Best practices for digital transformation based on a systematic literature review

Digital Transformation and Society

ISSN : 2755-0761

Article publication date: 13 January 2023

Issue publication date: 16 May 2023

Digital transformation (DT) projects are complex and often unsuccessful. While researchers have suggested many guidelines and best practices on how to successfully roll out DT projects and how they are spread among a large number of scientific papers. The aim of this paper is to synthesize these guidelines into clear overviews.


A systematic literature review was conducted on both Scopus and Web of Science to search for papers suggesting DT guidelines or best practices. In total, 150 papers dealing with DT and guidelines were fully analyzed.

Eight main DT guidelines were found and each one was expanded with several best practices on how to implement these. The results are eight tables giving an overview of the commonly agreed-upon best practices for each DT guideline.

Research limitations/implications

These overviews are useful for both researchers and practitioners, to guide future work and to be inspired respectively. This paper calls for more research on how these guidelines are followed in practice, how these differ per industry and what their impact is on the overall success of DT projects.


The synthesis of DT guidelines organized into an accessible format has not yet been conducted before, and can serve as a seminal pinpoint for future research.

  • Digital transformation
  • Best practices
  • Recommendations

Van Veldhoven, Z. and Vanthienen, J. (2023), "Best practices for digital transformation based on a systematic literature review", Digital Transformation and Society , Vol. 2 No. 2, pp. 104-128.

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2022, Ziboud Van Veldhoven and Jan Vanthienen

Published in Digital Transformation and Society . Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at


Digital technologies have a massive impact on our society. Companies must constantly innovate to keep up with the current possibilities and trends, a process commonly referred to as digital transformation (DT). This concept has acquired many definitions over the years that differ both in scale and depth. Some commonly used definitions include “a process that aims to improve an entity by triggering significant changes to its properties through combinations of information, computing, communication, and connectivity technologies” ( Vial, 2019, p. 1 ) or as “the continuously increasing interaction between digital technologies, business, and society” ( Van Veldhoven & Vanthienen, 2021, p. 11 ). The powerful ways in which digital technologies change the competitive landscape requires good executive sense and awareness to quickly transform the opportunities into competitive advantages ( Bonnet & Westerman, 2021 ). This has become crucial as the rate of change is increasing and thus the rate of opportunities.

Companies struggle with rolling out DT projects successfully. Not only are these projects strategically difficult due to their size and complexity ( Schneider & Kokshagina, 2021 ), but also they are paired with technological ( Fuchs & Hess, 2018 ), cultural ( Diener & Špaček, 2021 ) and behavioral challenges ( Saarikko, Westergren, & Blomquist, 2020 ). This results in a high failure rate estimated to be between 66% and 87.5% of all DT projects ( Libert, Beck, & Wind, 2016 ; Wade & Shan, 2020 ). Therefore, researchers and leading companies are exploring the best practices and guidelines that can aid companies in their transformation. This is difficult because the scale of change is so large resulting in many different business aspects that need to be covered. Yet, detailed DT guidelines for managers are lacking ( Hess, Benlian, Matt, & Wiesböck, 2016 ).

In this paper, we aim to create a practical summary of these guidelines. Not only are the guidelines currently spread among a large number of papers, but there is also a significant lack of how these guidelines can be put into practice. Most guidelines rest on a certain level of abstraction such as “be agile” without clear communication on how a firm can become more agile ( Peter, Kraft, & Lindeque, 2020 ). We conducted a systematic literature review to retrieve the commonly agreed-upon best practices and categorized them into eight main guidelines. These were verified with seven interviews with DT experts before we continued with the further analysis of the literature to retrieve more information on how these guidelines can be followed in practice. The result is an overview of the typical practical guidelines as per main guideline. It is important to note that this work is not meant to be exhaustive but rather as an overview of commonly suggested guidelines. It can aid managers in dealing with DT projects through inspiration, action points or scenario sketching.

In the next section, we go deeper into the meaning of DT and the problems surrounding the guidelines for DT. Then, we explain the systematic literature review methodology in section three. The results are eight tables, one for each main guideline, summarizing the best practices we found in the literature. We discuss the findings in the next section and conclude the paper in the last section.

DT is not a new concept. In fact, the first occurrence of the term was in the year 2000 by Patel and McCarthy to describe e-business ( Patel & McCarthy, 2000 ). However, it took 15 years before the term gained popularity. From 2015, the number of publications published per year with DT as a keyword doubled annually from 50 in 2015 to over 800 in 2022 ( Van Veldhoven, Etikala, Goossens, & Vanthienen, 2021 ). This increased growth highlights the importance of DT, not only in research but also in business. For instance, in a study among 702 executives, 89% have adopted a digital-first strategy ( Alt, 2019 ). Other studies point toward similar estimates such as 85% of companies agree that digital business is a fundamental aspect for success ( Kane, Palmer, Phillips, Kiron, & Buckly, 2017 ).

Part of the recent academic interest can also be attributed to the amalgamation of terminology. Between 2000 and 2015, many different terms were used to describe a similar process in which digital technologies gained a more prominent place in our society. These include digitization, often defined as converting analog processes into digital ones ( Loebbecke & Picot, 2015 ), digitalization or IT/IS-enabled transformation, often defined as the sociotechnical process in which digital technologies are increasingly adopted ( Legner et al. , 2017 ), or digital business transformation ( Schallmo, Williams, & Boardman, 2017 ). In other industries, terms such as industry 4.0 are often used. All these terms are different, but they can be understood as precedents of DT. As such, studying DT is complicated and requires a broad query for the literature review.

An additional complexity of this work is the diversity of the guidelines. The guidelines found in the literature often stem from case studies (e.g. Loonam, Eaves, Kumar, & Parry, 2018 ), surveys (e.g. Brock & von Wangenheim, 2019 ) or interviews (e.g. Brunetti et al. , 2020 ), and these differ per industry and company. In addition, as DT impacts every aspect of the business and society ( Stolterman & Fors, 2004 ), there exists a broad spectrum of guidelines. Abstraction must be made of the industry or company-specific guidelines to find general guidelines that span across industries. It is worth noting that the aim of this paper is not to describe best practices to digitalize a certain process or service. Instead, we discuss general top-level best practices for an entire company to embark on DT.


Scopus: TITLE-ABS-KEY ((“digital transformation” OR “digitali*ation”) AND (“guideline* OR “recommendation*” OR “best practice*”)) AND LANGUAGE (“english”) AND DOCTYPE (“ar” OR “cp”) AND PUBYEAR (>2009 AND <2022)

WoS: TI=((“digital transformation” OR “digitali*ation”) AND (“guideline*” OR “recommendation*” OR “best practice*”)) OR AK=((“digital transformation” OR “digitali*ation”) AND (“guideline*” OR “recommendation*” OR “best practice*”)) OR AB =((“digital transformation” OR “digitali*ation”) AND (“guideline*” OR “recommendation*” OR “best practice*”)) AND LANGUAGE:(English) AND DOCUMENT TYPES:(Article OR Proceedings Paper) AND Timespan:2009-01-01 to 2022-01-01

The queries retrieved 811 and 445 papers, respectively. After merging the two datasets and filtering the duplicates, a total of 972 papers were obtained. Next, the abstracts were read. Articles that specifically talked about DT projects in companies with suggestions on how to do so were included for further analysis. For the purpose of this study, we excluded papers dealing with public services or educational institutions and papers that could not be accessed. In total, 101 papers were selected. These papers were then fully analyzed to retrieve their guidelines and suggestions on how to roll out DT projects. By analyzing overlap and categorizing the retrieved guidelines based on their main themes, the foundation of this research was formed – eight main DT guidelines.

This foundation was then validated with seven DT domain experts in our preliminary work with an online survey (hidden during the review process). The domain experts are active in a leading role on DT projects for at least four years. For each best practice, Likert scale questions were asked about their relevance. For each guideline, open questions were created to inquire about correctness and completeness. In addition, open questions were asked on how these guidelines can be put into practice. In case the respondent did not immediately know the answer, the survey probed with several practical examples. The validation was largely successful with several slight changes in the main guidelines and steered us in the right direction for the rest of the literature analysis. A summary of the online survey can be found in the appendix.

Next, this foundation was expanded with the other insights from the 101 papers that were fully analyzed in search of best practices on how to follow these eight main guidelines. In addition, the literature set was expanded with other influential DT guidelines papers and with backward and forward referencing to retrieve more information about the main guidelines. The goal was to expand the main guidelines with practical guidelines of how they can be followed in practice. The additional literature search was stopped when no further information was achieved in the next five papers. In total, we have analyzed 150 papers. In step five, we consolidated the findings in overview tables per main guideline. An overview of the literature search is shown in Table 1 .

