Leading brands are continuing to pursue digital innovation and are disrupting established industries in the process. Amazon, for instance, started in e-commerce but is now entering the retail grocery business with a fully digital checkout process. Moves like this has led companies of all sizes to focus on digital transformation—the acceleration of activities, processes and competencies to fully take advantage of digital technologies.
Companies are investing a lot of money and resources into digital transformation strategy, but in order to win, they’ll need a strategic approach. Digital transformation, after all, is not a sprint—it’s a marathon. To get the most out of their digital strategy, companies need to get a pulse on the changing market and adjust their approach accordingly.
We identified four ways innovative companies are shaping their digital transformation strategy. Following these examples will help business leaders create a thoughtful approach that drives change in the entire organization.
1. Look past your competitors
The impetus behind many digital transformation initiatives is fear—fear that a competitor will beat you to the punch, or that a disruptor will leave you behind.
There is good reason to fear. The average lifespan of S&P 500 companies has declined from 61 years in 1958 to about 20 years now, indicating that disruption rather than longevity is the new norm.
Disruption can come from anywhere, so companies can’t afford to just analyze what their closest competitors are up to. They need to look upstream to the changes in other industries that will inevitably permeate their own as well.
General Electric (GE) was able to successfully make a digital leap, in part because it looked outside of its own industry for inspiration and insight. Instead of just watching its direct competitors, the company studied innovative companies in industries like tech. It hired people from outside the industry, including Bill Ruh, who had experience developing advanced solutions from Cisco. GE also teamed up with various incubation labs to gain experience working with startups.
By expanding its point of view, GE was able to launch the Predix platform, an Internet of Things platform that allows industrial machines to be monitored and optimized digitally. Analyzing trends in other industries put GE ahead of its competitors today, pulling off an impressive initiative that’s already landed them the business of companies like Pitney Bowes.
2. Ask your customers
Without understanding your target audience, your digital strategy will only ever be an educated guess.
Saudi Telecom Company (STC), a $12 billion telecom company, sensed something had shifted in its target audience and understood that it needs to launch new digital initiatives. Instead of crafting a generic digital strategy, STC hired a team of researchers to study the habits and lifestyles of Millennials in the country. Specifically, the company was interested in understanding the pain points of young consumers.
According to CEO Subhra Das, “We then had to rely on creativity, great design and cutting-edge tech to address the pain points and their needs using the power of digital.” The result was a business unit called Jawwy that is successfully reaching Saudi’s digital natives. Among other things, Jawwy offers new ways of managing mobile plans and support functions such as billing and charging—activities that Millennial customers are looking for.
Jawwy had a simple mandate: understand the pain points of the company’s target customers, and work backwards to design a digital solution. For Jawwy, customer insight was not an afterthought; it was the fundamental cornerstone of the digital strategy.
3. Use executive influence
Some executive teams in large organizations are launching innovation hubs to do the digital thinking for them. This strategy can be effective when there’s a specific plan to test digital initiatives. In 2015, for instance, Scotiabank launched Digital Factory, a tech accelerator unit that helps identify areas for improvement in the company’s processes. Tech experts in this hub examine the customer experience and aim to offer solutions to the most pressing pain points.
A typical problem with these digital hubs, however, is that they lack appropriate executive leadership. As a recent Harvard Business Review article pointed out, “Only the CEO has the power to provide this kind of [digital] direction across the entire enterprise.” For a thorough digital transformation to take place, nothing less than an executive’s direction will do.
Consider the example from Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford, who led the company through a digital transformation after the 2008 recession. He created a business plan and shared it with his executive team in a weekly meeting. That meeting was mirrored at every level of the organization, all the way down to front-line employees. Managers then closed the feedback loop by sharing employee insight with the executive team.
Ultimately, Mulally set the high-level agenda while also considering feedback from the entire organization. Your digital strategy could fail to get off the ground without executive support, but it may also have large organizational gaps without input from the right stakeholders. Finding the right balance is key to a successful digital transformation.
4. Align your company culture
Peter Drucker, the renowned management expert, famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Even the most informed digital strategy with executive support will lack staying power without the right culture to sustain it.
For example, when Adobe decided to make the the transition from physical software to a cloud-based model, it knew it needed to shift its employees’ focus towards the needs of the customer. To achieve this, it created a staff Experience-a-thon, where employees could test and provide feedback on Adobe products, not from their viewpoint as employees, but as users. Employee engagement was a key strategy during Adobe’s shift to becoming a cloud company.
While each company faces unique challenges, a digital initiative has to be accompanied by meaningful cultural change that will sustain the transformation into the future.
Start with the customer experience
A deep understanding of your customers’ motivations and intentions is a critical starting point for any digital transformation initiative.