative was set in motion against the backdrop of a broader federal push towards smart cities, with the Australian Federal Government launching the Smart Cities and Suburbs Program in March 2017. This program aimed to leverage technology to enhance urban living through improved decision-making and efficient resource use, offering $50 million in funding to support eligible projects

In April 2018, the mayor of the council endorsed a vision to transform the city into a leading smart city. This vision was driven by the recognition that traditional approaches were inadequate for solving modern urban challenges. By July 2018, the council had established a dedicated “smart city” function, which marked the beginning of a strategic roadmap aimed at integrating technological solutions into various aspects of city management.

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The technology behind smart waste management systems is designed to enhance the efficiency and safety of waste collection operations. Photo: Getty Images

A key project under this initiative was the smart waste management system. This system was designed to address several pressing issues related to waste management, which accounted for a significant portion of the council's budget and resident inquiries. The smart waste management system aimed to enhance the residents' experience with waste services, promote better recycling practices, and improve the operational efficiency of waste collection.

The context for this project was complex. The council managed a large, multicultural community of nearly 400,000 residents, including many new immigrants unfamiliar with local waste segregation rules. The council faced significant economic and social challenges due to high levels of recycling contamination and increased operational costs, exacerbated by global changes such as China's restrictions on importing recyclables.

To address these issues, the smart waste management system incorporated several innovative components, including testing RFID tags on waste bins, AI-driven video processing to detect contamination, and a comprehensive analytics dashboard. These technologies aim to provide real-time insights and enhance the efficiency and safety of waste collection operations. However, the project encountered resistance from stakeholders, both within the council and among residents, who questioned the value and cost-effectiveness of these technological solutions. Overcoming this resistance required significant efforts in stakeholder engagement and a process of “frame alignment” – reframing essential elements in a dynamic and recursive process – to ensure the project's successful implementation.

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Frame alignment: a research perspective

Recent research has found that when stakeholders engage in this process of frame alignment, the outcome of a digital transformation initiative is more stable and sustainable than when they take a solution-first approach. 

Achieving stakeholder alignment in digital transformation: A frame transformation perspective, could have significant practical implications for business leaders, project managers, technology vendors and other stakeholders in digital transformation, according to Dr Nizar Hoblos, a UNSW Business School PhD graduate who co-authored the research paper together with Dr Shan Pan, Scientia Professor and Dr Sandeep Mysore Seshadrinath, Senior Lecturer in the School of Information Systems and Technology Management at UNSW Business School.

In the research, the academics examined how stakeholders frame the digital transformation process to achieve alignment. They argued that the “frame alignment mechanisms” stakeholders use to achieve their strategic objectives, influence the interpretations of the digital transformation process to achieve successful outcomes.

“By examining the interplay between various frames of alignment, our research sheds light on how these elements dynamically influence and reinforce one another throughout the digital transformation journey,” Dr Hoblos said. “Ultimately, our findings underscore the importance of fostering coherence across the different levels of stakeholders involved in the organisation ecosystem, with both internal and external stakeholders, to achieve a more stable and sustainable transformation outcome.”

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UNSW Business School PhD graduate Dr Nizar Hoblos co-authored the research which examined how the process of "frame alignment" can help drive digital transformation. Photo: supplied

Digital transformation is the process by which organisations carry out significant and systemic technological changes. Dr Hoblos described this as a fundamental reconfiguration of established practices and processes, rather than a mere localised technological change. The purpose of digital transformation is to harness operational and strategic innovation and greater efficiencies, according to the research paper.

Digital transformation programs involve various stakeholders with diverse perspectives and goals. As a result, the researchers said their success often hinges on the alignment of those stakeholders’ interpretations of what they are undertaking through the process of digital transformation. They, therefore, sought to better understand the role that frames – “schemata of interpretation” that enable people to make sense of the events taking place around them – and frame alignment play in the successful implementation of digital transformation initiatives. To make digital transformation work, stakeholders must strategically and actively frame and reframe the changes they are implementing, the study found.

Frame alignment in practice

Using the process of frame alignment, the council engaged various groups, including council staff, service providers, and residents, each with unique perspectives and needs. By transforming the planning, implementation, and communication frames, stakeholders were able to achieve a shared understanding and collaboratively drive the project forward.

One significant outcome of frame alignment was the enhancement of operational efficiency. By aligning the planning frame, stakeholders streamlined decision-making processes, reducing bureaucratic delays and fostering a more agile project environment. This facilitated quicker implementation of new technologies and practices, ultimately improving service delivery. For example, during the implementation phase, the council conducted a pilot test using street sweeping services to gauge resident reactions and their willingness to receive information from the council about the service. This pilot revealed a strong community appetite for more digitised services, indicating successful alignment between the council’s objectives and resident expectations.

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Moreover, the communication frame transformation played a critical role in fostering transparency and trust between the council and its stakeholders. By focusing on clear and consistent communication, the council ensured that all parties were informed and engaged throughout the digital transformation process. This was evident in the targeted communication strategies used to convey the benefits of the new waste management system to residents, emphasising the importance of proper recycling practices. Such efforts not only improved recycling rates but also instigated a positive behavioural change among residents.