Digital transformation guidelines

From the initial literature review, we identified eight main guidelines. These include digital strategy, business agility, innovation and ambidexterity, modern organizational structure, digital culture, top management support, adequate IT infrastructure and digital skills. In the following subsections, we go over each guideline and discuss the findings in terms of best practices in more detail.

Digital strategy

One of the most commonly mentioned requirements for successful DT is the need for a digital strategy ( Hess et al. , 2016 ). It is often considered as a starting point for any DT efforts ( Catlin, Scanlan, & Willmott, 2015 ; Goerzig & Bauernhansl, 2018 ). The digital strategy consolidates and aligns the IT and business strategy ( Berghaus & Back, 2016 ) and spans the entire company ( Hirte & Roth, 2018 ). It also plans the company-wide organizational change and outlines the integrated business capabilities and value streams, inspired by novel technologies, that are responsive to the rapidly changing market conditions ( Hess et al. , 2016 ; Kane, Palmer, Philips, Kiron, & Buckley, 2015 ; Ross et al. , 2016 ). Some authors refer to this strategy as the DT strategy, hereby focusing more on the coordination of the transformation efforts ( Chanias, Myers, & Hess, 2019 ; Matt, Hess, & Benlian, 2015 ; Sebastian et al. , 2017 ), or as the digital business strategy ( Bharadwaj, El Sawy, Pavlou, & Venkatraman, 2013 ; Kahre, Hoffmann, & Ahlemann, 2017 ; Mithas, Tafti, & Mitchell, 2013 ).

The digital strategy typically formulates and outlines the vision and roadmap the company is pursuing ( Črešnar, Potočan, & Nedelko, 2020 ; Korachi & Bounabat, 2019 ; Schuh, Frank, Jussen, Rix, & Harland, 2017 ; Venkatesh, Singhal, & Mathew, 2018 ). This vision should in essence be a digitalized view of the company in the future and how it can remain relevant in an ever-changing and digitalizing world ( Kretschmer & Khashabi, 2020 ; Stoyanova, 2020 ). Fundamental elements in the creation of this vision are to identify specific and measurable digitalization goals ( Korachi & Bounabat, 2019 ; Sjödin, Parida, Kohtamäki, & Wincent, 2020 ; Stich, Zeller, Hicking, & Kraut, 2020 ; Wade & Shan, 2020 ), challenges ( Fichter, 2019 ), scenarios ( Bennett & McWhorter, 2021 ) and corresponding actions ( Fichter, 2019 ; Stoyanova, 2020 ). The roadmap or action plan describes how to get there, the people involved, the actions required, and the time required ( Patel, Kalita, & Asthana, 2018 ). It can outline multiple paths depending on likely scenarios in the future. According to Ivančić, Vukšić and Spremić (2019) , a shared digital vision is essential. By linking this vision to the company’s strategy, both internal and external stakeholders will be more aware of the importance of their role in achieving this vision ( Fichter, 2019 ).

Because DT deals with both the business and IT side, continuous alignment between them is needed to be successful ( Dolganova & Deeva, 2019 ; Fischer, Imgrund, Janiesch, & Winkelmann, 2020 ; Hess et al. , 2016 ; Kane et al. , 2015 ; Li, Liu, Belitski, Ghobadian, & O’Regan, 2016 ; Saarikko et al. , 2020 ). DT is not about using novel technologies but about integrating and using them to achieve strategic ends ( Kane et al. , 2015 ). For this reason, business and IT departments often coordinate their strategies and action plans ( Agrawal, Narain, & Ullah, 2020 ). It is also important to communicate the specific rationale for IT usage and the weaknesses it addresses ( Gigova, Valeva, & Nikolova-Alexieva, 2019 ; Kadir & Broberg, 2020 ; Korachi & Bounabat, 2019 ). This fosters collaboration between the two sides and leads to better alignment and firm-wide knowledge on the transformation.

In addition, companies with a formulated DT strategy should be aware that this strategy should be subject to constant reassessment ( Bach, Spremić, & Vugec, 2018 ; Krell & Gale, 2005 ). DT is not a one-time exercise, but a continuous adaptation to changing technological capabilities, markets and customer demands ( Matt et al. , 2015 ; Parviainen, Tihinen, Kääriäinen, & Teppola, 2017 ). The evaluation should assess both the underlying assumptions, the market and the transformational advancement of DT. In case of disparities according to the predefined objectives, timely action is suggested.

Many researchers suggest the importance of collaboration with strategic partners in the digital world ( Fischer et al. , 2020 ; Hirte & Roth, 2018 ; Zangiacomi, Sacco, Pessot, De Zan, & Bertetti, 2018 ). This has become more important due to the wide-scale impact of DT; not only companies but entire sectors and industries are changing ( Van Veldhoven & Vanthienen, 2021 ). One of these decisive changes is the fading of industry borders and competing in ecosystems and multi-sided platforms ( Bonnet & Westerman, 2021 ; Subramaniam, Iyer, & Venkatraman, 2019 ). Managers are increasingly looking for cross-sector opportunities and threats such as novel business products that are tightly integrated between multiple external partners or ecosystems ( Diener & Špaček, 2021 ; Saarikko et al. , 2020 ; Veile, Kiel, Müller, & Voigt, 2020 ; Weill & Woerner, 2015 ). This shift is not just to improve efficiency but serves as a pathway for long-term growth ( Subramaniam et al. , 2019 ). For this reason, the digital strategy often investigates strategic collaborations and digital platforms.

It is generally agreed upon that the digital strategy must be customer-driven ( von Leipzig et al. , 2017 ; Weill & Woerner, 2015 ). The digital strategy positions, after all, the core business model in such a way that it can generate value from the digital customer environment ( Gigova et al. , 2019 ; Stoyanova, 2020 ). Significant gains can be realized by digitalizing the customer experience and integrating all customer touchpoints such as increased automation, better service quality and an improved customer experience ( Berman, 2012 ; Stoyanova, 2020 ). Hence, it is crucial that firms design the strategy with the integrative customer perspective in mind ( Helbin & Van Looy, 2019 ). This requires the company to research their customers thoroughly ( Agrawal et al. , 2020 ; Klisarova-Belcheva, Yankova, & Ilieva, 2019 ; Kretschmer & Khashabi, 2020 ), or to collaborate with their customers to receive feedback ( Ivančić et al. , 2019 ).

To ensure that the outcome of the DT process satisfies the preconditions of all stakeholders of a firm, a thorough stakeholder management exercise is needed both at the initiation of the DT process and throughout the change journey ( Fichter, 2019 ; Imgrund, Fischer, Janiesch, & Winkelmann, 2018 ). During the requirements engineering phase, firms should determine and prioritize the informational, functional and technical requirements based on the collaboration of stakeholders and their prerequisites ( Fischer et al. , 2020 ). In case of collaborations with external partners, managers usually govern the expectations and objectives of all the parties and balance these in a common proposal ( Fechtelpeter, Kuehn, & Dumitrescu, 2018 ). This is of particular importance as its results should be a major element in the starting point for the DT process. An overview is shown in Table 2 .

Business agility

Business agility, the ability to change swiftly, has gained profound awareness in recent years ( Fuchs & Hess, 2018 ; Imgrund et al. , 2018 ; Kane, 2019 ; Sjödin et al. , 2020 ; Veile et al. , 2020 ). On the one hand, this awareness comes from the failures of some traditional companies stuck in their own ways, such as the camera film seller Kodak that failed to embrace digital pictures as a new business instead of a way to expand their printing business. On the other hand, business environments and customers continue to become more unpredictable and change rapidly due to the massive impact of digital technologies. An agile company is more reactive and thus more resistant to these changes ( Bondar, Hsu, Pfouga, & Stjepandić, 2017 ), as evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is why firms are heavily investing in organizational agility for unpredictable areas ( Nowakowski et al. , 2019 ; Sommer, 2019 ). There exist numerous ways in which companies are trying to increase their agility, of which many are intertwined with the other categories we discuss in this paper.

Agile development methods are often recommended, especially in software development ( Dremel, Herterich, Wulf, Waizmann, & Brenner, 2017 ; Leonhardt, Haffke, Kranz, & Benlian, 2017 ; Sebastian et al. , 2017 ; Sommer, 2019 ). These are often based on the twelve foundational principles of Beck et al. (2001) that include early and frequent delivery, welcoming changing requirements and working efficiently. Popular methodologies include DevOps, which is a set of practices to reduce the time between plans and deployment, and Scrum, a framework to quickly deliver value by ranking the backlog and working in short sprints. These methodologies can be used across the entire company, e.g. the Spotify model, to increase agility and value delivery. These methods can also easily be translated to a working-from-home environment, which was necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another indirect method of increasing agility is by empowering employees . The idea is that by removing the red tape ( Kotter, 1995 ), integrating the employees into the change process, improving the idea exchange to management ( Diener & Špaček, 2021 ) and giving more authority to the employees, the innovation process becomes more flexible and reduces the organizational rigidity. This also enables the employees to act faster and implement the necessary changes without constantly asking for approval ( Nair, 2019 ). Furthermore, this makes the workforce more involved in the change process. This is necessary to develop an optimal view of the day-to-day operations and increase the acceptance of the DT process ( Kadir & Broberg, 2020 ). In the end, the employees are better connected with the DT efforts and become part of it ( Diener & Špaček, 2021 ).

Similarly, collaborative working principles are being applied by some companies to facilitate agility and creativity ( Bouncken, Kraus, & Roig-Tierno, 2021 ). For instance, co-working office rooms in which it is easy to sit together with a project team are often installed. Another method is by adopting open office hours which means that for several hours per week, all offices are free to walk into to discuss or collaborate on something. In a similar vein, some corporates use free-roaming desks, which gives employees the flexibility to sit with whomever they want ( Guest, 2014 ). During the pandemic, the usage of online collaboration tools such as communication apps, e.g. Slack and Zoom, or project management apps, e.g. Miro and Trello, soared. There are many more principles a business can apply for, but the basic idea is the same: to stimulate collaboration and flexibility.

To quickly adapt the IT capacity to the dynamic market requirements, many firms utilize cloud computing to host their software and services ( Bharadwaj et al. , 2013 ). This does not only help to quickly up or downscale the required capacity, but also has benefits regarding costs, portability and reduced hardware and software obsolescence ( Ross & Blumenstein, 2013 ). Cloud services are also helpful to support working-from-home dynamics.

A final recommendation is to outsource areas that are too slow to change ( Ebrahimpur & Jacob, 2001 ). This can also be used to reduce costs for areas where the technological processes required are well structured and not overly complex. However, compared to creating the required competencies internally, outsourcing can be riskier ( Hess et al. , 2016 ). Instead of outsourcing to external partners, some companies create spin-offs to take over some business aspects in a more agile way ( Veile et al. , 2020 ). An overview is shown in Table 3 .

Innovation and ambidexterity

Innovation is becoming a key competitive differentiator in the digital world. Companies that can sense and seize opportunities by quickly experimenting, designing and rolling out new products or services can capture new value streams and stay competitive ( Leonhardt et al. , 2017 ; Osterwalder & Pigneur, 2010 ). Digital innovation, often defined as the combination of digital and physical components to create novel products and services and embedding them in wider sociotechnical environments ( Skog, Wimelius, & Sandberg, 2018 ; Yoo, Henfridsson, & Lyytinen, 2010 ), is especially important in the last few years. At the same time, the traditional value streams must be safeguarded. This dual goal of balancing innovation and traditional value streams is often referred to as business ambidexterity ( Schuchmann & Seufert, 2015 ). Several ideas have been proposed to improve the innovative capacities of companies.

One idea is to foster innovation outside the core business. Some authors recommend creating a new division inside the company that specializes in innovation ( Christensen, Raynor, & McDonald, 2015 ; Dremel et al. , 2017 ). For instance, Alphabet created division X to investigate cutting-edge innovations such as quantum computing. Another strategy is to invest in or co-operate with innovative start-ups ( Matzler, Friedrich von den Eichen, Anschober, & Kohler, 2018 ). Similarly, firms can enhance internal innovative capabilities by engaging in partnerships with external knowledge-rich associations or in the form of open innovation or living labs ( Fischer et al. , 2020 ; Galimova, Gileva, Mukhanova, & Krasnuk, 2019 ; Matzner et al. , 2018 ). It is important that the explorative pilot projects that come forth are aligned with the overall digital strategy ( Barata, da Cunha, & Coyle, 2018 ). This way, long-term innovation can be secured without interfering with the core business.

When the goal is to foster innovation inside the core business, some companies organize product innovation days . These can be in the form of hackathons, innovation competitions, or offsite days for brainstorming ( Berghaus & Back, 2017 ). Other companies install dedicated innovation ideas mailboxes in which employees can submit ideas ( Ivančić et al. , 2019 ). These efforts facilitate new idea generation and identify gaps in the organization that could be further innovated. Because an overload of new ideas can be received, efforts can be made to adequately manage these ideas.

Firms can also partner up with research institutions , innovation incubators or public institutions. These partnerships can create innovation clusters that foster creativity and catalyze innovation by following an open system perspective ( Fechtelpeter et al. , 2018 ; Veile et al. , 2020 ; Zangiacomi et al. , 2018 ). This allows companies to access the latest methods, software and technology for both developments of new and future DT projects ( Fechtelpeter et al. , 2018 ; Ivančić et al. , 2019 ).

Finally, it has been recommended to invest in a mix of technologies (e.g. Stoyanova, 2020 ). The portfolio of projects should be a balance between exploring emerging technologies and exploiting existing high-performing technologies ( Helbin & Van Looy, 2019 ; Ishlahuddin, Handayani, Hammi, & Azzahro, 2020 ). For this dual-purpose, firms are endorsed to continuously monitor the external technological environment to identify emerging technologies that can be valuable to the company ( Ishlahuddin et al. , 2020 ; Kadir & Broberg, 2020 ). With this approach, companies are at the forefront of innovation and reduce the risk of falling behind. An overview is shown in Table 4 .

Modern organizational structure

Tying in closely with the other recommendations in this paper is the need for a modern organizational structure ( Dremel et al. , 2017 ; Morgan & Page, 2008 ). This is a critical element to achieve the other recommendations such as business agility, innovation, aligning the IT and business side and following the DT strategy ( Fischer et al. , 2020 ). A modern organizational structure is characterized by a focus on openness, collaboration and agility.

A common element is a flat or horizontal structure ( Berghaus & Back, 2017 ; Veile et al. , 2020 ). In this system, the number of managers is limited which results in a more decentralized and agile decision-making environment ( Dolganova & Deeva, 2019 ; Earley, 2014 ). For example, the online clothing retailer Zappos is experimenting with Holacracy: a business structure in which there are no titles and managers ( Guest, 2014 ). This reduces the time lost by meetings, approval and appointments.

In addition, more than 70% of digitally mature companies rely on cross-functional teams to organize work ( Kane, Palmer, Phillips, & Kiron, 2017 ). These are interdisciplinary teams consisting of experts from various departments such as software developers, marketers, salespeople and business analysts, who work together usually on a product or project ( Veile et al. , 2020 ). They are characterized by their dedicated, solution-oriented mindset ( Dolganova & Deeva, 2019 ). Together, they have the necessary skills to manage the entire lifecycle of the product. These teams, also referred to as speedboats, are often more agile than a traditional company, also referred to as tankers ( Matzler et al. , 2018 ). These teams ideally complement the existing business structures ( Dremel et al. , 2017 ). Several business structures with cross-functional teams as the foundation exist, such as the Spotify model. The use of these teams is often linked to increased organizational agility and creativity ( Imgrund et al. , 2018 ; Veile et al. , 2020 ).

Some companies create DT subsidiaries or divisions to lead their DT efforts ( Ivančić et al. , 2019 ; Westerman, Calméjane, Bonnet, Ferraris, & McAfee, 2011 ). These divisions benefit from being tightly integrated with all other divisions and include staff members from various other departments for gaining feedback and assessing needs ( Ivančić et al. , 2019 ; Westerman et al. , 2011 ). This is different from the innovation labs from the previous section; here the division is focused on delivering the DT of the business itself while the innovation labs are focused on experimenting with new and novel technologies to foster innovation. Having a dedicated division for DT can be beneficial for digitalizing the company.

Similar to the strategy, the business structure should continuously be realigned with new technologies and the IT infrastructure ( Fischer et al. , 2020 ). This is important to maximize the gains from digital technologies and automation ( Fischer et al. , 2020 ). Indeed, applying digital technologies without proper alignment is a frequent cause of failure ( Brock & von Wangenheim, 2019 ; Issa, Hatiboglu, Bildstein, & Bauernhansl, 2018 ). Ideally, the entire supply chain is seamlessly aligned with the firm’s IT infrastructure ( Moi & Cabiddu, 2020 ). It is also recommended to integrate digital business projects into the existing organizational structure, rather than creating a separate structure. An overview is shown in Table 5 .

Digital culture

Companies embarking on DT should assess and reconsider their corporate culture from the start ( Çetin Gürkan & Çiftci, 2020 ; Fichter, 2019 ; Hartl & Hess, 2017 ). The business ethos is indeed considered as the enabler or disabler for any kind of changes ( Hartl & Hess, 2017 ), thus companies often spend a considerable effort on transforming the business culture into a digital culture. This is typically characterized by a high level of creativity, equality, flexibility, openness, willingness to learn and digital savviness ( Kaufman & Horton, 2014 ; Veile et al. , 2020 ). It stimulates innovation, the use of digital technologies, and is the key to achieving the necessary agility ( Fischer et al. , 2020 ; Imgrund et al. , 2018 ). This is crucial because one of the main causes of poor DT performance is the lack of the right culture that embraces digitalization ( Hartl & Hess, 2017 ; Silverio-Fernández, Renukappa, & Suresh, 2021 ; Wade & Shan, 2020 ). There are several ways in which a company can promote a digital culture.

One way to develop the culture is by promoting change as an inherent part of everyday life in the company ( Diener & Špaček, 2021 ; Kane, 2019 ). Communication plays a vital role in increasing awareness among employees that change is needed and urgent ( Fichter, 2019 ). Once the employees are aware of the need for change, they must be allowed to experiment and innovate, while leaders and HR departments ensure that the business is acceptive for potential failures of the projects ( Nair, 2019 ). In other words, an open culture that encourages employees’ creativity and risk-taking projects is recommended ( Brink, Packmohr, & Vogelsang, 2020 ; Fischer et al. , 2020 ; Matzler et al. , 2018 ). Some companies offer monetary or intrinsic rewards for innovation efforts ( Fitzgerald, Kruschwitz, Bonnet, & Welch, 2013 ).

Another method to improve the digital culture is moving away from rigid regulations to value-based regulations ( Berman, 2012 ). Traditional companies often have rigid regulations in which the exact procedures are formally described, whereas digital natives often have value-based regulations whereby employees are encouraged to work toward the company’s goals and values ( Matzner et al. , 2018 ). Value-based regulations promote employees to create change that maximizes value ( Martinez, 2019 ).

Throughout the process of reconsidering the corporate culture, the organization should foster open communication among departments and hierarchical levels ( Veile et al. , 2020 ). Hence, eliminating potential barriers that limit the employees from cooperating is a good starting point such as an open office in favor of assigned desks ( Guest, 2014 ). In addition, the interdependence of projects must be verified to avoid certain departments implementing changes at the expense of other departments ( Ishlahuddin et al. , 2020 ). This is crucial for departments to reach aligned outcomes and create value throughout the entire DT process. Not only the communication should be open, but the domain-specific knowledge should also be consultable company-wide ( Dremel et al. , 2017 ).

Additionally, researchers suggest that a digital mindset is beneficial for the company ( Warner & Wäger, 2019 ). It is fundamental that employees can apply novel technologies themselves ( Diener & Špaček, 2021 ). This mindset can also embrace novel technologies such as data analytics and evidence-based decision-making ( Dremel et al. , 2017 ; Vial, 2019 ). In essence, digital should be a core part of your organization ( Kane, Palmer, Phillips, Kiron et al. , 2017 ).

Finally, digital culture is characterized by a high level of personal development ( Kane et al. , 2017 ). With personal development, we mean that employees continuously learn and improve their skills. This can be done through dedicated training hours or offering time-off hours for personal growth. Another method is the use of training groups where the digital-savvy employees collaborate with the other employees. Indeed, it is important to have internal IT competencies ( Dolganova & Deeva, 2019 ). An overview is shown in Table 6 .

Top management support

The support and determination of senior management is a key success factor for DT ( Fischer et al. , 2020 ; Harrington & Tjan, 2008 ; Kane et al. , 2017 ). It is known that DT is severely hindered without this support, for instance by resistance ( Brock & von Wangenheim, 2019 ; Fitzgerald et al. , 2013 ; Matt et al. , 2015 ). Hence, a successful DT process requires executives that support the DT projects.

Some companies create a chief digital officer (CDO) position to lead the DT initiatives ( Haffke, Kalgovas, & Benlian, 2016 ; Singh & Hess, 2017 ). The CDO is located between the business and the ICT, and develops, communicates and orchestrates the holistic digital strategy across the company, hereby embracing the full spectrum of technological opportunities ( Singh & Hess, 2017 ). They have knowledge of the industry-specific effect of digitalization and determine how this impacts the firm ( Haffke et al. , 2016 ; Ishlahuddin et al. , 2020 ). Other companies give this responsibility to the chief executive officer (CEO) or chief information officer (CIO) ( Hess et al. , 2016 ). In any case, it is required that this person has sufficient authority and support to fulfill their tasks ( Singh & Hess, 2017 ).

The top management should also be responsible for communicating the digital vision of the company ( Fitzgerald et al. , 2013 ; Mugge, Abbu, Michaelis, Kwiatkowski, & Gudergan, 2020 ). The vision includes both the DT strategy and the DT objectives. It should be communicated across the entire company and all stakeholders. It is also important that top management assigns clear responsibilities for carrying out the digital strategy ( Matt et al. , 2015 ; Morgan & Page, 2008 ).

Not only should senior managers communicate the digital vision, but they should also act as role models for their employees ( Diener & Špaček, 2021 ). This is important for hesitant employees who often show some resistance toward change on accepting the new approaches ( Bach et al. , 2018 ). One way to do this is by increasing awareness about the benefits of digitalization projects ( Fischer et al. , 2020 ; Silverio-Fernández et al. , 2021 ). Some authors call for pro-active leadership, in which the leader supports, motivates and inspires teams, while actively incorporating their followers’ ideas ( Ebert & Duarte, 2018 ; Kontić & Vidicki, 2018 ).

Finally, it has been suggested that executives should create a sense of urgency to initiate DT ( Kotter, 1995 ; Westerman, Bonnet, & McAfee, 2012 ). This perception is vital to overcome the inertia that exists in many companies that are stuck in their traditional ways of working ( Besson & Rowe, 2012 ; Saarikko et al. , 2020 ). By highlighting that DT is not only necessary but also requires immediate action, hesitant employees can be persuaded to put effort into the digitalization. An overview is shown in Table 7 .

Adequate IT infrastructure

DT relies on an adequate IT infrastructure. The IT infrastructure can be understood as the backbone of any digitalization effort. Accordingly, many DT projects fail because their backbone is insufficiently capable ( Diener & Špaček, 2021 ). Several authors emphasize that firms must optimize the flexibility, standardization and operation stability of their IT systems ( Brink et al. , 2020 ; Fischer et al. , 2020 ; Schuh et al. , 2019 ). This includes documenting the system configurations in an understandable and interpretable manner and evaluating the risks of potential malfunctions. There are several elements commonly mentioned in the scientific literature in respect to the IT infrastructure.

First, the operational backbone on which the business operations run is of crucial importance ( Ross et al. , 2016 ; Sebastian et al. , 2017 ). It should ensure the efficiency and reliability of the core operations and back-office services in an integrated, adaptable and reconfigurable way ( Agrawal et al. , 2020 ; Colli et al. , 2019 ). For some companies, this comes in the form of an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system ( Ivančić et al. , 2019 ). This is the foundation for future business process optimizations ( Colli et al. , 2019 ; Paschek, Luminosu, & Draghici, 2017 ).

Secondly, a digital services platform is highly beneficial. It is a set of digital components that connects the processes in the operational backbone with services, data analytics, websites and ecosystems ( Bonnet & Westerman, 2021 ; Ross et al. , 2016 ). It enables the fast development, implementation and rollout of digital innovations ( Ross et al. , 2016 ; Westerman et al. , 2012 ). Some recent examples can be found at Kaiser Permanante’s who created a digital services platform supporting 21 technology components for operational services ( Ross et al. , 2016 ), or at the LEGO group who created an engagement platform that hosts microservices for personalizing customer experience ( Ross et al. , 2016 ).

Another important IT element deals with the usage of data . In recent years, data have become a valuable and essential resource when properly managed ( Sathananthan, Hoetker, Gamrad, Katterbach, & Myrzik, 2017 ). Thoughtful design regarding data generation and multiple purpose usage must be conducted ( Saarikko et al. , 2020 ). Several studies urged firms to create a unified database in which all customer and corporate data are centralized ( Brock & von Wangenheim, 2019 ; Schuh et al. , 2017 ). The data must be available in real-time to all relevant employees and shared according to value streams ( Bouncken et al. , 2021 ). Regarding the data itself, firms often prioritize data quality and usefulness over data hoarding ( Colli et al. , 2019 ; Saarikko et al. , 2020 ). Analytics and data mining can then be used to generate insights ( Berman, 2012 ), make evidence-based decisions ( Weill & Woerner, 2015 ) and make predictions.

Because digital technologies are one of the most important drivers of DT ( Hess et al. , 2016 ), the IT infrastructure ought to support novel technologies . These typically include social media, mobile applications, data analytics, cloud computing and the internet of things (SMACIT). Dolganova and Deeva (2019) state that the efficiency of implementing new technology largely depends on the flexibility of the IT infrastructure, integration potential and scalability of the solutions. This also implies that the IT departments should also be motivated and acceptive toward novel technologies.

