Updated: Nov 28, 2022
My first digital transformation effort began in 1986 when I helped the Reuters News Company move from a highly manual news editorial process to a more intelligent and digital real time news headlines and content process that improved the speed, cost and accuracy of news worldwide.
This required large data centers consisting of Microvax (DEC-Digital) computers, networks, switches, a proprietary world-wide network (we didn’t have the internet that we have today), and PCs running the first versions of Windows placed at the desk or location of each editor, writer, and subscriber. All this was connected to our proprietary world wide network we built with our own custom version of TCP-IP. We had incredible engineers working on all this and it was quite a miracle to see them come together and build this system. I was proud to be part of this team that did this incredible innovative work.
Now that was a true digital transformation (from analog) that required state of the art technology, culture change, training, new staff, new skills and much more. In fact, some elements of this real time new system are still around today. One thing I remember well about this project at Reuters, and why it was a tremendous success, was that our digital technology strategy and strategic plan focused on aligning business goals with technology, people, process and tools across the entire business - and it was always evolving as we learned more.
Well, I have been through many more successful digital transformations since Reuters over the next 35+ years at companies like GE, Honeywell, Sterling and many others. So many lessons learned proudly enabling my personal career and abilities to excel in this area.
Today, although many systems are already “digital”, technology continues to evolve and disrupt at an alarming fast pace creating new and very advanced digital needs. For companies to survive, compete and win in business, as they needed for decades of digital transformations, they still require a well-defined and actionable digital technology strategy - in fact, one could argue it’s more important now as it ever was mostly because it must be tightly aligned to the whole business and its goals.
When I scroll through professional sites like Linkedin, I see a huge number of people and companies advertising their “Digital Transformation” or “Digital Strategy” expertise. If this was accurate, then why are so many companies still experiencing pain when dealing with developing and implementing their digital technology strategies? From where I sit, I see many similar mistakes across companies largely because executives are not well informed and don't have the right data to help make smart decisions. Well-defined digital technology strategies that are data-driven at the core typically require experience and knowledge to fully flesh out. Furthermore, a digital technology strategy isn’t a temporary need, organizations today must always evolve and continue to transform their thinking, process, data, skills, and tools to deliver quickly and accurately based on increasingly complex and fast changing business demands.
Three Things NOT to Do and What to Do to Instead
Over the decades of helping companies with digital transformations, I have accumulated many things to do and not to do when creating and enabling a digital technology strategy and strategic plan. Let me be clear, the single most important thing to do is to ensure you're aligning technology with business goals. This is a given and I will assume since you're reading this article, you all know this already so you won’t see me mention this in my list below. Here are three things NOT to do and what to do to do instead.
Don’t “Boil the Ocean”
In many cases where I had to come in to rescue a digital transformation for clients, it was due to making the mistake of assuming a digital transformation needs to be a “big bang” approach. This sounds like something easy to control but sometimes when strategic planning a digital strategy people believe they must tackle everything at once. If these “big bang” efforts do somehow get funded, the size of the project will become overwhelming causing delays, or dependencies are found that need to be addressed first, unexpected issues arise, and sometimes it's simply a non-starter due to complexity discovered later down the road.
If done properly, a well-defined digital technology strategy results in a strategic plan that is far from an “all or nothing” project. A great plan will start small with technologies or processes that will provide the most business value but can be developed and deployed quickly. You want to get the ball rolling, showing ROI and demonstrating value that will help gain credibility and buy-in across the entire business and Board.
Not Preparing Employees
Anyone who has been through a digital transformation knows there is impact to stakeholders as well as employees on your teams. Let's address employees only for this conversation. Employees in particular may feel intimidated and possibly insecure when there are massive changes being proposed to the way they work. It will not take you long to do some research on this topic to find out a majority of employees feel anxious about their jobs - especially when there are new technologies and changes to business processes being proposed. You will also discover that resistance to change is human nature and should be expected - but it needs to be addressed properly and overcome with proper communication and changes to culture if necessary.
Consistent, transparent and long term communication and collaboration is key. For example, encourage employees to learn and train themselves on new technologies and processes - the FREE VNCAcademy online subscription service is a great place to start learning and training; Explain the benefits of your technology strategy and how it pertains to them specifically - be open to listen to their feedback. One approach I always use is to identify early adopters from the employee base (people who are well respected and not leaders) who can aid others with getting acquainted, understand the benefits, and uplift their morale.
I wrote an article recently about the Evolution of CIOs that went from technology gurus leading a group of engineers to business leaders helping run the company. I stressed the importance of the CIO and CTO to become focused on business ideas and goals and align what is needed in technology to those goals. One of the typical mistakes by leaders today when enabling a digital technology strategy is to look for efficiencies in the operating model only. I’m not saying you shouldn't look for these inefficiencies, but it should not be the only focus area and stop with the old-fashioned inward thinking model.
The rapid change in digital technology and its impact on changing business models today needs to be looked at as a “whole” - inward and outward thinking combined. Companies now must enable a digital technology strategy and strategic plan focused on their product, value proposition and monetization strategies. In essence, your technology strategy merges with your business strategy and goals because you need to address these changing business models as a whole. I highly suggest you not only understand what your competitors are doing but also get examples outside their industries and across multiple countries - there are disruptions hiding there.
Although I'm not listing a fourth mistake in this article, I will note that it's usually not a great idea to try and navigate a digital transformation alone as there are dozens of more mistakes that you can make in addition to the ones I'm listing here. On the flip side, you also don't want to hire a bunch of different vendors and consultants to bridge gaps and skills - this will make this harder to manage and may result in super complex strategies no one will buy into not to mention cost overruns and delays.
You do want to work with a solid technology partner that can help you with everything from digital technology strategy down to implementation so that you can focus on your ongoing processes to keep the business moving.
If you find that you’ve fallen victim to one of these mistakes or any that isn't listed here - please reach out to us, so we can begin to help rescue your mission. We can help you whether you started or just beginning planning your digital technology strategy.