Another successful outcome was improved job satisfaction and efficiency among council staff. The new system automated previously manual processes, allowing staff to focus on more strategic tasks. For instance, the customer service team benefited from enhanced communication tools that enabled them to address resident inquiries more effectively, while the recycling team could promptly inform residents about recycling contamination issues, thus facilitating more responsive and efficient service delivery.

The process of frame alignment at the council led to a series of other successful outcomes, including enhanced operational efficiency, improved stakeholder communication, and increased job satisfaction among staff. These successes highlight the importance of aligning stakeholder perspectives in digital transformation initiatives to achieve shared goals and drive meaningful change. 

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The council used street sweeping services to gauge residents' willingness to receive information from the council about digitised services. Photo: Getty Images

The role of stakeholders in frame alignment

Organisations that undergo digital transformation initiatives often “largely ignore or at least underestimate” how important the involved stakeholders are in shaping a path to the desired technological solution, Dr Hoblos said in explaining the catalyst for the research.

“We wanted to analyse how stakeholders influence the digital transformation process and achieve successful outcomes,” he said. “Our aim was to understand how stakeholders’ engagement can ultimately determine the outcome’s success.”

And while the information, computing, communication and connectivity technologies involved in digital transformation are central, an “equally crucial element” is the effective involvement and management of stakeholders. “Stakeholders – encompassing various internal and external entities such as employees, customers, partners, regulators, and the community – possess unique perspectives, interests, and needs that significantly impact the trajectory and outcome of digital transformation projects,” he explained.

“By comprehensively exploring stakeholders’ roles, motivations and levels of engagement throughout the digital transformation journey, our research aimed to uncover valuable insights into how their influence shapes operational decision-making, project implementation and overall success. Understanding these dynamics is essential for organisations to proactively address stakeholder concerns, align interests, and foster collaborative partnerships that drive innovation and sustainable transformation.”

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Through empirical analysis using the council as a case study, together with theoretical frameworks, the researchers aimed to bridge the gap between technological advancements and stakeholder engagement, providing organisations with actionable steps and best practices for navigating the complexities of digital transformation initiatives.

“By leveraging the collective wisdom and expertise of stakeholders working within a certain frame of action and making trade-offs while negotiating their different levels of perception and influence, organisations can not only enhance the likelihood of achieving their transformational goals but also foster a culture of trust, transparency and shared ownership that is essential for long-term success in today’s digital age,” Dr Hoblos added.

‘Dynamic and recursive’

The study showed that for a digital transformation process to be successful, stakeholders must engage in a frame alignment process in which they shape each other’s perceptions of the work they’re doing in the project. The researchers found that stakeholders create three “frames of perception” to understand their activities – planning, implementation and communication frames.

However, the research also showed that this frame alignment process is not autonomous; instead, it requires “deliberate and consistent actions” of framing and reframing critical elements within each frame. “Our research highlights the interactions between the different frames of alignment during the digital transformation process,” Dr Hoblos said. “These interactions make the process more dynamic and recursive, leading to a more stable and sustainable transformation outcome.”

The study, therefore, shows how the elements of these frames of alignment have a reinforcement effect and dynamic influence, he explained. “Rather than viewing alignment as a static or linear process, we recognise it as a complex and iterative phenomenon that evolves over time.” The dynamic nature of this alignment provides further benefits, Dr Hoblos said: it fosters greater enablement, reciprocity and adaptability, leading to resilience and coherence within the organisation.

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Stakeholders possess unique perspectives, interests and needs that significantly impact the trajectory and outcome of digital transformation projects. Photo: Getty Images

Practical implications for digital transformation

For leaders and executives, the research shows the importance of understanding that digital transformation involves stakeholders operating with different frames and that a frame alignment process is essential to get things done. Leaders should leverage the dynamic nature of frame alignment to “foster a culture of collaboration, agility and continuous learning within the organisation”, Dr Hoblos said.

“By promoting open communication channels and encouraging cross-functional cooperation, leaders can ensure that strategic objectives are effectively translated into operational realities,” he said.

Moreover, by recognising the iterative nature of frame alignment in digital transformation initiatives, project managers and implementation teams can develop flexible and adaptive project plans that accommodate changing priorities, stakeholder feedback and emerging opportunities. “By embracing a mindset of continuous improvement and iteration, teams can navigate the complexities of the digital transformation journey more effectively,” Dr Hoblos said.

Other practical applications include technology vendors and solution providers using the findings to tailor their offerings to better support organisations’ alignment needs, as well as consultants and advisors providing strategic guidance and support to organisations embarking on digital transformation initiatives.

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Finally, for all stakeholders, understanding their role in shaping alignment during the digital transformation process is empowering. “By actively participating in the frame alignment process and providing feedback, stakeholders can ensure that their interests are adequately addressed and that the digital transformation initiative remains responsive to their needs,” Dr Hoblos said.

“Overall, these findings underscore the importance of viewing frame alignment as a continuous and collaborative effort involving multiple stakeholders at various levels of the organisation,” he concluded. “By embracing this perspective and actively engaging with stakeholders throughout the digital transformation journey, organisations can increase the likelihood of achieving their transformational goals and realising the full potential of their digital investments.”


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