Sign with words "evolution". Source: Kevin Dooley @ Flickr
Business 2.0, Design

Do you need a digital strategy?

I’ve been giving the topic of “digital strategy” a bit of thought lately—what does it mean, exactly, in today’s marketplace, to have a digital strategy?

In jamming around some ideas, I recently jotted down the following:

The lines between what’s digital and what’s not have been permanently blurred. Our customers and stakeholders no longer see digital as something separate to their day-to-day “real world” experience. So you can’t afford to either.

The biggest opportunities are often not found in a simple app or product. They require a rethinking of how we do business—how we engage stakeholders in the definition, design and delivery of solutions. How we organise our own resources. How we manage our business to manage risk and build a culture of innovation.

The general vibe I was trying to capture was that having a separate “digital strategy” is problematic in a world where mobile and social technologies enable increasingly integrated experiences—where the “online” and “offline” distinction is less and less meaningful.

I was interested to read, then, a post from McKinsey entitled ‘Transformer in Chief’: The new chief digital officer. So, when early in the article, Tuck Richards notes:

Digital isn’t merely a thing—it’s a new way of doing things. Many companies are focused on developing a digital strategy when they should instead focus on integrating digital into all aspects of the business, from channels and processes and data to the operating model, incentives, and culture.

…it all sounded rather familiar.

The challenge with this, though, is that it’s hard to articulate, plainly and simply, what this means. It’s different for every business and context.

Another challenge is that, while it is often valuable to start the process with a single project or product, often getting to “the gold” of a digitally-centric approach to business requires deeper changes to the way an organisation does things, which in turn entails support from across the organisation.

Later in the article, Richards notes:

As the digital age scrambles the traditional organizational structure, CDOs must not only launch the organization on its digital trajectory but also help it fundamentally evolve.

In my career I’ve seen many initiatives not reach their full potential because they emanate from an individual or team within an organisation (e.g. a comms team, or a website manager), without having full support of management, or other teams that are critical in the delivery of services.

It can be a real challenge in such circumstances to “bounce” the conversation up to appropriate levels of management, when the expectation and starting point—the mental model or framing for a project—is that it’s “just the website”, or “just an app”. In a hypothetical example, a conversation with a senior manager or executive team might look like: “Why are you talking to me about business models, when we just wanted a more usable website?”

The fact is taking a customer-centric view of the world, even when starting at a single digital interface with the organisation (e.g. a specific app or website) often surfaces all sorts of opportunities for organisational and operational improvement. As the McKinsey article notes:

While most companies say they know their customers, CDOs must make it a driving passion and core competency of the organization. With technology and customer habits changing so quickly, developing a deep and detailed view of customer behavior across all channels provides a common reference point in any business discussion and arms the CDO to challenge the status quo and make changes.

If the project doesn’t start with support as a transformational project, viewed in the light of it having an element of organisational change, it can either stall when it starts to expand its impact, or take a long time to build the requisite support to achieve the desired outcomes.

This is why I think the idea of a “C-level” digital (and/or design) officer is of value—it embeds these values and ideas at the executive team level to lead (and create an appropriate level of authority) to effect organisational-level change.

(As an aside, the many parallels between this line of argument and that of the “Chief Sustainability Officer” and the idea of Strategic CSR and shared value, are not lost on me—however, it’s hard enough to articulate the case for something like a digitally-centric business, let alone one that combines both of these ideas).

Regardless of where in the organisation this capability exists, it can be difficult to argue the business case for a transformational approach at the outset of a project. If we are truly agile and iterative in our approach, we won’t necessarily be able to fully quantify the anticipated benefits. We may not even know at the start of the process where the possibilities are richest, and thus who needs to be engaged (nor necessarily how they will be impacted/engaged).

I think this is why design-led initiatives focus so much on process. The process is what provides a grounding point amongst the ambiguity, a degree of confidence and solidity while difficult questions are asked. It also provides a framework for engagement of various stakeholders early in the undertaking, before we have full visibility on the nature of the change/project that will emerge from a truly participatory and iterative process.

Richards closes by noting:

When hiring a CDO, people often agonize over finding someone with experience that is just right. Yet we’ve found it’s the ability to lead transformation across an organization that is the true indicator of likely success in the role, and that requires a combination of hard and soft skills. … Leading an organizational transformation is messy work that requires masterful social skills to implement digital initiatives that create disruption by their very nature. Indeed, a CDO’s strong bias for action, bold thinking, and high tolerance for risk requires someone who can also manage the ruffled feathers, bruised egos, and flaring tempers that are common fallout from his or her activities.

Wise words, in my experience.