Digital Transformation - Fad? Catch all? What are we really talking about?

Ben Hart
Earlier this year I attended a debate hosted by my good friend, John Smythe and Engage for Change – the topic being Is employee engagement just another fad? The arguments were articulate and the debate lively, as one would expect from a room full of predominately senior people in and around people businesses. The thing that struck me the most was this notion, put forward as a question, that perhaps all we are really talking about is a name check for the services that consultants have been proffering up for some time related more simply to doing good business - involving people in decision making, ensuring that people are on the same page, listening to feedback and improving, leadership that can drive change and make it all happen. As a partner in Atmosphere, I’ve been exploring what the term “Digital Transformation” really means, especially as we develop a new product line around digital leadership and in exploring a strategic partnership with a big technology company. Furthermore, last week we were lucky enough to host a membership association roundtable, we were joined by 11 leaders of various membership organisations to discuss their own digital transformational journeys. As chair I posed the question: “Does digital matter, or should we be talking about engagement and building more meaningful relationships?” The resounding response around the room was this: whereas yes, digital does matter, the future that we want to realise is one where it’s the behaviours that digital provokes and enables (promoted and honed to business gain) are leveraged to connect people with people and to build relationships. Or put more simply, it is the relationship that matters. And perhaps we can even ditch engagement as another one of those words that is so widely interpreted and bandied about that perhaps it has since lost any meaning of true value. My own view on employee engagement is that it’s mandatory for future success. Why? Because the relationships that organisations are now required to build and foster in order to connect meaningfully with their stakeholders and to leveraging the acceptance and adoption of technology, are more and more about linking the internals skills, character, and people with customers. And vice versa, breaking down the walls of the organisation and ultimately allowing the conversation in aggregate to come to represent the brand. Of course, engaged employees build better relationships as employees engaged with customers build relationships better than broadcast communications, and digital enables all of this to happen more efficiently, transparently, and necessarily online where people come to connect with each other and the brands, products and services around them. Is digital transformation a fad? Or a catch all for the things that organisations should be doing to leverage new behaviours and benefit from their data and technology? Both I’d say. Atmosphere helps our clients to navigate the path of digital transformation, I’m more than happy that it’s a subject in the board room and across the c-suite, and that the catch all fad-ish nature of this particular moment presents a raft of provocation as to the opportunities organisations must realise in order to change for the future. One day I will create the time to write a book on “post digital”, meanwhile I somewhat dream of the day where we don’t even need to reference “digital”, which is increasingly becoming an everything and/or channel to enable us to connect.

If we came back to the basic principles for digital transformation what might they be?

Who are we talking to?

Our audience should come first. Who are they? Where do they spend time? And what might they want or need that allows us to appeal to them with our products, services or value? The idea of talking to them can (and should) evolve from ‘talking to’ into ‘having a conversation with’. In order to achieve this we must listen, and by doing so, better understand how to answer and build more meaningful relationships. Not forgetting of course that whoever these people might be, they are human, they behave much like ourselves, like to feel like they aren’t being preached to, like being treated with respect and seek to enjoy or gain some value from the conversations that they chose to be part of. We all only have so much attention, and for anyone to bother coming to engage in conversation with us we have to be appealing through relevant content and context. Listen first, converse, build trust, establish mutual reward in exchange for shared time and effort and sell last.

Where are we going?

Lots of conversation of course does not a business make. Least of all when we come to appreciate the commercial return on time invested. Organisations must evolve to become better equipped to have these conversations in a number of places with the right people; when and where it is most relevant to them. Almost certainly this exists beyond the marketing department and often out of the traditional hours of 9-5. Technology enables this, as does an empowered workforce with the right structure coupled with governanceto ensure this drives commercial return. This is where digital transformation comes to play as a broad catch all (almost faddish) that mashes up ideas around collaboration, innovative thinking, and networks all pitched at leveraging digital behaviours that connect the internals with the externals. By setting a vision for a future where all this works and is in tune with wider commercial objectives, growth and profit starts to paint a picture for the larger opportunity to “get digital” and realise the opportunity that it presents. What do we need to help us get there? As an organisation establishes its vision and strategy for a more customer centric and relationship orientated future, the change required to get there will become apparent. Starting with people by bringing in digital talent while amplifying and promoting catalysts and having the digital natives increasingly inform the required change all presents real gain. Structures and platforms enable this change and the leadership of organisations must back it and stay the course. Working in a more agile way at the “pace of digital” will no longer be a challenge, simply more contemporary. Bringing the outside in and setting the bar high where larger co’s are increasingly able to be the market disruptors rather than the next Kodak or Blockbuster is the aim in order to remain robust and relevant for the future.

How do we know we’ve got there and have been successful?

Simply put, we won’t be talking digital anymore! We’ll be behaving in a more connected way, building relationships with our customers, turning data into actionable insight, collaborating internally across functions, and thinking about new and creative ways to ensure we continue to remain relevant. Getting there is a fallacy. Change and improvement is the only constant in an increasingly fast moving business environment where the challenges will continue to come thick and fast; the inherent opportunity in this landscape will no longer be prohibitive and provoke a need for a digital strategy, greater employee engagement, or for that matter, transformation. Rather, we will be ably equipped to reach out and grasp new opportunities and to leverage the right ones with increasing ease because it’s no longer about change, it’s more about the way we work and connect in order to continue to change. Our Digital Transformation Explorer is the best way for you to gain insight into where to begin, or to accelerate, your own organisation's digital transformation journey.

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