The Heated Debate - Digital Transformation

Reflecting on 2019, one of the most controversial and heated debates that has raged within Waterstons was centred on two simple words; ‘Digital’ and ‘Transformation’.

We’re certainly a company full of intelligent, cynical and opinionated people, so there have been some colourful conversations and views held and shared across the business.

With a risk of airing our dirty laundry (although one of our core values is to be honest and tell it like it is – so here goes), there is a militant contingent with the strongly-held belief that digital transformation is just the new buzzword of the moment – pure hype, which is used to refer to just about anything and everything that a business needs to do to operate and compete – and an equally radical contingent who believe that if businesses don’t digitally transform and embrace digital disruption that they will disappear from all existence tomorrow (literally). The views held are extreme and the people involved are incredibly passionate about their stances – we’re not ones to shy away from a good debate!

It’s clearly a hot topic in the industry and there are many, many YouTube videos posted, articles written about it and conference talks on the topic. I have yet to find one that really explains what ‘it’ is and more importantly how to do ‘it’; so it’s no wonder that there is confusion, and concerns about it being purely technology hype intended to make business people panic (creating digital roles and departments to ‘do digital transformation’).

There are lots of clever people talking about it and lots of big business consultancies extolling the virtues of it – so it must be ‘a thing’, right?

  • Airbnb and Uber are often proposed as those businesses that have embraced digital and have re-envisioned more traditional business models. Great examples, but both are new (ish) companies that have been built from nothing; so not transformations as such but rather the brainchildren of incredibly insightful entrepreneurs who have spotted the market opportunity that digital has enabled them. So, how can businesses who have been around for 30+ years, and as such were established before technology was so advanced, look to transform and capitalise on it?
  • Customer experience is always asserted to be the main driver for digital transformation – thinking about what your customers want and how they want to interact with you; but surely businesses have been doing that since they were formed? Is the only difference that technology is advancing so quickly that businesses need to be much more agile in the adoption of technology? Or is it that generational changes mean the preferences and expectations of people are different because they have grown up in a more technology-centric world and therefore their concept of what is ‘normal’ is now different?
  • Improving how your work gets done is also shoe-horned into the ‘Digital Transformation’ debate – for example, looking at your customer to cash processes and finding ways to use technology to improve them, make them more efficient, make them better, or add more value.

There are so many varying views on what ‘Digital’ is or isn’t!

Reinvent, reimagine and redesign are three words used by Accenture to describe Digital Transformation which struck a chord with me as a simple way to understand it all.

  • Reinvent – to think about your business and imagine that you were starting again from scratch – how would you do it differently in this modern world; combining your experience of having done it, with the technology, talent and expectations of the future. Reinvention is not about doing things differently but about doing different things.
  • Reimagine – to think about your customers and what they expect from you with the ever-evolving technology landscape, looking ‘outside-in’ on your business and ensuring you are looking at things from their perspective and meeting their needs.
  • Redesign – to think about how work gets done in your business and how you can do things faster, with a lot less effort and find a way to add even more value.

So, if that gives a little more clarity on what ‘it’ is, the next question is, “How do you do ‘it’”?

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet – it’ll be different for every business and it won’t be easy. It will push people who are leading organisations out of their comfort zone, as they are more likely to have grown up in less technology-enabled world and are likely to use their plethora of experience to judge and make decisions. To make ‘it’ possible a business needs a leadership team to have open and inquisitive minds. They need to not be afraid to explore things that are different from the norm. They need to embrace failure and learn from it. They need to be decisive and move quickly. They need to prepare the business for exponential change rather than incremental change. They need to apply design-based thinking to their strategic planning.

So for 2020 I’d like to see a more harmonious Waterstons around the term ‘Digital Transformation’.

At the end of the day it IS a buzzword and THE current hype and who knows how long the term is here to stay? Perhaps this one has some staying power for a little while… although there is already talk of a new transformation that is being driven by a more socially-conscious world built around values and value; where businesses who succeed are effectively blending purpose with profit. Cue the next Waterstons debate on this topic in 2021!

BUT the term ‘Digital Transformation’ is really trying to encapsulate a way of ensuring businesses respond to the changing world, changing generations and the future expectations of people; and the incredible advancement in technology and the speed of change that has to be embraced, rather than shied away from. The concept is important, it is here to stay; in fact it is fundamental to ultimate survival. Businesses won’t fail overnight, but continued and consistent failure to be open to change, to not be dextrous, to not embrace customer centricity and to not adopt digital technology means those businesses that do ‘it’ will pull ahead of those that don’t. They will entice customers away because they have recognised that customer demand and expectation has radically changed and it will never go back.

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19 November 2020

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