Surfacing the Tragic Mistakes in Digital Transformation

Surfacing the Tragic Mistakes in Digital Transformation

The dust has finally settled on J.Boye 15 and I’d like to share some of what we learned in my session entitled: “Surfacing the Tragic Mistakes in Digital Transformation“.

The idea behind this workshop was to explore some of the early mistakes many organizations make when planning and preparing for the digital transformation necessary to support omnichannel marketing. However, the concepts were high-level and transferable across a variety of different transformative initiatives, such as customer experience management or operations automation.

J.Boye conferences are notorious for creating a highly collaborative, participatory environment for shared learning and this session was no exception. I was thrilled to facilitate a room filled with senior executives including a CEO, CMO, and two CTOs, as well as a variety of other leaders filling IT, digital marketing and communications roles at well-known, innovative companies plus a team from the Wharton School. Everyone involved graciously shared many things they’ve learned with one another.

This will be the first of two posts where we look at the information this expert panel of participants and I gathered and analyzed during our workshop. In part 1, we’ll focus on the tragic mistakes we articulated. In a follow up post we’ll talk about the playbook of tactics we assembled to mitigate the risks we identified.

The Tragic Mistakes in Digital Transformation

During our workshop we unpacked the definition of Digital Transformation, discussed ways transformation can go wrong, and collaboratively built a playbook of tactics to mitigate these risks. Prior to sharing the presentation slides in section two (Surfacing the tragic mistakes) our room of experts divided into three groups and each group collaboratively created a list of the Digital Transformation mistakes they’ve witnessed or been part of. We then read these lists aloud, one group at a time, before I revealed the issues I had come prepared to discuss in my presentation.

As each group read out their lists it was interesting to discover a lot of overlap in the issues they captured. It was quite reinforcing for everyone (myself included!) to see the overlap as I revealed the list in the slides I had created while conducting my own research, prior to the event.

In the next step, we sought to normalize and sort our issues around common themes. I’ve created the following table to visualize the relative weight of these themes.

Transformational risks: Frequency of themes

Digging a little deeper

There was more group discussion as we unpacked our lists and normalized them into themes. Everyone in the room was interested in further definition and sought to identify underlying causes.

Inadequate Leadership

The fact that leadership problems are the source of much difficulty in Digital Transformation sparked surprisingly little debate in a room filled with digital leaders. In addition to the specific risks the groups listed, we discussed the fact that a lack of qualified leaders is a more prevalent issue than simply poor leaders. When we pressed on root causes an interesting insight surfaced: As we are now twenty years into the era of the internet as a commercially viable enterprise, Gen X are the cohort coming of age as the group with the most experience. However, Gen X is a very small generation, making up only about 11% of the U.S. population, in a field already plagued by a lack of qualified resources.

Data Immaturity

The second most frequently cited set of issues was a three way tie including data immaturity. Like inadequate leadership, one root cause of this problem is a lack of qualified resources. A general lack of strategy specifically around measurement was also cited as a cause. However, many organizations are wrestling with  technical debt that is an obstacle to a fully integrated view of data in a way which allows business decision makers to derive meaningful value from the sea of data available.

Finally, this issue also pointed back at a leadership problem. Many agreed that goal incongruity and information asymmetry between leadership and front line resources could be traced back to a lack of communication.

Lack of Customer Centricity

Tied for second place with data immaturity, our expert participants cited a number of issues which basically roll up to a lack of customer centricity, or a lack of customer experience driven strategy. Root causes included a lack of vision or misunderstanding about the critical nature of making decisions driven by improved Customer Experience or based on customer data.

Organizational silos were also cited as a reason within organizations that have strong in-store experience or live customer service and a lack of cohesion across digital channels.

Abdicating Strategy

The last in our expert panel’s three way tie for the second most prevalent theme is a general lack of strategy. When we discussed this theme further we agreed it could mean a lack of any strategy, a lack of communication around existing strategy, or following outdated or bad strategy. Underlying causes were a little vague but the general consensus pointed towards leadership issues (again) and the exigencies of day to day operations crowding out time to think strategically.

Again, it was reiterated, the leadership problem in this case could also be attributed to lack of leadership bandwidth, as opposed to poor leaders. There was a lot of agreement that this issue is widespread and incredibly important, as the risks associated with a lack of strategy seemed to be bigger.

Finally, we discussed the problems associated with the old-fashioned approach to setting a grand strategy and then waiting for 1-3 years to see how it performed. Today’s approach to strategy needs to be more nimble and agile, in order to react to the evolving needs of the market and the constantly shifting competitive environment.

