Why we’re still talking about digital transformation

Digital transformation may have been on the business agenda for some time, but the truth is that (beyond the technology itself) businesses have struggled to embrace the changes that inevitably come with it.

This means it has stalled in progress or never even got off the ground. Strategy is merely the beginning. What does digital transformation mean for those responsible for bringing it to life? And what are the key obstacles companies face?

Digital transformation was the hot topic years ago. We now have our five-year transformation plan created by a top four consulting firm, we’ve set up our innovation lab in the nearest WeWork and built our shiny new website and Alexa skill. That digital transformation box is well and truly ticked and the risk of our Uber/ Amazon/Airbnb/Tesla moment avoided. Phew.

However, despite being a concept that’s been widely used since the early 2000s, it feels as if transformation is only now getting real for many organisations.

Just one look down the high street shows you that many brands haven’t successfully reacted to the change digital has brought. Some of the retail, banking and leisure brands that have been cornerstones of the UK high street (both physical and digital) for decades no longer exist or are (very publicly) struggling to survive. It’s fair to say that we don’t think of the ‘House of Sports Direct’ as the future of retail.

The true challenge is that the expectations of today’s connected consumer are higher than ever and continually evolving; driven by the experiences delivered by new entrants, the big tech companies and by the rapidly changing technology in their pockets.

Those that are successful understand the needs and desires of today’s customers better and have the ability to evolve continually at pace - all clearly easier if you’re a new entrant without barriers such as legacy systems or organisational structures to overcome.

In fact, often it’s not that many organisations haven’t had the foresight to change. As Joshua Gans (economist at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto and author of The Disruption Dilemma) noted recently in the Financial Times:

“Kodak and Blockbuster weren’t caught by surprise. They knew what the future looked like. They didn’t know later than everybody else, they knew ahead of everybody else. They knew; but they couldn’t organise around the new.”

There are plenty of organisations sitting in a similar position today. There is a general understanding that they should be changing, moving forward, and if they embrace digital in some way their future will be secure.

Rightly so, the first step in this journey towards security is understanding what that digital future holds, which is often when organisations look to the large consultancies. But whilst they might be experts at laying out what the future could look like, in many cases their solution is a vision the organisation struggles to deliver against; a vision presented with much passion and fanfare at the annual conference but ultimately ending up locked away in a drawer while everyone gets on with their day jobs.

As a result, many organisations just aren’t moving forward quick enough - paralysed by the enormity of the challenge that lies ahead. Literally not sure in what direction to take the first step. Because the reality of transformation is that it is hard. Really, really hard. And yet, we sit through endless conferences and case studies where we are shown a shiny version of that reality – where companies have literally turned themselves around using digital – without breaking a sweat.

For those ‘in the trenches’, trying to drive that transformation forward can feel a lot like banging your head against a brick wall. Slowly and repeatedly.

Whilst digital in the broadest sense has been the catalyst for this wave of transformation and is an unbelievable agent of change, there is already a new wave on the horizon, fuelled by data, AI and machine learning.

It’s my view that true transformation has to be about the adoption of modern business practices that ensure you can meet the increasingly high expectations of your users. In an everchanging ‘connected world’ you need the right frameworks in place to allow you to adapt, the right culture and people to deliver against your evolving roadmap and the complete commitment of your senior stakeholders to deliver it.

With this in place businesses will have the flexibility - and ultimately the longevity as an organisation - to adapt and move forward constantly, to keep ahead of the competitors and consumer expectations.

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