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


Rise of the 'digital transformation' guru

Though I left the world of journalism some years ago, I still get emailed lots of press releases.

One arrived this morning, about a new handbag company that claims to be a business ‘disruptor’.  

‘How?’, you might ask. ‘We are a luxury handbag brand disrupting the market with timeless designs that, unlike those of our competitors, do not feature excessively ostentatious branding,’ reads the first paragraph.

Every company seems to want to position itself as a ‘disruptor’ at the moment – even those doing things as decidedly non-disruptive as making handbags with subtler-than-average logos.

This got me thinking about a related buzz-phrase – ‘digital transformation’.

Numerous people who were running around the conference speaker circuit a few years ago claiming to be ‘social media’ gurus have now reinvented themselves as ‘digital transformation’ experts.

Cynics might suspect that they’ve done this not because they’ve suddenly learned a new discipline, but because they’re following the money.

Just as these people once proclaimed that if companies don’t ‘get’ social media they will perish, they’re now declaring that businesses must ‘digitally transform’ themselves or die.

It’s not just superannuated social media gurus getting in on this act – the big global management consultancies are focusing on it too, as subscribers to McKinsey’s email newsletters will well know.

Yet there’s nothing new about either the concepts wrapped in new ‘digital transformation’ packaging, or the idea that ‘traditional’ businesses will collapse if they don’t embrace them. Indeed, such ideas were discussed endlessly during the dotcom boom almost two decades ago. eBay will bring an end to auction houses. Amazon will spell the death of the bookstore. And so on.

So why is all this making a comeback now?

For one thing, a new wave of genuinely ‘disruptive’ businesses – from taxi firm Uber to lodging rental company Airbnb – has given digital transformation ‘experts’ a fresh batch of case studies with which to fill their PowerPoint presentations.

For another, there is a certain breed of conference-hopping guru who needs a Big New Thing to peddle. Social media is simply not that new any more – and ‘digital transformation’ sounds impressive.

Is ‘digital transformation’ a load of old nonsense?

No, for two reasons:

  • First, it’s undoubtedly true that the likes of Uber and Airbnb, like Amazon and eBay before them, pose a real threat to their direct and longer-established competitors. And there are some useful lessons that firms in other sectors can learn from such startups’ ability to devise business models that incumbents failed to invent themselves.
  • Second, the ambiguous phrase ‘digital transformation’ has become an umbrella for a raft of activities that includes genuinely worthwhile efforts to get digital channels taken more seriously, and integrated more deeply, at all levels of – and across all areas of – an organisation. Indeed, Bowen Craggs has been championing these particular sorts of activities for years.

But the term ‘digital transformation’ is so broad that it can mean very different things to different people – and, like online technologies themselves, has very different implications for different companies.

So if you choose to hire a ‘digital transformation’ expert, make sure that their specific experience and expertise fit the needs of your organisation. And be very suspicious of anyone with ‘digital transformation consultant’ printed on their business card in the space that said ‘social media consultant’ a few years ago.

- Scott Payton