• Transform magazine
  • July 18, 2019

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Opinion: "A tale of digital transformation and tech-washing"

Andy Budd Headshot.jpg

Digital transformation is essential, but it's not always easy. Andy Budd says that companies must commit if they want to see results.

Digital transformation is a well-discussed topic in many boardrooms across the world; the landscape is continuously changing and companies are pushed to either embrace this swiftly or risk losing touch completely. However, digital transformation involves more than just hiring a few digital natives. It’s about instilling competency and culture throughout the fabric of an organisation in order to truly embed digital values and practices.

So how exactly do large businesses deal with the additional factors that go hand-in-hand with the move to digital? Especially now that markets have opened up and a company’s size has gone from being a benefit to a potential hindrance. Similarly, how do traditional, smaller-scale organisations reap the rewards that going digital can offer a business when working at a completely different tempo and, in many cases, without access to the same amount of budget and resource?

One thing to be aware of before embarking on the journey is that digital transformation isn’t easy, especially if the target organisation isn’t ready for the change at hand. As a result, over the last ten years the design industry has seen many transformation projects try and fail to take root.

This could be down to a number of influencing factors, one of which is the inability to recognise the risks, not only to businesses on a whole, but to those individuals who are taking control and leading the digital charge. Another key influencer may be working with a company that isn’t necessarily tolerant towards failure. Many of the best digital businesses don’t start by dipping their toe in the water but by jumping in head-first. This means that not only are they willing to be a lot more radical, they often see more beneficial results in a shorter time-frame. Businesses that approach a project with caution and end up playing it too safe are unlikely to uncover the true benefits that a digital transformation project can bring.

Initial stages begin with good intentions; however a lack of immediate results leaves companies feeling deflated and demoralised by the process – a bit like New Years resolutions. After all, what’s the point in continually fighting for change if you’re not seeing a clear level of return?

So what can companies do to make sure they see their digital transformation out beyond merely the January of the resolutions period and avoid what we I’ve dubbed ‘tech-washing’? In tech-washing you’ll see many organisations start ‘exemplar projects’ to demonstrate the benefits digital transformation will bring. However, when you scratch below the surface, many of these projects are little more than usual business, dressed up in the veneer of digital transformation, but lacking the commitment for real success. The participants aren’t always aware of this happening, and without a clear plan of action the majority of these projects are doomed for failure from the beginning.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom as there are plenty of things business can do to avoid joining the ranks of the failing companies and to successfully switch to digital. Firstly, make a public commitment. If people are openly expecting change from you you’ll be a lot more likely to actually see it through so as to avoid disappointing customers and brand advocates. You should then make sure that you have the support of a senior stakeholder; ideally the CEO or at least a member of the board. Not only will this mean you’ll have someone with real influence on your side, but it is likely that fellow employees will be more willing to embrace the change if it’s also funneling down from the top of the organisational hierarchy. You need the desire for difference to be communicated around the company at every single level.

Once everyone is on board internally, it’s time to showcase your work externally. In order to prove your commitment to the project you should launch some amazing work early on. However, bear in mind that this needs to remain consistent if you want to stay at the forefront of people’s minds. You’ll only be backtracking on yourself if you launch a great digital project two months in and then have nothing to show for the next six.

Finally it’s the bit most businesses dread – the money, and it’s here the saying ‘you get out what you put in’ springs to mind. Investing a significant amount and using these funds to hire a great team will only benefit you. You also need to ensure you have the budget to do something different to competitors in your market. It’s all well and good having the intention and plan to create what you think is a winning digital strategy, but the reality is that if others in your industry are doing exactly the same thing, you’re not going to stand out, especially if they have a five-year lead on you.

While it may feel like rewinding ten years for many of us, it’s never too late for companies to start waking up to the disruptive power of the digital era and, more importantly, to do something about it. Recognising digital transformation as a long-term strategy as opposed to a one-off tactic will allow businesses to see far beyond just updating their website and in-house systems. Importantly, it should always be remembered that the digital world is constantly and rapidly evolving. Businesses should be aware that failure to adapt to this ongoing development could leave them falling behind the competition that is willing to step up and face the shift towards a more digitally-focused world.

Digital transformation is simple. It just isn’t necessarily easy.

By Andy Budd, founder and managing director at Clearleft.