If we ignore ‘digital transformation’ will it go away?

If Bowen Craggs did a ranking of irritating business clichés, ‘digital transformation’ would be a strong contender for the top spot. When I first came across the term (probably in a McKinsey article but I can’t remember) I thought I’d better read it because we are in the digital communications business, and they must be related, right?

 Several articles later, I’m none the wiser about what digital transformation actually means. I could come up with my own definition, but I’m not sure it would be the same as anyone else’s. That is why it’s frustrating – to transform digitally can mean what you want it to mean – sometimes it seems to be about redefining internal processes, or maybe mobile sales channels or marketing 3.0, 4.0, etc. And rarely have I read anything about where digital communications or corporate websites fit in.

Then I started to wonder (whisper it): do they need to have anything to do with each other at all? It was comforting to have my doubts confirmed in a recent talk by a digital comms manager from a large multinational. Chatham House rules applied so no names will be used or dirty laundry aired, but the lessons this manager learned are worth sharing more widely. It was especially helpful to have a concrete example, given how vacuous digital transformation can be.

At this particular company, the ‘transformation’ meant (and I’m paraphrasing but hopefully not over-generalising): a transition to more digital marketing and the digital ‘user experience’ for customers transacting with the company online; and on the internal side, utilising the data and analytics (yes, it’s that other cliché, ‘big data’) on customer activity for business development.

So, in simple terms, very customer-focused. The initiative had its own implementation committee, chaired by marketing and not involving comms. Our digital comms manager spent months thinking about what the digital comms team should be doing about all of this.

The answer, it turned out, was to do nothing. Or at least do nothing new. Instead, digital comms would double-down on what it did already and try to do it better: focus on communicating with core corporate audiences – media, jobseekers, investors; focus on improving content, including a shift to video; and a website relaunch to reinforce comms role as the company’s reputation and brand guardian. It was also important to define what they would not do. For example, they would not involve themselves in local customer websites or customer apps (apart from branding). Two things the team did work on augmented the brand and traditional comms role: a company-wide digital style guide and a centralised careers website.

The above approach has the advantage of being clear, but it is company-specific. Other digital comms teams going through a similar process (ordeal?) might find carving out a similar ‘safe space’ for comms won’t work politically. Certainly other companies we’ve seen facing the same issues have decided to get on the transformation bandwagon, for example, by ‘transforming’ the corporate site into a sales channel; but, we think, at a risk of ignoring the ‘group-level marketing’ role that comms has always had – selling the company as a place to work, to invest in, to write positive things about.

- Jason Sumner