The Technology Myth

To be clear, there are a lot of technology myths in the 21st Century, but in the context of our conversation at about Digital Transformation at J.Boye, we were specifically discussing the idea that the adoption of technology is the most important or only thing you need to do to lead your organization through a digital transformation. Underlying causes for this problem included too much control within IT, a lack of understanding, and a lack of planning.

Enablement Risk

A corollary to the technology myth, the enablement risk theme refers to issues around a general lack of investment in the necessary human resources, training, and enablement necessary to succeed in a business landscape dominated by digital. This included not having the right roles to get the most from enabling technology, not training existing resources, and generally ignoring the importance of continued training and education to grow capabilities.

High Level Conclusions

As it turned out, we did not have the time to reflect on what we’d discussed and come to a set of conclusions at the event. However, I’ve since spent some time thinking about this session and I have the following things to share:

  1. You’re not alone: Although it’s frustrating to see so many people continuing to struggle with Digital Transformation, it was encouraging and empowering to see a group of high level executives come to the realization that they are not alone in their struggles.
  2. Begin growing leaders: Many of the issues rolled up to leadership and could be attributed to a lack of leaders with the appropriate knowledge and experience. As I previously mentioned, our follow up post on this subject will share the playbook of mitigating tactics we articulated at J.Boye. However, an idea we did not identify as a group which has since occurred to me is organizations should begin identifying high potential resources with a strong background in digital and get them to executive leadership training. The men and women who left college in the 90’s and started their career as a low level IT resource or web programmer are undeniably becoming some of the most valuable resources in any organization and they are destined for big, important roles within the enterprise. Particularly as the boomers start retiring.
  3. Training is critical: It seems, in recent years, organizations have finally internalized the notion that everyone is in the publishing business. It’s now time to realize we are all in the training and enablement business as well. Whether this critical activity is handled in-house or externalized, the shifting demands of the modern working environment require constant updates to people’s skills. Organizations who hope to be successful with digital transformation must not ignore this concept.

Again, in addition to these high level conclusions, we will publish a follow up post containing the ideas our group of experts came up with.

Raw data

The following table includes the ‘tragic mistakes’ each group captured during our time together. (Exception: Group 4 is the information I prepared prior to the session.) The second table demonstrates how we grouped our issues into normalized themes.

Item Group
Not looking at data 1
Specifying an end date* 1
Identifying technology before defining a strategy 1
Lack of training 1
Failing to conduct user testing 1
Failure to identify and communicate KPIs 1
No defined audience segmentation 2
Too much focus on technology 2
Lack of urgency in getting started 2
Rushing once underway 2
Not customer-centric 2
Irrational timelines 3
Lack of customer-centricity 3
Chasing shiny things** 3
Lack of Strategy 3
Business goals not clearly defined or communicated 3
Focusing on meaningless/vanity metrics 3
Failure to lead with strategy, or with an outdated or ill-informed strategy 4
Underestimating the critical importance of discovery 4
Overestimating the importance of technology 4
Underestimating the importance of human resource enablement and process 4
Underestimating the total cost of ownership associated with enabling technology 4
Failure to articulate business critical KPI’s or focusing on activity metrics instead of results 4

* When pressed on ‘Specifying an end date’ the participant explained this referred to the risks associated with treating transformation like a project with a defined beginning and end, instead of looking at transformation as a business critical capability, necessary for survival in an ever-evolving competitive landscape.

** Chasing shiny things was further defined as a failing of leaders who insist on following trends in technology or design which do not have a relevant application in the day to day exigencies of their organization, ignoring data in decision making, or making decisions without data.

The following table demonstrates how we grouped these issues into themes.

Items Themes
Chasing shiny things Abdicating strategy
Lack of Strategy Abdicating strategy
Failure to lead with strategy, or with an outdated or ill-informed strategy Abdicating strategy
Underestimating the critical importance of discovery Abdicating strategy
Not looking at data Data immaturity
Failure to identify and communicate KPIs Data immaturity
Focusing on meaningless/vanity metrics Data immaturity
Failure to articulate business critical KPI’s or focusing on activity metrics instead of results Data immaturity
Lack of training Enablement risk
Underestimating the importance of human resource enablement and process Enablement risk
Failing to conduct user testing Lack of Customer Centricity
No defined audience segmentation Lack of Customer Centricity
Not customer centric Lack of Customer Centricity
Lack of customer centricity Lack of Customer Centricity
Specifying an end date Inadequate leadership
Lack of urgency in getting started Inadequate leadership
Rushing once underway Inadequate leadership
Irrational timelines Inadequate leadership
Business goals not clearly defined or communicated Inadequate leadership
Underestimating the total cost of ownership associated with enabling technology Inadequate leadership
Identifying technology before defining a strategy Technology myth
Too much focus on technology Technology myth
Overestimating the importance of technology Technology myth

Presentation Slides

Feature image used under Creative Commons attribution license.
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