Article

Going Digital – the journey starts with a single step

Changing how your business works in the modern world doesn’t need to happen overnight. But it does need to happen

Digital. Everyone’s talking about it… but who’s actually doing it, and what does it mean? The truth is, it means different things to different people, but at Waterstons, we believe the most important thing to remember is that for a paradigm to shift, culture must shift alongside it.

Many businesses have been undergoing enforced transformation in the last few months. Much has been written about the factors forcing that change to be undertaken, and this is not the place to go over them yet again – but the facts are that change is happening, it’s happening quickly, and it will continue to happen.

Little wonder, then, that so much progress has had to be made by organisations in enabling their digital workplaces. We’ve seen a huge number of our customers’ businesses adopting Microsoft Teams, videoconferencing, remote desktop provision and similar technologies in the last few months; at a rate which we’ve never seen before. Going forward, isn’t it a great time to consider using this period as an enabler to further change?

Coming out of the other side of Covid-19, however, there’s more to be done. Much has been written about businesses’ need to undertake ‘digital transformation’, and some steps have been taken by many; but once the crisis is over what next? Do we go back to how we were? Or, do we take continued steps along the road to ‘digital’? One thing is certain, though – to capitalise on the opportunity that’s presented itself, a cultural shift will be needed and must be embedded in organisations that want to make the most of it.

Whilst there are numerous opinions on the subject of digital transformation, many of which are at polar opposite ends of the spectrum from ‘it’s a meaningless buzzword, forget about it’ to ‘change everything you do overnight or you’ll cease to exist’. However, one thing I think we can all agree on is that digital transformation, as a concept, isn’t going anywhere. At Waterstons we’re pragmatic people, so we believe that ‘Going Digital’ isn’t in and of itself a grand panacea; but doing nothing is not a viable option for a business either – doing the right combination of ‘traditional’ and ‘digital’ is the key – and that combination is different for every business.

It is important to understand and believe that businesses definitely should start doing things differently; leveraging technology to deliver their products and services in new ways, to new audiences; but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to, or can, happen overnight.

Uber is a great example often touted by the digital purists as an example of what happens to markets when a technology-led business enters. Taxi companies across the globe have seen their businesses threatened and even lost as a result of Uber’s entry into their heartlands; and that’s often used to back up the position that businesses must transform immediately or face the end.

Uber, though, came into the taxi business (although they will tell you they’re a technology company, not a taxi firm) from the somewhat luxurious position of having nothing in place already. They were a new business, formed, from scratch, to do things differently. There was no ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ baggage, existing customer base to convert to new channels, or inertia resulting from a large workforce with their own traditions and culture. Let’s not forget, though, that Uber has not yet turned a profit – so ‘doing digital’ does not inherently equal ‘making money’.

Digital transformation is important, for sure; but the culture behind it is as, if not more, important than the new ideas and ways of working that the transformation brings to life. Before a business can change how it does things, it needs two things; an appetite for change, and good ideas for change. Those two things are culturally embedded. The Board cannot simply issue a memo saying “Dear workforce, as of 27th September this business will have an appetite for change and lots of good ideas. End of Memo.”

Your people, and your business culture are at the heart of digital transformation. Here at Waterstons our business is founded upon principles, including empowering our colleagues to learn new things, try new ideas, make mistakes and learn from them, unpunished. We are an organisation that seeks to learn, to understand the reasons why some things work and others don’t; to generate ideas and follow them through; to deliver to our customers solutions that add value to their business. Our culture means every member of our team can stand up and say “I have an idea as to how to do this differently/better/faster” and be listened to.

This mindset is vital to support digital transformation. Ideas can’t just come from the boardroom, but must be generated at all levels within the organisation. From the newest, most junior member of the team to the longest serving and most experienced, everyone must be given a voice. This must start, culturally, with the boardroom. A diverse, empowered directorate should demonstrate their willingness to listen, to try new things, and to allow failure as well as success. Only by leading, rather than directing their workforce will digital transformation take flight.

Start with culture, and allow the ideas to start flowing. They may start small; Amazon didn’t become the business they are today overnight. They started with a small idea – to be a bookshop that sells books through a new channel. Over their history, they’ve gradually shifted what they do, adding new services and products to their marketplace, diversifying into technology services and logistics – but they didn’t do that overnight. Like Uber, they started from nothing; but Amazon had to evolve to where it is now, whereas the technology landscape which Uber entered was already greatly evolved from the early World Wide Web that Amazon exploited.

Amazon and Uber are both businesses of their time; and both share similarities in being unafraid to try new things, listen to new ideas, no matter how crazy they may sound, and to give their customers what they want in new ways.

Digital transformation starts with doing something, anything, differently. It means changing the default answer to any business question from “a spreadsheet/paper form is the answer!” to “Can technology be used to make this better/faster/cheaper/easier?”

It starts with a cultural change, a paradigm shift from looking at a problem from the inside out, to looking at it outside-in. It starts by asking yourself what your customers and partners want and need not now, but tomorrow. It starts with a step. Just one step; one process or product or service delivered differently. Once that step is taken, putting one foot in front of the other will allow the digital transformation journey to really begin.

How many times are we told that making small changes is the key to success? If you’re trying to lose weight, improve your fitness or change your mindset you’ll have heard it a hundred times. Now is the time for businesses to follow the same advice.

So, where do you start? Well, as alluded to, a digital mindset should start from the top. The board should take opportunities to innovate; but whatever your place in the business, lead and encourage your colleagues to look at problems or challenges and ask whether technology can provide a solution, facilitate doing things differently, open up a new market or attract and retain customers. Giving people a paper form with boxes to tick, or creating a new spreadsheet should no longer be the default solutions to any challenge; instead look at the process and identify opportunities to make it better. Most of all, the key is to start somewhere. Take a look at your role and responsibilities and identify one small thing that technology can improve. Maybe that’s how customers place an order; maybe it’s how production records output yields; maybe it’s how you communicate with suppliers. It doesn’t really matter what it is – what’s important is to look for the opportunity to do it differently and better. After that, look for another small thing. Then another…

One small step. That’s all it takes to start the journey.

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27 October 2020

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