Feature Story

When Digital Is Business, Transformation Never Stops

For corporate survival, CEOs must build change into the DNA of their business strategies, technologies, culture and workforce.

Digital business may be redundant. Today, digital is business. And if yours isn’t, then you’re probably no longer in business.

These days, pretty much every company is on the digital path. Those that haven’t are probably “dead in the water,” as Chris Skinner, author of Digital Bank, says.

Digital continues to accelerate and is changing our world on a regular basis. But what does that mean for business? What does it mean for the world’s workforce? And what can executives expect over the next few years?

As the Global Center for Digital Business Transformation (DBT Center) predicts, four in 10 industry incumbents will be displaced by digital disruption over the next five years.

In such a climate, every organization—from startup to incumbent—must always be adapting, innovating, and anticipating the next market transition.

The Global Center for Digital Business Transformation spoke with Dan Buczaczer from the digitally innovative Quid on competitive advantages of start-ups vs. incumbents.

“The most successful companies I have seen knew that change was coming and concentrated on getting out ahead of it. Despite the fact that things seemed good at the time,” said David L. Rogers, a professor at Columbia Business School, and author of TheDigital Transformation Playbook.

“It’s easier to make that change when you see the disruption coming down on you. But it’s often too late at that point,” continued Rogers.

But the question still remains, how do CEOs make that change?

“Competitive advantage is going to come to those companies that make the best use of disruptive technologies,” said Steve Durbin, a technology consultant and managing director of the Information Security Forum (ISF).

“Not as a single exercise, but as an ongoing exercise to ensure that you stay at the forefront of your industry. AI [Artificial Intelligence], cloud, analytics—these will all become the norm,” he continued.

Decision Time: Go Digital or Go Home

In the near term, digital business technologies will continue to get more clever and easy to access via the cloud, with everything from powerful analytics to artificial intelligence embedded directly into our workflows.

But no matter how whip-smart our machines become, they won’t replace humans.

By combining the first generation of digital tools (analytics, mobility, cloud, and collaboration) with second-generation tools such as augmented reality, AI, and 3D printers, we eliminate a lot of the time-consuming and mindless tasks.

It’s these tasks that waste the vision and creativity of the workforce. Instead, employees can focus on what they do best: intuitive and creative thinking.

“As AIs automate so many repetitive, manual processes,” said Brett King, author of Augmented: Life in the Smart Lane, “what differentiates an organization is its ability to create. Your ability to take in data, synthesize it, and produce a creative approach to attack that problem will give you much more of an advantage.”

But digital transformation also demands the right foundation of IT architectures, cybersecurity, analytics, and more.

These investments will pay for themselves down the road by ensuring people have the insights, agility, and confidence they need to innovate boldly, shorten time to market, and respond to customer needs faster than ever.

Digital Is Just Digital without People Behind It

It’s not only the technology. Cultural change is equally important. As King stressed, human ingenuity remains a company’s most important asset, especially in the digital age.

To prepare for a climate of constant disruption, a company has to continually evolve its technology and its workforce.

“The organizations that survive this transition,” said King, “will have a culture of learning, fluidity and adaptability, and will not be married to their traditional approaches to doing business.”

Business leaders need to ensure that this flexible mindset runs deep.

“It requires constant change management from the C-suite,” said Durbin. “As organizational leaders, we have to be more open to the fact that the best ideas will come from out of left field where we never expected.”

“For some of the larger, more mature organizations this is a big ask,” he continued. “But for the C-suite and the boardroom, it’s about introducing into every aspect of the business this need for innovation and flexibility.”

It also means empowering everyone in the organization with analytics and the tools to use them. And that means everyone. Not just data scientists and the C-suite.

As Martha Maznevksiprofessor of organizational behavior and international management at IMD Business School said, “The role of the workforce in a company’s success will absolutely change in the digital era. It won’t become less important. It will become more important.”

“The differentiator is going to be what you do with the information,” she continued. “Digital business transformation is about getting lots and lots of data in, and flowing a lot of data around.”

However, companies need the kinds of workers who know how to use those data insights creatively.

“Agility, rapid prototyping, launching new products quickly, these are skills that many organizations don’t have,” said King.

He added that as schools get smarter and more digitized, so will workers.

“The current educational system,” he said, “came into place with the industrial revolution, and was designed to encourage compliance to make a good employee for a factory. We need students to attack problem solving in different ways, without waiting for direction from up high.”

Today, we must build change into the DNA of our business technologies and cultures. Our architectures need to be secure and “extensible”—that is, flexible enough to roll with future changes. Analytics must keep all workers informed with critical, real-time insights. And collaboration tools should enhance creativity, teamwork, and fast innovation.

In short, flexible technology enables flexible mindsets. That is, the only kind of mindset as transformation becomes the new normal; business is digital; and a willingness to innovate boldly and, if necessary, “fail fast” becomes critical.

“One of my biggest criticisms of the organizations that I deal with,” said Durbin, “is that they are afraid to fail.”

Rogers added that the fail fast ethos could be slightly amended. “I call it failing smart,” he said. “You have to learn from your failures and apply that to your strategy. Big companies often don’t get that right. They hide their failures, instead of sharing that learning with the organization. You need to gain the maximum learning at minimal cost.”

But the journey can be fun. That is, if your company is agile, innovative, and secure, and continues to roll with the changes. Which won’t be slowing anytime soon.

“Some will view this pace of change as exhausting,” Durbin said. “But it’s a much more exciting environment than I think we have ever been in before. With out-of-the-box thinking, nothing is impossible.”