The Hard Things About The Hard Thing Called "Digital Transformation"

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You can’t throw a marketing professional down a flight of stairs without the words “digital transformation!” tumbling out of their mouth.

There is no doubt that digital transformation affects everyone in business today. Small, medium and large businesses are being impacted. B2B and B2C are both dealing with how this works – both internally to move the operation forward and externally in terms of what the consumer sees, buys and connects with. With that, we’re seeing a myriad of agencies, consultancies and independent players come forward with this service offering. Everyone seems to have a process, strategy and proprietary IP coupled with strategic technology providers to help business make the leap from here to where they need to be (and, yes, it is core to the business of Mirum as well). With that, we’re seeing countless reports, articles and case studies that show both how far some brands have come, but how much further most brands need to go. 

The brands who have already transformed digitally are few and far between. It’s time that we admit this.

A better web experience, implementing marketing automation software or shifting your business model from a Web-based digital experience to a mobile-first strategy does not make the transformation complete. In fact, those types of deployments are (mostly) the tactical stuff that may (or may not) have much to do with true digital transformation. So, where’s the rub? We know the facts: all consumers are digital-first. All consumers are (mostly) mobile-first. Most brand experiences don’t replicate the current way that consumers use and move with technology. In short, brands have a long way to go. Brands know that they must transform. Brands have digital transformation as core to their roadmap. Brands understand the need for a complete digital strategy.

Here is a partial list of the challenges that brands face, when it comes to digital transformation (based on the many conversations I’ve had over the past few years): 

  • The why. Famed business book author and TED Talker, Simon Sinek, continues to gain fame for his one, simple (but seemingly hard to do) concept of: Start With Why. If your brand does not have a clearly defined “why” that is attached to financial business objectives, then it is simply chasing the latest and greatest shiny objects. Business objectives are then coupled with the much-dreaded Key Performance Indicators. Know your why, know what metrics will make it successful and – most importantly – know what that delta means in terms of real new money that this will bring into the business. 
  • Have a vision for your business, not the future. Most failed business transformation attempts happen because the brand was focused on where the world was going (social, mobile, messaging, VR, AR, automation, etc…), instead of having a vision for how their business ought to function in the future. This is similar to choosing the tools before you have the strategy. It helps no one. It has the brand chasing fads, instead of investing in the next iteration of the business.
  • Talent gap. There is plenty of positive energy, budget and desire to get this done, but the brand lacks talent within the organization to make it happen. This talent vacuum starts at the top and rolls down into the actual practitioners who have to get this done. It’s not just enough talent to make the work happen, but the talent that can get this done are often trapped in organizational structures that don’t facilitate the multi-disciplanery departments to get it done. They are trapped in different silos. This vacuum removes all capacity for having the power to get the work pushed through the organization. It’s often just another failed or stalled project.
  • Digital transformation sits with IT. While different from the talent gap, when the digital transformation sits solely in IT, it’s never given the breath that it needs to transcend the tech department and truly integrate and unify the complete organization. If marketing, operations, sales and the c-suite are not a part of digital transformation, the entire initiative is treated with as much respect and attention as the implementation of the latest CRM update.
  • It’s about the brand and not the customers. It’s true that at it’s core digital transformation is a business strategy and theology that happens internally. It’s done to ensure that the business is (at least) one step ahead of the consumer. It’s done to ensure that the brand is (at least) using the same technology as their consumer’s use on a daily basis. Still, that’s not enough. That’s the beta phase. The true rollout of digital transformation has one major imperative: what does our consumer need, use and want… and how do we deliver against that? If digital transformation is not done with a thorough understanding of how this makes the consumer’s life better, there is no point. Yes, digital transformation will/should deliver better efficiencies, but that is coupled with a better brand experience for the customer. Know your audience – the internal and external ones.
  • The data vacuum. This is the standard struggle of brands from the inception of time. Too little data. Too much data. Too much data in too many different places. Making the data work. Making the data work together. On and on and on. Brands rarely understand and use their data beyond vanity metrics (as my friend, Avinash Kaushik calls them) or in the rear-view mirror (looking at the data in a post-mortem scenario). For business transformation to true work, brands must be able to understand, optimize and use their data for better business outcomes iteratively. Period. Full stop.
  • The technology investment. Businesses think that buying technology is a like buying a house. Technology does not appreciate over time. Technology can’t be seen as a long-term investment anymore. Notice how quickly we moved from hosting to cloud services? The technology world is changing and moving much quicker than ever before (Moore’s Law is being questioned). With that, digital transformation will never happen within an organization, so long as there is this ideology of: “we can’t invest in technology today, when we made a $100k investment is this other technology three years ago.” This may be a tough pill for brands to swallow, but antiquated technology and legacy systems have a dramatic effect on a brand’s ability to be future-proof.
Digital transformation is not (just) a cultural attitude and imperative. It’s strategic. It’s tactical. It creates a lot of disruption. Is your brand ready?