Early on in my charity career, I was given a friendly piece of advice by a trustee: “Don’t ask me to support what you’re going to do unless you know I understand why you need to do it”. I think they understood perfectly well the reasons behind my proposal but it was a useful reminder to include it the next time I wanted them to get behind something. (And a pointer as to why that particular time had failed.)
With a digital transformation strategy, you can easily be drawn into the detail of what you need to do. There are consistent themes and numerous models around the different capabilities, stages of maturity, technologies and ways of working you can adopt but they don’t address why you should invest your organisation’s time and money in them to achieve your mission or why you should do it now.
There will occasionally be events or legislation that force organisations to make a leap forward they would not have made otherwise - the great push of 2017 to get data governance in order ready for GDPR, the trolly dash of 2020 to get laptops and video conferencing to everyone for the pandemic lockdowns - but it’s arguable these are accelerators for change that is, to some extent, inevitable.
Digital transformation is all about changing your organisation so that it can thrive in the modern, digitally enabled world. And because of the exponential acceleration of innovation, change and adoption brought about by digital technologies, the horizon is always moving. Transformation is change. Change is hard. You’re going to need full buy-in to make it work which requires an understanding of the reasons behind it.
These challenges are your reasons
Understanding the reasons to change the way you do things to thrive should be your starting point but unfortunately there is so much noise on the subject - and a lot of it dates quickly or is too narrowly defined to a sector or industry - that clarity can be hard to find.
So I was extremely grateful to a friend of mine who pointed me in the direction of a podcast, which led me to a book, which gave me a different perspective about how to approach the problem.
In Digital Transformation Game Plan, Gary O’Brien and co talk about the three challenges that digital technologies have brought to the world, and which every business and organisation has to deal with. These are the reasons for digital transformation.
- Heightened customer expectations
- Speed and ambiguity, which forces companies to come up with new competitive advantages more frequently
- A plethora of emergent technology that could create a competitive advantage in the future and require investment and understanding today
These three points neatly describe the challenges and opportunities inherent in our digitally enabled society and are as true today and tomorrow as if they’d been applied 10 or 15 years ago. The expectations grow, the speed increases and the technology expands, evolves and improves but these challenges remain. On-demand, immediately accessible and experiential customer interactions are forcing organisations to be more responsive and adaptive.
Think about your own experience of digitally enabled change in the last few years or more. How often do you step into a bank or a travel agent? When was the last time you used a paper map for directions? How much more do you work at home now? Replacing or augmenting these tasks with technology once seemed like science fiction (at least to those of us of a certain age). Now we are infuriated if the whole magical experience isn’t immediate and so easy we don’t even have to think about it.Viewing your organisation's strategy through the lens of these challenges allows you to then start addressing some of the common transformation themes in what everyone else has done and apply them, meaningfully, to your context.
- How are these challenges affecting your ability to deliver your strategy now and in the future?
- What other challenges are you facing?
- What outcomes would you expect to see from addressing these challenges?
- What can you do to get started so you’re not standing still while the world keeps moving?
Find the outcomes that will affect your organisation's strategy
When developing your digital transformation strategy, this helps to root everything you do back to why you’re doing it and the value it brings to your organisation and your users. Your org strategy comes first, then how these challenges will affect your ability to deliver it, then the outcomes you would expect to see by addressing the challenges, followed by the ways in which you are then choosing to tackle them.
You are still going to need to look at the common things you see in most of the models out there such as user centered ways of working, rapid innovation and iteration, business flexibility and agility, better use of data, good technology decisions and building digital capabilities etc. But linking them to your organisational strategy through these challenges and outcomes gives you a way of discussing where to put your effort, which is a much more constructive conversation to have when getting your buy-in.
A few years ago it was common to reference Blockbuster Video and Netflix as the paragon of digital transformation cautionary tales. And that was useful when we still remembered going to the video shop and there weren’t many other streaming platforms around. But now with Disney+ overtaking in subscriber numbers in a massively diffused market, it feels like the conversation has moved on from ‘how do we become more Netflix?’ because the world has moved on.
These challenges are universal and illustrate the risks to all organisations, natively digital or not. Reviewing and constantly addressing these challenges, rather than blindly copying a model which has worked before, will give you a far more convincing reason to get behind the change your organisation needs.