Simultaneously, cybersecurity is of crucial importance ( Vial, 2019 ). First, the safety and privacy of the data should be safeguarded. Therefore, an adequate IT governance system is required to be in place ( Korachi & Bounabat, 2019 ). It is recommended that external regulations on IT governance are also adopted through compliance mechanisms, security tools and a clear communication mechanism ( Ishlahuddin et al. , 2020 ). Moreover, companies must ensure that the data are hosted ethically and securely ( Imgrund et al. , 2018 ; Veile et al. , 2020 ). A second element is about the protection against cyber-attacks. According to KMPG, 72% of CEOs are not prepared for cyberattacks ( KPMG & Veihmeyer, 2016 ). Yet, this is crucial as entire companies can be shut down when major cyberattacks happen. For instance, the entire production line of Picanol, a major industrial player, was closed for over a week due to cyberattacks. Hence, companies can invest in cybersecurity to keep their business running.

Regarding existing legacy systems , a combination of keeping and updating those systems is recommended. While legacy systems can pose a significant challenge (e.g.  Makarchenko, Nerkararian, & Scmeleva, 2016 ), they also work and are trusted. Some authors suggest that DT must be supported by a similar IT transformation and not simply add to the existing legacy infrastructure ( Makarchenko et al. , 2016 ). Others recommend integrating the legacy systems with novel services (e.g. Mielli & Bulanda, 2019 ). Careful consideration must be made between upgrading existing systems or adding to existing systems. An overview is shown in Table 8 .

Digital skills

Due to the high leverage of digital technologies in DT, digital skills are an important asset for companies embarking on DT ( Adam, Hofbauer, & Mandl, 2019 ; Fischer et al. , 2020 ; Hirte & Roth, 2018 ; Imgrund et al. , 2018 ). Under this umbrella term, we include digital strategy, digital technologies, data science and cybersecurity skills ( Brock & von Wangenheim, 2019 ). Managers must evaluate whether new skills are required, and if so, plan how to obtain these ( Fischer et al. , 2020 ). Educating existing employees is not always easy, as many employees are hesitant toward digitalization ( Brink et al. , 2020 ). Thus, many companies rely on hiring new employees with digital skills.

Recruiting employees with appropriate digital competencies and digital curiosity is a rapid way to increase human IT capital ( Diener & Špaček, 2021 ; Mielli & Bulanda, 2019 ; Ross & Blumenstein, 2013 ). There exists a reciprocal effect, however, in the sense that digital-savvy applicants are more likely to join digitally mature companies, such as having a clearly formulated digital vision ( Nair, 2019 ). In addition, it is increasingly difficult to find an available workforce with specific digital skills. Hence, sufficient effort must be made to create a culture that attracts digital talent ( Kane, Palmer, Phillips, Kiron et al. , 2017 ).

Another method is investing in continuous education in digital skills through training and development programs ( Brink et al. , 2020 ; Diener & Špaček, 2021 ; Fischer et al. , 2020 ; Kane et al. , 2017 ; Nair, 2019 ). This is important because keeping pace with the latest technologies is challenging for many employees yet necessary to thrive in the digital economy ( Ivančić et al. , 2019 ; Mugge et al. , 2020 ). These programs should enhance their awareness of why DT is important for the company’s future and their willingness to cooperate ( Krüger & Teuteberg, 2016 ). The main task, however, is to develop new competencies and increase the digital skills of all enterprise employees ( Bickauske, Simanaviciene, Jakubavicius, Vilys, & Mykhalchyshyna, 2020 ; Kamal, 2020 ; Lööw, Abrahamsson, & Johansson, 2019 ). For the more technical profiles, dedicated training courses can be used to enhance their specific expertise ( Strutynska, Dmytrotsa, Kozbur, Melnyk, & Olha, 2020 ). These efforts attract and retain digital workers, prepare employees for career advancement, increase the acceptance of digital culture and facilitate knowledge sharing ( Buhulaiga, Telukdarie, & Ramsangar, 2019 ; Stoyanova, 2020 ). Another way to educate employees is by close collaboration with experts to share their knowledge ( Diener & Špaček, 2021 ). These educational programs will ideally create an innovation fostering atmosphere in which employees take more initiative to use and upgrade their digital abilities ( Nair, 2019 ). An overview is shown in Table 9 .

This study conducted a systematic literature review of the DT literature to retrieve the commonly mentioned best practices and guidelines. From the 150 papers, eight main guidelines were identified including digital strategy, business agility, innovation and ambidexterity, modern organizational structure, digital culture, top management support, adequate IT infrastructure and digital skills. For each of these main guidelines, we summarized several best practices of how these can be followed in practice. The results of this paper provide an overview of the general best practices for large companies embarking on DT. These can be used as checklists for firms or managers, or as a source of inspiration. It is important, however, to realize how these guidelines should be interpreted. They are not meant as mandatory rules nor are they applicable for every company. In addition, it should be noted that these guidelines are heavily intertwined. For instance, a company cannot become more agile by only following the agile guidelines proposed in this work but must also pay attention to corporate culture and business structure. These results also indicate that there is no golden rule to follow but DT requires a multitude of strategic actions that must be personalized to the firm’s objectives, capabilities and outlook.

The expert interviews uncovered some interesting findings as well. First, the main guidelines were validated with the expert interviews, and all deemed particularly important for DT. However, they require a degree of nuance and adaptability. A second important finding is the discrepancy between the high-level suggestions in the literature and the more down-to-earth approach suggested by the experts. For example, one expert notes that a digital strategy should be carefully implemented step-by-step compared to the more optimistic implementation ideas found in the academic literature. Another example is shared by another expert who claims that overenthusiasm in digital technologies can be harmful as well. Rather than a digital-first mindset, a digital-where-suitable mindset should be the goal. The contrast between the confident literature and skepticism found in practice is an interesting research avenue for further research.

Given this overview of guidelines, a common question is where to start. To answer this question, a framework was constructed that describes the general steps a company can follow when embarking on DT. The framework was constructed based on the combination of the insights from the literature analysis and on a comparison of a series of DT process models ( Besson & Rowe, 2012 ; Earl, 2000 ; Faro, Abedin, & Kozanoglu, 2019 ; Fichman, Dos Santos, Zheng, & Eric, 2014 ; Gong & Ribiere, 2020 ; Hanelt, Bohnsack, Marz, & Antunes Marante, 2020 ; Ismail, Khater, & Zaki, 2017 ; Kaufman & Horton, 2014 ; Kontić & Vidicki, 2018 ; Kotter, 1995 ; Krell & Gale, 2005 ; Morgan & Page, 2008 ; Parviainen et al. , 2017 ; Schallmo & Williams, 2018 ; Siachou, Vrontis, & Trichina, 2020 ; Skog et al. , 2018 ; Venkatraman, 1994 ; Vial, 2019 ; von Leipzig et al. , 2017 ; Westerman et al. , 2011 ). Many process models recommend starting with an assessment of the current market, company’s capabilities and opportunities which is referred to as the reality scan (e.g. Schallmo & Williams, 2018 ; Skog et al. , 2018 ; von Leipzig et al. , 2017 ). This reality check is followed by creating a digital strategy that outlines the goal or future core business, roadmap and action plan based on the insights from the reality scan ( Buhulaiga et al. , 2019 ; Colli et al. , 2018 ). This requires however that there is top management support . The digital strategy outlines both the innovation ambitions and the sustainability of the core business. Innovation efforts must then be done to create pilot projects of new projects and areas to innovate in to establish proof of concept ( Barata et al. , 2018 ; Fechtelpeter et al. , 2018 ; Veile et al. , 2020 ). These projects require the necessary digital skills to exist in the company. Over time, the goal is that the core business evolves into the future core business by combining with the innovation efforts and that the company follows the new paradigm of digital agility. At the same time, however, the core business must be kept operational and sustainable. To span this timeframe, the ambidexterity best practices can be followed to make sure both innovation and the core businesses are protected. Next, when the innovation projects start gaining shape, changes can be made in the organizational structure to support these projects into an active role. This requires an adequate IT infrastructure as well. To keep the momentum going, companies are advised to invest in business agility supported by a digital culture . It should be noted that the DT process is not a one-time exercise but must be continuously conducted. Hence, the processes of planning the future core business and conducting reality scans follow each other in rapid succession. The framework is shown in Figure 1 .

This research contributes to the existing literature by summarizing and outlining often suggested guidelines and best practices for DT. This overview is necessary as the popularity of the research field is overwhelming its findings. In addition, the overview is crucial to steer future research forward. Each of the main guidelines requires more research to investigate when, for who and how they should be implemented. While we have given several best practices for each guideline, more research can be conducted to give a broader overview of how these best practices can be put into practice. Distinctions can be made between particular industries or types of firms. In essence, what is needed is a complete overview of main guidelines, best practices and how to implement them in practice for each type of firm. Future research should investigate successful DT cases and describe how they implemented the best practices with this overview as their main anchor point to keep the findings cohesive. Other research could investigate the impact of following certain best practices.

