When publishers talk with consultants about digital transformation, they are typically looking for some way to transform their businesses from print first or print-centric to digital first or digital-centric. Publishers often assume that the primary task of digital transformation is to find, select, and implement technology solutions, and in parallel to find ways of justifying their costs. But I’ve noticed that this isn’t the case. Instead, the most effective way to approach digital transformation is to ask lots of people a simple question: what would you like to be able to do that you can’t do now because it’s too difficult or impossible?

If you’re a publisher, ask that question to a variety of people in your organization—across different job functions and at levels ranging from individual contributors to top management. Focus on responses that relate to new products and services as well as efficiency of producing existing products and services. No answer is too simple, vague, or off-the-cuff, though you’ll want to push for as many specifics and as much quantitative information as possible. You’ll get answers ranging from “well, I sort of had this idea...” to fully formed business plans crying out for management attention. I’ve found that the more people you ask, the better, but the magic number before diminishing returns set in tends to be about 20.

Once you receive the responses, you’ll need to group them into common elements. You’ll probably be amazed at how many common elements there are. They tend to fall into three buckets: people, processes, and technology. Often a simply expressed idea will have many of the same elements as a sophisticated plan—and just as often an idea from one division or workgroup will have much commonality with an idea from another part of the company. You can express each of these elements as capability gaps in people, processes, or technology.

The other important step in compiling the responses is aggregating the business benefits that accrue from filling the gaps. The more quantitative you can be about these business benefits—revenue, cost savings, customer retention, etc.—the better.

As an example, many new product and service initiatives require improvements in content structure and metadata. This entails capabilities in people (skills for creating content structures and metadata), processes (workflow), and technology (editorial systems and content repositories). Small projects of this nature may not move the needle enough to justify investment on their own, but several projects of different sizes aggregated together may. That doesn’t mean that you should adopt a one-size-fits-all process or system for all of these initiatives—in fact that is almost always a bad idea—but it does mean that multiple groups can take advantage of the same types of skills, process changes, and tools in different ways.

The magic happens when you present the aggregated results to the stakeholders in your digital transformation initiative. Light bulbs go on over people’s heads when they see that they need the same capabilities as people in different parts of the company whom they thought were in completely different businesses. More light bulbs go on when several people who had “small” ideas that they didn’t think were worth management attention realize they have different forms of the same idea—or, conversely, when management realizes the various “small” ideas that they’ve been hearing about can all be implemented using the same set of capabilities.

As a result of this exercise, you’ll do two things at once: you’ll reach consensus among a diverse group of people on capabilities that the organization needs to add or improve, and you’ll have an understanding of the aggregate business benefits that these capabilities can provide. Armed with these two things, you can create an implementation plan that describes the desired capabilities, covers all of the beneficiaries, and comes with a built-in business case to justify investments in people, process changes, and technology solutions.

The first step in creating an implementation plan is a gap analysis. For each of the capabilities you’ve identified, ask the following: What do you have now? What do you need? And what is the gap between the two? Does it involve improving an existing org chart, process, or system—or does it require wholesale replacement?

Once you understand the gaps, you can begin to research and identify ways to fill them. Now is the time to research costs and implementation efforts, because without the context of aggregated business benefits and capability gaps to fill, that information isn’t particularly useful. And by the way: any vendor that purports to give you this information before or without that analysis isn’t doing you any favors.

Many fancy consulting methodologies are based on these same ideas. Yet the details and formalisms aren’t as important as the principles of eliciting ideas from people, seeing what they have in common, and harnessing that commonality to build a vision for a digitally transformed company.

Bill Rosenblatt is president of GiantSteps Media Technology Strategies and a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners.