Essential Ingredients for a Successful Digital Transformation

“Digital Transformation” – that’s all we hear about in both public and private sectors these days. So, we figured it’s time we ask someone who actually knows how to do it correctly. SmartUp’s Laurence Smith takes on 3 questions every corporate is asking about “digital transformation”.

By Deborah Tan

“It’s not a box you simply tick off a list!” is perhaps one of Laurence’s most common gripes whenever he catches wind of yet another short-lived “digital transformation” campaign.

Digital transformations are not temporary distractions from “business as usual”. They require commitment and courage.

Ultimately, at the very core of every digital transformation is CHANGE.

A 2017 survey revealed that only 37% of companies across all industries were perceived to have done some degree of “digital transformation”. Disruption is coming, it’s just a matter of when.

So, what does it mean to have your organisation undergo “digital transformation”?

Laurence, exactly what do companies mean when they bring up the phrase “Digital Transformation”? 

Laurence: Generally the biggest confusion is not just what is digital, but who is responsible for driving it.

Before anything can be done, there needs to be a common understanding of digital, and its relevance to the organisation. Only then can you begin to pull together a strategic plan and roadmap.

Part of the confusion comes from the different perspectives on digital.  It depends on where you sit in the organisation. Marketing may already be doing “digital” (marketing) and may be the most advanced in their understanding. IT will doubtless be delivering new systems, and may be migrating to the cloud and developing APIs.

Some ways to simply convey the concept of digital transformation to the larger organisation have been as simple as “GetDigital” or “Be Agile”. A client of ours described theirs as, “Digital Mindset is enabling agile ways of working and experimenting.” However you define it, it must make sense within your organisational context.

For an organisation that has plans to undergo “digital transformation”, what is the “FIRST STEP” it needs to take?

Laurence: The most critical first step is for the CEO to get up to speed. Without the CEO really understanding digital, the organisation will go nowhere. Some CEOs instinctively know that digital is a massive opportunity. Most of them have to go through a rapid learning curve and reinvent what they know and think.

Second, they need to bring the Board along and make sure their own executive team are aligned. One CEO I saw that did this in a very smart way was Piyush Gupta of DBS Bank in Singapore. He systematically ensured that every Board and ExCo were exposed to the leading digital thinkers and doers.

Third, there needs to be a way to align digital as a fundamental part of the business growth strategy and to bring the rest of the organisation along on the journey.

What is the biggest organisational hurdle leaders often have difficulty crossing?

Laurence: Typically, it is a combination of BAU (business as usual) and denial. Most people are so busy  that it is hard to justify the time it takes to consider something intangible like “digital”.

It is easier for people to deny than work out what to do about an “impending threat”. This is why the CEOs getting “digi-savvy” first is a critical pre-requisite — without this, nothing else matters.

When the CEO can bring to life the vision on digital transformation, the organisation can begin to make progress. There still need to be a careful balance between exciting and terrorising the larger organisation. Not enough awareness and you cannot overcome the mass of inertia, and too much fear can lead to despair and denial.

A good CEO can strike the balance between making people just anxious enough to want to change, and not so afraid that they resist all change.

Got more questions on learning or digital transformation for Laurence Smith? Or, do you have questions for CEO Frank Meehan about tech entrepreneurship? If so, drop a Comment below or send an email to [email protected]