Developing a Multi-focal Perspective for the study of Digital Transformation

As researchers within the field of Information Systems, we may bring the individual, organisations and/or societal perspectives to examine specific ICT-related phenomena. In this article, I focus on the emerging phenomenon of Digital Transformation  and argue that this can and should be studied from different perspectives.

I come into this debate with my research interest to understand who is leading Digital Transformation.  With my colleague Dr Jostein Engesmo at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology,  we developed  a newfound interest to understand new leadership roles that have been created as a result of the increased organisational interest in  Digital Transformation programmes.

For this we interviewed Chief Digital Officers (CDOs) across different organisations and industries and  related roles such as Heads of digital, Director of Digital Transformation, Heads of Digital Strategy etc. The study was motivated by a need to understand who has the responsibility for digital transformation, but not only in terms of skills and experience, but more importantly their relation to and influence on the executive board and senior management as well as IT and other functions of their respective organisation. We view CDOs as protagonists for digital transformation in their organisations. As leading figures, CDOs are expected to be on central stage, take decisions and follow these through to their implementation. 

So as you would expect, we brought the view of organisational managers into our study. However,  other choices we made influenced the study and helped in broadening up the theoretical perspective adopted. Though the voice of these digital leaders was important in informing our understanding of Digital Transformation we also took the decision to focus on specific types of organisations. 

Early on in our study we made the conscious decision to distinguish between pre-digital and post-digital organisations recognizing that the latter are born with and often because of digital technologies, but traditional pre-digital organisations (i.e. those that existed prior to the internet revolution) must seek ways of incorporating Digital Transformation into their operations and strategies while overcoming structural and cultural constraints. 

This aspect therefore of our research necessitated a ‘within the organisation’ approach where we sought to explore not just the role and characteristics of the CDO but also the wider transition that pre-digital organisations are going through in order to accommodate this newfound role and how this transition is managed. In our process of exploration, participants talked about their  relationships with CIOs and the IT department and about how the structures of the IT departments had to be modified to accommodate Digital Transformation. We identified four different organisational structures for the IT function in organisations that are undergoing Digital Transformation: one structure depicts the case where Digital Transformation is treated as a project, and this is managed by the IT manager notably the CIO; A second one, where a new digital function is introduced and this is led by the CDO’ this  remains separate to the IT department  which is managed by the CIO. In the third structure,  the IT and digital remain separate but are both integrated within the same wider umbrella what may be called digital function, and finally, a fourth structure where IT and digital are merged and the leader has an integrated title such as the Chief Digital Information Officer.

Despite their differences, these organisational structures collectively confirm the organisational need to adapt the IT function in order to accommodate the need for digital capability when they embrace Digital Transformation and more broadly, the findings contribute to the discourse on the impact of Digital Transformation and how it shapes organisations.

The findings also suggest that ‘digital’ is a nebulous word, associated with vagueness and confusion, and show that organisations go through a learning process in their attempt to unpack the  opportunities of digital transformation for themselves. In doing so, they are rethinking their strategies, structures, digital leadership, skills, digital capabilities and the role of the IT function. These findings contribute to a wider perspective on DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION, one that posits that even though digital has become pervasive, organisations are still going through a process of figuring out how to embrace digitalisation in their business activities and this  falls within the remits of the societal approach.

If I draw on the specific study I presented, I have to acknowledge that the study did not start with a multi-focal perspective. Instead, it was at its initial stage rather single-focused, in terms of what we wanted to examine and the kind of participants we sought to interview, and ultimately what we wanted to get out of the study. This on the outset looks like a limited perspective of a phenomenon that is both multi-dimensional and multifaceted.

Having this narrow focus, gave us the opportunity to be in control which was hugely important based on the resources we had available.  It gave us clarity as to what we were seeking to achieve and helped us to set up a reasonable timeframe for carrying out the study. It also gave us possibilities to access a range of very interesting organisations – some of which we got in touch via LinkedIn without having done any previous work with as we were asking to interview CDOS whilst not knowing much about the organisations they worked with.  In this process however of exploration, we discovered additional themes, in fact more fascinating than the initial question we had. So, we moved from the managerial view to the organisational view, and thereafter towards the societal perspective.  

So my position on how to move towards a multi-focal thinking for the study of Digital Transformation  is that as researchers we have to exhibit and demonstrate adaptability in what we study and allow the numerous possibilities that may come our way to influence our thinking and subsequently our research. It is fine to start small and single-focused. It is where you go from there that matters, and that perhaps is the way to a multifocal thinking.


Niki Panteli (PhD) is a Professor of Digital Business at the School of Business and Management, Department of Digital Innovation and Management & co-Director of DOS (Digital Organisations and Society) Research Centre at Royal Holloway, University of London. She can be contacted by email:

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