Words… words … words … When I speak to clients, I hear many different interpretations of what “digital transformation” is, illustrating that the term confuses as often as it clarifies. Some believe that it’s simply a matter of using digital channels to sell and service clients more effectively, more efficiently and in a more personalised manner.
A significant number think it is about a new application or digital marketing initiative. Many regard it as a matter of using technology to drive business process innovation. And others say that their goal is nothing less than to be the Uber of insurance or the Airbnb of banking. Digital transformation has come to mean all of these things and more.
But when a term becomes shorthand for so many perspectives, it loses much of its usefulness. If we are not clear about the definition of digital transformation when we discuss it in boardrooms, how do we create a meaningful strategy for the future? And how do we align our organisations behind our vision?
Definition impacts strategy and the level of its conversation, so it matters
What is clear from my discussions with large brands is that C-suite executives know that their industry, business environment, and customers are evolving, and that their brands and organisations also need to adapt.
What they often do not know is how to bring about the changes that will help their companies to be profitable, sustainable and competitive in an era of disruptive change (yes, disruption has also become an overused and misunderstood term).
The reality is that most companies are reluctant to disrupt their own industries, often because they fear cannibalising their customer base or eroding their own margins. Hence, most choose to tweak some aspects of their business with digital technologies rather than to transform their business models in a fundamental manner. Many scholars like Clayton Christensen suggest that a new business, outside of the current business, is often the best way to have the best of two worlds. It means a company can become more consumer-centric by using data and technology well in its current business, whilst also experimenting with more disruptive options enabled by technology.
It means a company can become more consumer-centric by using data and technology well in its current business, whilst also experimenting with more disruptive options enabled by technology.
For example, they may change how they understand and engage with consumers with the aid of digital tools and channels. This is an imperative and no longer up for debate. Unless this is done, nothing else is possible. This is an approach that has the advantage of being realistic and manageable to implement. But is it enough for a large brand to keep the competitive high ground in today’s fast-changing consumer environment?
After all, consumers judge their experiences with all industries they deal with by the benchmarks the digital disruptors have set. Why should interactions with an airline or bank not be as easy and personal as dealing with Amazon? These are the big questions customers are asking – brands should be ready to answer.
Asking the right questions
We recommend that executives begin by discussing their business’s context, challenges and customers so that they can have a clear view of how digital competitors, technologies, and consumer behaviour will affect their brands in the years to come. This exercise is about clarifying language so the organisation can build a digital strategy based on a shared understanding of its challenges and desired outcomes.
The broad questions senior managers should be asking are:
- How exactly is digital technology changing the way our customers behave and the way that existing, emerging and potential competitors do business?
- What are the best companies across industries doing across the spectrum of digital enablement? What can we learn from them about the future of our industry and our business?
- How should we change our business to defend and extend market share, grow profits and ensure relevance as digital technology evolves in the years to come?
An interesting point to note here is that the real nature of digital disruption for an established industry isn’t always obvious. Think, for example about Uber, which may have a dramatic impact beyond the taxi industry in the years to come. By making personal transport an affordable service commodity, it could eat away at the edges of the car and auto insurance industries.
Brands therefore must understand how consumers behave rather than simply looking at direct competition. Remaining relevant is not simply a matter of creating an app or smartening up their website, but finding ways to use customer data to create more meaningful and relevant customer experiences at every touch point. It is notable that consumers often do not have finite industry boundaries.
Beyond the obvious
By looking closely at competitors and the technology landscape, executives can see how emerging technologies and disruptive rivals could attack their market share. They can then create the strategies necessary to protect their market share and possibly identify ways to expand into new markets using digital technology.
The next step is how to do it, and the answer won’t be the same for every business. Some businesses will have visionary leadership, agile processes, innovative cultures, young workforces with digital skills, and modern technology platforms, so they’ll be able to embrace digital transformation more wholeheartedly.
Others may be encumbered by conservative leadership, legacy technology, regulation, siloed processes, and their workforces. They’ll need to look at their assets – data, customers, skills and channels – and find ways to put them to work in a digital world. In some cases, they might need to launch new brands, form joint ventures or innovation groups to fast-track their digital programmes.
In either instance, what really matters is that the business stays close to consumers, keeps its eye on new technologies, and keeps building new products and experiences that meet consumers’ evolving needs. There is no excuse not to become more consumer-centric – for that to happen, data and insights are the starting points – and how marketing technology can support exceptional customer experiences. In the very least, this will enable a strong defensive against disrupters, even if it won’t protect a brand indefinitely.
So ultimately, underpinning the organisation’s ability to meet these goals is its ability to gather, organise and analyse customer data.