The limitations of this study mostly relate to the acquired dataset. Different queries with more keywords could retrieve more papers and potentially give different results, albeit we believe the main guidelines would not change much. While we excluded educational and public agencies, including them could give different results for those sectors. This could be a fruitful area for future research. Lastly, due to the high overlap of guidelines, different categorizations could be obtained by different authors.

In this paper, we contribute to the research by providing a summary of commonly suggested guidelines and best practices for DT. Eight main DT guidelines were found and each one was expanded with best practices on how to implement these guidelines into practice. These overviews highlight the complex and interwoven process of DT and guide researchers in their further work. We call for more research into each of these guidelines and best practices, especially on how the best practices can be implemented in a company. Finally, practitioners can be informed and inspired by the overviews.

a systematic literature review on digital transformation

A process model to embark on DT based on DT best practices

Overview of systematic literature review approach based on the PRISMA methodology

Best practices for digital strategy

Best practices for business agility

Best practices for innovation and ambidexterity

Best practices for a modern organizational structure

Best practices for a digital culture

Best practices for top management support

Best practices for an adequate IT infrastructure

Best practices for digital skills

Appendix Online survey

What is your current job function and responsibilities concerning DT?

The digital strategy needs to align the IT and business goals (1–5 scale)

The digital strategy needs to outline the digital business model and value chain (1–5 scale)

The digital strategy must be customer-driven (1–5 scale)

The digital strategy must investigate strategic partnerships (1–5 scale)

Are there any other important aspects of the digital strategy not named above? (open question)

How can these aspects of the digital strategy be rolled out in practice? (open question)

Companies should increase its business agility by outsourcing (1–5 scale)

Companies should increase its business agility by giving employees more decision-power (1–5 scale)

Companies should increase its business agility by implementing agile development methods (1–5 scale)

Companies should increase its business agility by leveraging cloud technologies (1–5 scale)

Are there any other important aspects of business agility not named above? (open question)

How can these aspects of the business agility be rolled out in practice? (open question)

Companies can become more innovative by investing in startups (1–5 scale)

Companies can become more innovative by creating a new division for innovation (1–5 scale)

Companies can become more innovative by establishing dedicated hours/days for innovation (1–5 scale)

Are there any other important aspects of innovation not named above? (open question)

How can these aspects of innovation be rolled out in practice? (open question)

Companies should modernize their organizational structure by establishing cross-functional teams (1–5 scale)

Companies should modernize their organizational structure by flattening the hierarchy (1–5 scale)

Companies should modernize their organizational structure by stimulating collaboration (1–5 scale)

Companies should modernize their organizational structure by establishing a digital division to lead DT (1–5 scale)

Are there any other important aspects of a modern organizational structure not named above? (open question)

How can these aspects of a modern organizational structure be rolled out in practice? (open question)

Companies should build a digital culture where change is part of daily-life (1–5 scale)

Companies should build a digital culture where a digital-first mindset is the default (1–5 scale)

Companies should build a digital culture where collaboration is the default (1–5 scale)

Companies should build a digital culture where training and education is a permanent effort (1–5 scale)

Are there any other important aspects of a digital culture not named above? (open question)

How can these aspects of a digital culture be rolled out in practice? (open question)

Top management should appoint a CDO to lead the DT (1–5 scale)

Top management should create a digital vision and communicate it to all stakeholders (1–5 scale)

Top management should create a feeling of urgency and necessity of DT (1–5 scale)

Top management should lead with a supportive, advising, and proactive mindset (1–5 scale)

Are there any other important aspects of top management support not named above? (open question)

How can these aspects of top management support be rolled out in practice? (open question)

Companies need an operational backbone for speedy, efficient, and reliable business processes (1–5 scale)

Companies need a central database for all company data (1–5 scale)

Companies need to support modern technologies such as data mining, IoT, and cloud computing (1–5 scale)

Are there any other important aspects of IT infrastructure not named above? (open question)

How can these aspects of IT infrastructure be rolled out in practice? (open question)

Are there any other best practices not mentioned in this survey for DT?

Any other comments?

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International scientific conference on Digital Transformation in Industry: Trends, Management, Strategies

DTI 2022: Digital Transformation in Industry pp 83–99 Cite as

Digital Transformation and Sustainability. A Systematic Literature Review

  • Giada Pierli   ORCID: 12 ,
  • Federica Murmura   ORCID: 12 &
  • Laura Bravi   ORCID: 12  
  • Conference paper
  • First Online: 30 May 2023

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Part of the Lecture Notes in Information Systems and Organisation book series (LNISO,volume 61)

The study contributes to enriching the current literature on the connection between digital transformation and sustainability at the industry level, by developing a Systemic Literature Review (SLR). The database used to identify the documents was Web of Science; the selected time period was from 2010 to 2022 in order to perform an as comprehensive as possible analysis of the published articles on this topic. Three research categories were selected: Business, Management, and Economics. The results underlined that digital transformation can significantly support the achievement of sustainable goals, representing a key opportunity for both institutions and businesses to change their management models to meet the community's increasingly pressing expectations in terms of environmental protection and social welfare. In this sense, the results show the need for more comprehensive studies on the relationship between digital transformation and the pillars of sustainability, especially the social one. The study has some limitations deriving from only using articles, a single database, and a specific query to identify relevant documents.

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  • Sustainability
  • Systemic literature review

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Pierli, G., Murmura, F., Bravi, L. (2023). Digital Transformation and Sustainability. A Systematic Literature Review. In: Kumar, V., Kyriakopoulos, G.L., Akberdina, V., Kuzmin, E. (eds) Digital Transformation in Industry . DTI 2022. Lecture Notes in Information Systems and Organisation, vol 61. Springer, Cham.

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  • Review Article
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  • Published: 07 July 2023

Digital transformation and digital literacy in the context of complexity within higher education institutions: a systematic literature review

  • Silvia Farias-Gaytan   ORCID: 1 ,
  • Ignacio Aguaded 2 &
  • Maria-Soledad Ramirez-Montoya 1  

Humanities and Social Sciences Communications volume  10 , Article number:  386 ( 2023 ) Cite this article

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  • Science, technology and society

The incessant changes in technology generate new products and services, presenting multiple opportunities for the complex educational environment. Consequently, higher education institutions must be attentive to these changes to ensure that students have the knowledge and skills necessary for the work environment. This research aimed to identify studies related to digital transformation and digital literacy in higher education institutions through a systematic study of literature. The search resulted in 830 articles published in the Scopus and Web of Science databases from 2015 to 2022. Quality questions, inclusion and exclusion criteria were applied where 202 articles were selected for the study. The results show (a) interest of educational institutions in empirical studies where technologies are incorporated for didactic purposes, (b) challenges of opportunity in training programs to develop digital competences of teachers and students, (c) little interest in the development of media literacy, (d) the methodological aspects of the studies allow exploring new perspectives of digital transformation in higher education. This article may be of interest to academics, decision-makers and trainers of future professionals to introduce educational technology into learning processes in line with the complex demands of the world of work and society.


At the end of the twentieth century, the emergence of the internet led to organizations’ digital transformation from analogous to digital information (“digitization”), followed by the incorporation of information technologies into business processes (“digitalization”) (Verhoef et al., 2019 ). Several authors make no distinction between digitalization and digital transformation (Hess et al., 2016 ; Tratkowska, 2020 ; Xiao, 2020 ). Verhoef et al. (2021) propose that digital transformation goes further; its impact generates new business models and value creation. Organizations’ various areas are influenced and committed to change to remain relevant (Anderson and Ellerby, 2018 ). For this study, the term “digital transformation” (DT) was used.

Digital transformation goes beyond just incorporating technologies. An example of this is to consider that digital technologies and automation demand that the workforce develop digital skills and human-centered skills (Digital Transformation Expert Panel, 2021 ), which impacts aspects such as culture, processes, as well as the strategy of the organization (Fischer et al., 2020 ) consequently the organization must make the necessary adjustments for its effective implementation. These impacts reach all business lines including higher education.

Higher education institutions, in particular, must be attentive to the changes in the environment and society to ensure that students have the knowledge and skills demanded. Morin ( 2019 , 2020 ) invites us to think of complexity as a challenge of contemporary thinking, which requires a reform of our way of thinking, since classical scientific thinking was previously built on three foundations: order, separability and reason, but developments in science have undermined these foundations. In this sense, high-level competences such as reasoning for complexity become indispensable in the formation of critical, systemic, scientific and innovative thinking (Ramírez-Montoya et al., 2022 ; Vázquez-Parra et al., 2022 ). Complex environments require active (Patiño et al., 2023 ), collaborative (Romero-Rodríguez et al., 2022 ), open education (Suárez-Brito et al., 2022 ) and digital technology systems (George-Reyes et al., 2023 ; Ponce et al., 2022 ). Because of this, education systems around the world have made various efforts to address the influence of digital technologies and DT, such as UNESCO’s ‘Working Group on Education on Digital Skills and Work’ (UNESCO, 2017 ), the “Bologna Digital 2020” report in Europe (Rampelt et al., 2019 ), the “Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Educational Reform and Development (2010–2020)” of the Chinese government (Xiao, 2020 ), and the Digital Educational Agenda in Mexico (SEP, 2019 ). Likewise, this transformation has triggered the development of topics of interest that intertwine education with technology as proposed by González-Pérez et al. ( 2019 ) (Table 1 ):

Currently, skills performed in digital environments have been added to the basic skills performed in analog environments. Digital literacy involves mastering software and hardware, development, analysis, and interaction with digital content (Chetty et al., 2018 ). Skills such as problem-solving and applying technology were derived from digital technologies (UNESCO, 2017 ), and are considered essential for workers to adapt to digital transformation (Digital Transformation Expert Panel, 2021 ). As new technology becomes available to users, it demands from them continuous learning to remain relevant.

Due to the above, it is worthwhile to research the use and impact of technologies in the educational field on the delivery of content, pedagogical practices, and evaluation and management of learning (Williamson and Hogan, 2020 ), as well as its impact on users, teachers and students. Systematic studies of related literature are scarce, during this investigation, we found four reviews ranging from 2020 to 2021; they focused on the development of digital skills of students (Starkey, 2020 ), or university professors (Bilbao Aiastui et al., 2021 ), on digital competence assessment processes and methods in higher education (Sillat et al., 2021 ), and one focused on media literacy (Manca et al., 2021 ). This study contributes to the subject by integrating digital transformation practices in education, as well as studies on digital competencies of students and teachers, which are key roles of higher education institutions.

This article aims to identify recent studies (2015–2022) related to the issues of digital transformation and digital literacy in higher education institutions through a systematic study of literature. The study seeks to answer what educational trends higher education institutions are using, as well as what studies they have carried out in this regard, and the opportunities they have identified to advance in digital transformation and digital literacy. This study can serve as a basis for higher education institutions interested in exploring educational innovations to identify these implementations and their outcomes and seek inter-institutional collaborations with common interests.


The study was conducted through a systematic literature review (SLR) based on the guidelines proposed by Kitchenham and Charters ( 2007 , p. 11), “a means to identify, evaluate and interpret relevant research on a particular topic". The phases to carry out the study were adapted from Kitchenham et al. ( 2010 ) and are described as follows:

Phase 1 Planning: The research starts from the objective of analyzing studies related to the topics of digital transformation and digital literacy in higher education institutions. A series of questions were defined to guide the review; these questions were derived from the integration of elements that would contribute to identify trends in digital transformation, research methods and instruments used in assessing such practices, as well as opportunities for future research; such findings would be useful to other researchers interested in the subject (Kitchenham and Charters, 2007 ) (Table 2 ).

Phase 2 Execution: The articles were selected using inclusion criteria such as the publication period between 2015 and 2022, studies in higher education institutions, focus on students and professors, and empirical research or mixed studies. Articles not arbitrated or published in languages other than Spanish and English were excluded (Table 3 ).

The search was conducted based on the above criteria in the Scopus and WoS databases (Table 4 ). 202 studies met the specified criteria (Fig. 1 ).

figure 1

The flowchart presents the process of classifying the articles based on inclusion and exclusion criteria and the resulting number of articles. The flowchart was adapted from Moher et al. ( 2009 ).

Phase 3 Results: The results of each research question were analyzed to determine the educational trends higher education institutions incorporate, the studies they have carried out in this regard, and the opportunities to advance in digital transformation.

Results are presented based on the research questions. For data analysis, Excel and Power BI were used. The database is available at the following link: .

RQ1 What are the trends and topics addressed in the articles?

The trends identified were determined based on the emerging themes of educational technology by González-Pérez et al. ( 2019 ), highlighting digital pedagogies (166 articles), which “link pedagogical and technological supports to adapt to each area of knowledge” (González-Pérez et al., 2019 , p. 189). Examples include implementing the “blended learning” strategy (Power and Kannara, 2016 ; Tang and Chaw, 2016 ; Wang et al., 2022 ) and studies on digital skills (Ting, 2015 ; Tømte et al., 2015 ; Torres-Gastelú et al., 2019 ) and media competencies (Koc and Barut, 2016 ; Jormand et al., 2022 ) Second place went to adaptive technologies (21 articles) that “introduce systems that adapt to the needs of society and encourage learning” (González-Pérez et al., 2019 , p. 189). Examples are the use of Web 2.0 tools (Sichel et al., 2019 ), e-portfolio (Carl and Strydom, 2017 ), e-Learning (Divya and Mohamed Haneefa, 2018 ; Feriady et al., 2020 ), adaptive systems (Murray and Pérez, 2015 ), and social networks (Amaro-Jiménez et al., 2016 ; Robles Moral and Fernández Díaz, 2021 ).

To a lesser extent, the rest of the trends were found in 6 articles on technological models (Andrew et al., 2018 ; Bond et al., 2018 ; Kör et al., 2017 ) and open technologies (Cronin, 2017 ; Paskevicius and Irvine, 2019 ; Spieler et al., 2020 ). Finally, there were articles on disruptive technologies that use extended reality resources (Astudillo Torres, 2019 ; Bucea-Manea-Ţoniş et al., 2020 ) and smart technologies for mobile learning (Pinto Molina et al., 2019 ) (Fig. 2 ).

figure 2

The rectangles show the proportion and number of published articles classified according to specific emerging issues in the use of educational technology as proposed by González-Pérez et al. ( 2019 ).

The analysis of the author’s keywords highlighted the issue of digital competence and digital literacy (de Ovando Calderón and Jara, 2019 ; Liu et al., 2020 ; Oria, 2020 ) and, to a lesser extent, digital teaching and media literacy (Tetep and Suparman, 2019 ; Sánchez-Caballé and Esteve-Mon, 2022 ) Also notable were keywords regarding technology in these topics (Roa Banquez et al., 2021 ; Rodríguez-Hoyos et al., 2021 ) (Fig. 3 ).

figure 3

Main keywords identified in the reviewed articles.

RQ2 What are the trends in research methods observed in the articles?

Studies on digital literacy and digital transformation increased in the last three years; in 2022, it rose 53% compared to the previous year. The most commonly used research method (56%) was quantitative (Guillén-Gámez and Peña, 2020 ; Kim et al., 2018 ; Miguel-Revilla et al., 2020 ). Qualitative methods were found in similar proportions (Kajee, 2018 ; Önger and Çetin, 2018 ), and mixed methods (Pozos Pérez and Tejada Fernández, 2018 ; Techataweewan and Prasertsin, 2018 ) (Fig. 4 ).

figure 4

Number of published articles during 2015–2022 classified by research method, qualitative, quantitative or mixed method.

Also, the highest number of articles was found in Spain, which represents 32% of the total, and shows an interest in digital transformation and digital literacy issues in higher education institutions; followed by Turkey with ten, the United States with nine, and Chile, China and Mexico with seven research papers each (Fig. 5 ).

figure 5

Proportion of published articles distributed by country.

RQ3 What are the main findings in digital transformation and digital literacy?

The principal findings center on studies on the level of digital skills, and use of educational technology (Fig. 6 ). The most significant number of articles (121) focuses on digital competency (Blayone, 2018 ; Hong and Kim, 2018 ; Torres-Coronas and Vidal-Blasco, 2015 ; Zhao et al., 2021 ). The use of educational technology involves 2.0 technologies (Novakovich, 2016 ), virtual communities (Robin Sullivan et al., 2018 ), online education, or e-Learning (Aznar Díaz et al., 2019 ; Hamutoğlu et al., 2019 ; Gumede and Badriparsad, 2022 ). Regarding media literacy, it was found in eight articles (Altamirano Galván, 2021 ; Brown et al., 2016 ; Koc and Barut, 2016 ; Jormand et al., 2022 ; Leier and Gruber, 2021 ; Olivia-Dumitrina et al., 2019 ; Reyna and Meier, 2018 ; Robles Moral and Fernández Díaz, 2021 ). Two additional issues identified were environmental protection (Amador-Alarcón et al., 2022 ) and educational process (Makarova et al., 2021 ) both of interest to today’s situation faced by higher education institutions.

figure 6

Trends, topics and main findings from the reviewed articles.

RQ4 What are the authors’ recommendations for future studies? And RQ5 What are the opportunities identified in the studies?

