Skip to Main Content

Air Force Lab’s ‘Five Deadly Sins’ of Digital Transformation

CIO Alexis Bonnell said technology-minded organizations should focus on culture and goals before the tech itself.

4m read
Written by:
Alexis Bonnell, CIO of Air Force Research Laboratory
Air Force Research Laboratory CIO and Director of the Digital Capabilities Directorate Alexis Bonnell speaks at an event in Ohio in September 2023. Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force/Keith Lewis

Any agency working toward digital transformation should be aware of “five deadline sins” during implementation, according to Air Force Research Lab CIO Alexis Bonnell.

Bonnell, who also serves as director of the lab’s Digital Capabilities Directorate, said that the first sin is when an organization does not know what it is trying to become through its digital transformation.  

“Digital transformation is not about technology. It is about recognizing who we want to be as an organization, how we want our people to behave,” Bonnell said at the 2024 ACT-IAC Digital Transformation Summit last week.

Bonnell said that technologies like cloud and artificial intelligence are “ways to get to a destination,” and that it’s the culture, value and goals that will drive that transformation.

The second sin, Bonnell said, is the assumption that there is a distinct tech destination and that digital transformation can come to an endpoint rather than be a continuous process.  

“The world is a changing place. Really thinking about and choosing technology or choosing the paths that we go on for digital, is much more about how it is that we sustain a change engine versus the time capsules that we tend to create,” she said.  

Bonnell emphasized that leaders need to become comfortable being uncomfortable, pushing the envelope or trying out new technologies to keep up with the pace of change. Instead of looking for the perfect solution that can be used in perpetuity, Bonnell said that leaders need to find an answer that is “right for now,” with the expectation that it can and will change in the future.  

Underestimating the value of toil and hard work is the third sin, according to Bonnell. Time is a weapons platform that both the DOD and its adversaries have, and whoever is most successful in converting working hours into saved time will be the most effective on the battlefield.

“Digital actually allows us to convert toil into time. It can give us wormholes so that someone is spending maybe less time on a form and more time, in my case, a scientist and researcher on bench discovering really important things,” Bonnell said.  

Bonnell pointed to bureaucratic duties like excessive forms or trainings as draining factors that can lead to burnout within the Air Force, causing the service to lose quality employees who might otherwise be invested or interested in the mission.  

Digital transformation is centered around upending legacy systems and practices in favor of more dynamic technologies, but Bonnell warned that doing things differently is not enough on its own to truly digitally transform.  

The fourth sin is tied up in thinking the platform or sector or tool that an organization uses is enough to drive change, and that any changes would mean that transformation is a failure. Instead, organizations should center their missions on how each tool or platform can help people on the ground. 

“Your job and who you are is not that tool and not that thing,” Bonnell said. “When our peoples’ identity gets really tied up in a particular tool, practice, etc., when our self-definition, the way they think they’re valued gets tied up that way, guess who is the No. 1 not-incentivized person to change?”  

For the fifth sin, Bonnell said a culture of “championing the critic, not the doer” has hampered digital transformation efforts. While critical, constructive voices are good, they should not drown out the voices of those doing the work to make digital transformation happen.  

“The person trying to figure out that new tool, trying to apply that new thing, the person in the ring, the gladiator in the ring — that’s really hard,” Bonnell said. “If we create cultures where it is easier and you get more airtime for pointing out what’s wrong versus having to solve it, we’ve already failed in digital transformation.” 

Related Content
Woman typing at computer

Stay in the Know

Subscribe now to receive our newsletters.