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Industry Contributor 1 Sep 2021 - 5 min read

Digital transformation is painful, disruptive and lengthy – and it doesn’t start with technology

By Teresa Sperti - Founder & Director - Arktic Fox

Strong brands are built on cultures of innovation. Yet as the world rushes headlong into digital transformation, many struggle to apply their product innovation to their own structures and will fail to truly transform as a result. Think long and hard before diving in – and measure results in years, not quarters. Here’s where to start.

The whole world seems to be racing for ‘digital transformation’. I’ve been lucky enough to previously work with an organisation that delivers physical transformation, as Chief of Marketing, Product & Data for World Vision, which changes lives and communities, profoundly, over years, decades and lifetimes, often with extremely limited resource.

Yet while World Vision had been hugely successful in its ability to transform communities, trying to apply those same principles to its own organisational transformation proved more challenging.

FMCG brands often face the same conundrum. Most are built on cultures of innovation and yet when it comes to digital adoption – let alone transformation – many are struggling to materially shift gears.

The problem is many are failing to truly adapt – pouring millions of dollars into efforts to do so but consistently falling short of the desired outcome. What I saw and experienced during my time in the field has reinforced just how hard change environments are and what it truly takes to steer the ship to higher ground.

Transformation starts with people, not tech

Few brands have really grasped what it takes to be able to truly transform and most organisations don’t have the true desire for it. Often the true threat of standing still isn’t understood. Past successes breed complacency, stifling appetite to move forward. 

By the time reality dawns, there is a scramble. Panic clouds decision-making and effective planning. As a result, businesses end up addressing the wrong issues, overlooking those that most need to be addressed through transformation.

Technology is often seen as a silver bullet with too little emphasis placed on people. People will fundamentally determine if transformation efforts will succeed or fail. Little is done to truly shift ingrained mindsets and behaviours that stifle collaboration and innovation. 

Often teams are created to accelerate change and isolated from the rest of the organisation. This only defers the need to drive change to certain teams and reinforces that the rest of the organisation can get on with business as usual, without acquiring the requisite skills for operating in a new environment. If that’s the case, how can transformation ever actually work?

While aid organisations like World Vision understand how long it takes for change to bear fruit in the real world, businesses are cut off at the knees by short-termism, prioritising what is perceived as progress rather than leaning into the foundational aspects of transformation.

By definition, transformation is hard. It requires a total strategic rethink, exhaustive planning and execution. Every member of staff has to transform too. There is inertia, pain, pushback and setbacks along the way – and results can take a long time to move the needle.

But if some of the world’s poorest communities can fundamentally change their communities for the better with few resources and often extremely modest support, then surely infinitely better resourced businesses can rethink how they are approaching digital transformation.

Where to start:

To genuinely transform successfully businesses need to:

1. Step back and diagnose where they are today: Take stock of where we are now and where we need to get to before diving in. Understand key issues and obstacles at a foundational level across people, process and technology that will slow progress overtime. Think about ways to clear those hurdles before they arise.

2. Build digital knowledge and leadership within executive ranks:  Leaders play a critical role in championing change and leading by example. But today many aren’t equipped to do that – including many marketing professionals. Leaders from marketing, IT, HR and others need to collectively build their digital skillsets and knowledge and stop relying on one or two leaders. If we live in a digital world then transforming digitally is everyone’s responsibility. Don’t shirk it.

3. Prioritise the change agenda: Momentum is won and lost based on focus and attention.  Transformation agendas are often planned independently of BAU activities – which means resources are not freed up to invest time, effort and firepower toward the initiatives that matter. If it is important, we need to make space for it, which means reducing oxygen for other activities.  

4. Invest in people: Re-skilling and re-tooling is evolutionary reality. We can’t expect to hire our way to change. Talent is thin on the ground and in high demand and often the new talent becomes worn down by pushing against the grain of a wider workforce resistant to change. The broader workforce must be engaged, taken along the journey and given the opportunity to build their skills and knowledge to play their role. Without the entire organisation on board, transformation will fail.

5. Manage expectations: Organisations need to shift their collective mindset, acknowledging that change will take a number of years – and that reality must be reflected in plans, ambitions and measures of success. Transformation will rarely align with quarterly reporting cycles.

6. Stop looking at technology as the solution: Yes it plays a critical part – but organisations must stop being fixated on technology as the solution to every problem. Otherwise they risk making an expensive mistake, throwing good money after bad, and not transforming at all.


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Teresa Sperti

Founder & Director - Arktic Fox

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