By correlating these two questions, we identified four opportunities regarding digital literacy and digital transformation (Fig. 7 ); first, that higher education institutions have training programs for both students and teachers to help them develop digital skills (Igbo and Imo, 2020 ; Martzoukou et al., 2020 ; Sandí Delgado, 2020 ), media skills (López-Meneses et al., 2020 ; Reyna and Meier, 2018 ; Romero-Rodriguez et al., 2016 ), and critical thinking (Kocak et al., 2021 ; Nagel et al., 2022 ; Vetter and Sarraf, 2020 ). Second, that the development of skills requires to enhance learning design by incorporating new didactic strategies, and educational technologies in academic programs (Boulton, 2020 ; del Prete and Almenara, 2020 ; Foster, 2020 ; Liesa-Orús et al., 2020 ; McGrew et al., 2019 ), and that the impact of these changes improves learning (Castellanos et al., 2017 ; Dafonte-Gómez et al., 2018 ; Sosa Díaz and Palau Martín, 2018 ).

figure 7

Frequency of recommendations and opportunities for future studies.

On the other hand, methodological recommendations for future studies included incorporating new instruments and variables to collect more information (Kamardeen and Samaratunga, 2020 ; Khalil and Srinivasan, 2019 ; Varga-Atkins, 2020 ; Vetter and Sarraf, 2020 ). Others pointed to increasing the sample size (Amhag et al., 2019 ; Kolodziejczyk et al., 2020 ; Munoz-Repiso and del Pozo, 2016 ; Pozo-Sánchez et al., 2020 ). To a lesser extent, longitudinal studies were recommended to test the models used (He et al., 2018 ; Johnston, 2020 ). In addition, we found that 28% of the studies did not include recommendations, and 31% did not include opportunities for future studies.

RQ6 What are the stated limitations in digital literacy studies involving digital transformation?

The limitations indicated in the studies refer primarily to the small sample size (45%) (Arango et al., 2020 ; Romero-Tena et al., 2020 ; Tugtekin and Koc, 2020 ). To a lesser extent, limitations were found with the instrument used to carry out the study (Heuling et al., 2021 ; Nikou and Aavakare, 2021 ; Sánchez-Caballé and Esteve-Mon, 2022 ). Problems with the technology used was another limitation highlighted in eight studies (Castellano, 2016 ; Pozo-Sánchez et al., 2020 ). Finally, seven studies reported limitation regarding its feasibility (Dafonte-Gómez et al., 2018 ; Fázik and Steinerová, 2020 ; Kerr et al., 2019 ) and one on the low response obtained (Myyry et al., 2022 ); 36% of the studies did not include limitations (Fig. 8 ).

figure 8

Frequency of limitations found in the reviewed articles. The figure does not include data from articles that did not specify the limitations (36%).

Incorporating educational trends and new technologies in the educational environment has highlighted the need to continue developing skills that allow their adoption by teachers and students. The interest in digital pedagogies and the study of digital competencies were relevant trends among higher education institutions aiming to use adaptive, intelligent, open, or disruptive technologies and technological models (Fig. 2 ). The transition from the analog to the digital world in both processes and products of organizations is part of their journey towards digital transformation (Hess et al., 2016 ; Tratkowska, 2020 ). It also includes organizational and cultural changes among users and operators (Anderson and Ellerby, 2018 ). However, we must point out that technology is not the end in itself but should be a means to facilitate learning.

Therefore, studies employing the scientific method where the benefit can be determined are relevant, and those that examine areas of opportunity by adopting technologies in the learning process. In the last three years, empirical studies on incorporating educational innovations in teaching practice in higher education institutions increased, most applying mainly quantitative methods (Figs. 4 and 5 ). Spain is the country that stands out with the most studies (64). In some cases, the impetus for these efforts has come from the establishment of educational strategies at the national (SEP, 2019 ; Xiao, 2020 ) and regional level (Rampelt et al., 2019 ). These studies denote international interest in the influence of digital transformation, and digital literacy on the educational process.

Digital technology skills and knowledge are hallmarks of the twenty-first-century generations. Digital literacy and educational technology accounted for 95% of the study findings, and only 4% focused on media literacy. Required job competencies include software and hardware skills, critical thinking, information analysis, and the ability to create and communicate content (Chetty et al., 2018 ; Silva et al., 2021 ; UNESCO, 2017 ). “Workers who can combine ‘human’ skills like empathy, cooperation and negotiation with cognitive skills such as problem-solving, will thrive in an economy that increasingly relies on both types of skill” (Digital Transformation Expert Panel, 2021 ). As the work environment and education continue to evolve along new technologies.

In addition to the conceptual components, the methodological aspects of the studies allow exploring new perspectives of digital transformation in higher education. In the studies reviewed, 44% of the recommendations concerned using new instruments, and exploring new variables, while 56% were about sample size increase and longitudinal studies (Fig. 7 ). Although they have not been conceived or designed for the educational field, the technologies are embedded today in the learning process (González-Pérez et al., 2019 ). Studies on their adoption allow testing and validating methodologies and instruments to have reliable data for their implementation (García-Ruiz et al., 2014 ). Though used simultaneously by teachers and students, the adoption of technology may require the implementation of different strategies or approaches to meet the needs of each group.

The ability to learn and unlearn is being tested by constantly introducing technologies into human activities. The opportunities reported by the studies coincide with the need for institutions to have training programs to develop skills for larger groups (27%). In the case of students, other topics of interest are the use of technology, enriched learning experiences, and security and privacy issues (Fig. 7 ). Organizations’ digital transformation strategy must consider the training of their members and their users because the skills required for the job become increasingly specialized (Anderson and Ellerby, 2018 ; Hess et al., 2016 ; Verhoef et al., 2019 ). In order to get the best out of educational technology, users are required to have a minimum level of digital literacy (Kerr et al., 2019 ). Higher education institutions are a fertile place to continue studies on digital transformation and the development of digital literacy of their members.

Therefore, empirical studies on the experiences and challenges faced by higher education institutions in adopting technologies in the learning process and strategies implemented to train teachers and students are relevant. The limitations reported in the studies focused on methodological issues, with the sample size being the most crucial aspect to consider (45%). These studies were carried out in groups managed by the researcher, making it difficult to project the results. The systematic literature review methodology emphasizes the analysis of variables to answer research questions so that similarities and differences among studies can be identified (Kitchenham et al., 2010 ; Kitchenham and Charters, 2007 ). Inter-institutional collaboration can contribute to achieving results that help find joint strategies to promote the adoption of educational innovations and the development of competencies in both teachers and students.


This study was limited to trends in higher education institutions in a specific period of time (2015–2022). Another limitation was the selection of two databases, Scopus and Web of Science, which although they include high-impact journals, articles from other databases were not considered; future research can continue the timeline and include other systems and databases.


The digital transformation of higher education institutions goes beyond its impact on administrative and operational processes. The study showed that teachers have incorporated educational trends, new pedagogies and technologies for didactic purposes, and this has highlighted the need to develop the level of digital literacy of both teachers and students. Higher education institutions, as trainers of future professionals, must acknowledge the need for digital transformation and act upon to develop strategies so students and teachers are prepared for the demands of the workplace.

The pandemic spurred the urgency of developing digital skills for both teachers and students. Technologies they used for socializing and leisure became necessary tools for study and work. Higher education institutions are conducting studies on their experiences of adopting educational technologies and the impact on their users. Although related empirical studies on media literacy were scarce, since it is linked to the use of technology, future studies have an opportunity to assess how it develops in the following years. These should examine teachers’ and students’ performance, their critical capacity as media users, and content creators.

The development of teachers’ digital competencies involves not only the mastery of technology but also the improvement of their teaching practice with the appropriate pedagogical use of technology to contribute to student learning. There are opportunities for higher education institutions in measuring digital competencies to find strengths and weaknesses to focus their training programs. The same applies to students, who should be provided with the relevant training for the development of digital skills and prevent the lack of these from becoming an obstacle to their performance in the classroom.

This study aimed to identify the state of digital transformation and digital literacy in higher education institutions and their impact on students and teachers. Digital transformation and new technologies are generating complex environments that demand the development of digital and high-level skills. Technological progress provides opportunities to enhance the learning process. Research must continue to assess the performance and students’ learning gains. This study can serve as a basis for higher education institutions interested in exploring educational innovations to identify these implementations and their outcomes and seek inter-institutional collaborations with common interests.

Data availability

The datasets generated during and/or analyzed in the current study are available in Figshare repository: .

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The authors would like to thank the support from Tecnologico de Monterrey through the “Challenge-Based Research Funding Program 2022”. Project ID # I003-IFE001-C2-T3–T. Also, academic support from Writing Lab, Institute for the Future of Education, Tecnologico de Monterrey, México.

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Farias-Gaytan, S., Aguaded, I. & Ramirez-Montoya, MS. Digital transformation and digital literacy in the context of complexity within higher education institutions: a systematic literature review. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 10 , 386 (2023).

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