Digital transformation: how, where and who?

Discussing the current marketing realities and trends in Digital Transformation Summit 2017. How digital transformation is understood by businesses, agencies and consumers and what we can learn from it.

Kristine Smukste
Kristine Smukste

First, let me start off by saying that digital transformation is nothing new. The topic of course is not a new one and has been in works since a few years. Nevertheless, this past Friday, on the 2nd of June, a hot summer afternoon in the heart of Brussels people from all sorts of companies and agencies gathered to talk it a bit more.

What I heard from mostly evolved around the questions of depth and breadth of this mythical and enigmatic concept of digital transformation that has become a mantra for all sorts of agencies and businesses.

The summit brought together a mix of companies and agencies, so it was interesting to see dynamics of how these two starkly different organisations presented their role and approach to digital transformation. And what elements that constitute digital transformation resonates with whom the most. 

I don't think it's an exaggeration to state that the question is not about whether there's a need or place for digital transformation, but rather we should ask how far this transformation should stretch, how deep it should run. Really, how far one has to go to truly claim the meaning of the term?

 As Emakina digital transformation evangelists Miel and Kenny eloquently put it, it's a question of digital transformation versus digital translation. Hence, I recognised three core layers from speeches that day focusing on:

  • Who's involved in the process?

  • How to foster digital transformation and make it effective?

  • Where it happens and what trends influence the course of digital transformation?


Who are the architects of digital transformation

An important question to ask is who's leading the digital transformation. Who should be involved and who is key to success?

Presenters from Emakina argued that agencies and businesses can be successful transformation agents only if their own people believe in this process, understand the vision and have means to act on it. They spoke about tactics and methods of empowering employees and what it takes to turn them into brand ambassadors that power transformation.

According to Emakina's philosophy, a change of mindset and behaviour is key to start, accelerate and sustain transformative change. They identified three key elements of employee buy-in and engagement:

  • motivation
  • ability and
  • triggers.

For the first one, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can be used in a combination to achieve the maximum result. Thus using gamification and a smart rewards system can help sustain engagement (note that "smart" also implies "fair" incentive and reward system).

Secondly, ability means enabling employees to participate in digital transformation by giving them guidelines and policies and allocating time to act.

Lastly, to trigger employees to act one needs to lead by example and keep the pulse, i.e. personify and recognise change "makers" and keep the communication flow steady by supplying content in small, snackable bites. Having a clear, achievable roadmap to track progress can greatly increase engagement. People like to see progress, it empowers and motivates them to go further. Altogether, positive employee experience and active engagement can generate transformative change if they understand and embrace it.

Customer eXperience + Employee eXperience = digital transformation  

Employee engagement is great. But it takes two to tango. To make the digital transformation truly effective, there needs to be a push from the top. As Bart De Groote, Managing Director of SNCB-NMBS, admitted, to get the ball rolling an impulse needs to come from top down. This insight is especially relevant in case of larger companies with hierarchical organisation, where grassroots movements are less natural.

The benefit from top-down approach is twofold. Firstly, if the management leads the way it bestows a vision and sets an example for employees. Equally, it signals that there are resources allocated to enable the process. Bart made another crucial point, which leads me to the second core layer in the digital transformation process.


Facilitating effective digital transformation

Bart made an honest remark that digital transformation often sounds as an empty statement that creates fear and is menacing to employees. I agree this is especially true to more inward-looking organisations for whom building walls and retaining boundaries is more natural than opening up, placing the end user at the centre and changing ways of working - down to operational level.

Bart therefore made a point that sometimes interpretation and presentation of digital transformation can make a difference to break down these fears and confusion. It's about internalising the process. For example, by presenting it as digital innovation instead of transformation can send the right message and render the right vision to employees, making the process more relevant and relatable. It's about understanding the benefits and value of changes and knowing what to do to get there.

There was a consensus that these days digital transformation is orchestrated by underlying data. This also forces agencies to employ people that like numbers. Today, data crunching is as important as storytelling. So, on one hand it's about having access to data and, on the other hand, knowing what to look for and how to interpret that data.

Timo Elliott, VP and Global Innovation Evangelist for SAP, went even further and demonstrated how artificial intelligence and internet of things next to big data is re-writing the rules or digital communication. And how businesses and brands must be mindful of looking and transforming the entire customer journey from in-store experience to native apps to products.

Indeed, there should always be a much broader understanding of multiple touchpoints and a vision of how to connect all those dots to create an even better customer experience. The key is collecting and accumulating data and knowing how to put it to work. Timo's examples covered a wide range of businesses - from product-focused companies such as Asics to service providers and universities.

Digital Transformation Summit 2017 Brussels


Digital transformation influencers

There are many trends that both present new challenges and influence the digital transformation process. Caroline Henno, Senior Consultant at IBM Watson Marketing focused on these trends and market realities, mentioning things like:

  • tinderization in business where customers develop relationships with brands based on transactions and therefore undermine the concept of customer loyalty

  • personification - delivery of relevant digital experiences to individuals based on their inferred membership in a defined customer segment (instead of personalisation which implies targeting an identifiable individual)

  • importance of a channel in the customer journey - understanding channels that your customers use daily (in fact, on average we use only 5 channels in our daily lives) and identifying opportunities where a business or brand can be helpful and occupy that channel space

  • dark social - how to harness personal communication channels where people share content through private channels such as instant messaging apps like Whatsapp and Snapchat, email and sms, using encrypted messages that can't be tracked and analysed.

All of these are relevant questions I will ask myself when thinking about the next digital application design. Especially if our goal is to transform the business and not merely translate old digital tools to newer, sexier experiences that may be easier to use, but don't necessarily bring that additional Life-Time Value for end users. Brands indeed need to become useful in every possible way to develop meaningful and ultimately commercially successful relationships with consumers.


Where is digital transformation headed

As Philippe Neyt of Corona Direct put it, digital transformation is a journey, not a destination. As a brand strategist, I couldn't agree more. One never finishes its digital transformation, never arrives to a final point to say "my job is done here". Instead it's a never-ending story. And as long as humans will adapt and change their behaviour, businesses will be forced to keep up and adapt and adjust their digital transformation.

No matter from which angle you look at digital transformation, the key driver that pushes forward this transformative process of how brands and businesses behave and act is people. Not technology, not some other external forces. People both externally as end users (customers and consumers) and internally as employees define the maturity and the power of the digital transformation.

Technology is an enabler, but human needs are at the core.

People constitute the defining recipe how technology will be put to use. Start observing what people do and listening to what they say, and you'll start seeing the path forward. It will become easy to explain the vision and empower relevant people and stakeholders to join this transformative process.

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