Those at the Top of the Mountain Didn’t Fall There*

The Top-Down Not-to-be-Denied Imperative of ‘Digital Transformation’

In recent years, CEOs have been increasingly assailed with analyst, journalist, and vendor clarion calls regarding the absolute imperative that their firms undergo a “digital transformation’.  

Accompanying this advice is more and more news and myriad examples of enterprises that have gone extinct over short periods of time due to a failure to heed the call.  

From manufacturing to retail to utilities to the financial industry to healthcare, there is not a single industry that is not affected. 

“Mass-extinction events don’t just happen for no reason. In the current extinction event, the causal factor is digital transformation.”  (our italics)

Why Digital Transformation is Now on the CEO’s Shoulders, McKinsey Quarterly Dec 2017

“When digital transformation is done right, it’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but when done wrong, all you have is a really fast caterpillar.”

George Westerman, Principal Research Scientist, MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy

“You can’t delegate Digital Transformation for your company… you and your executives have to own it! Executives need to engage, embrace and adopt new ways of working with the latest and emerging technologies”

Barry Ross, CEO and Co-Founder, Ross & Ross International


“It’s no longer the big beating the small, but the fast beating the slow”

Eric Pearson, CIO, International Hotel Group (IHG)

“The only wrong move when it comes to Digital Transformation is not to make any move at all.” 

Didier Bonnet, Managing Partner Capgemini Consulting

We stand today in the midst of both enormous opportunity and a corresponding maelstrom of required learning, business adaptation, and perpetual creativity. Since 2000, over 50 percent of Fortune 500 companies have ceased to exist. Acquisition, merger, bankruptcy. Goodbye DVD rental brick-and-mortar Blockbuster, hello online mega-video source Netflix. Goodbye hard to hail taxi cabs, hello trackable Uber. 

Organizations that are not extinct are all the same in peril.  On-line and ready to deliver Amazon is a growing threat to big-box Walmart which itself caused the extinction of thousands of smaller retail and distribution firms. Mainstream television channels worldwide (ABC, NBC, CBS, BBC, TF1, RAI…) continue to lose audience to pay-cable while pay-cable loses revenue to wireless devices. This chain of challenges was sparked by technological opportunities that have led to disruption of existing business norms and commercial expectations. This disruption inevitably pushes every organization to a fork in the road:  survival or extinction.

In his Discourse on Method in 1637René Descartes offered us one of the most compelling hypotheses of human existence:  Cogito, ergo sum.  I think, therefore I am.

If this thought is applied to any of today’s enterprises, it would have to be amended to: Transformo, ergo superesse.  Transform, therefore survive. 

In more common parlance, this is often expressed thusly:  Uber yourself before the competition Ubers you.

How CEO’s Can Turn “Fear of Change” into “Love of Transformation”

While software vendors and consulting firms offer various roadmaps, we offer herein a more generalized guide of initial dance steps that we recommend be followed by any CEO who is convinced of the transformation imperative.

Step 1:  Transform Yourself.  Get informed. Break it down. “Digital” is not something you need to understand intimately. If you can understand the basic inter-relationships of various assets (such as how Big Data provides necessary raw material for Machine Learning) and how each of the assets can provide value to your organization, you will be able to master the requisite CEO transformation dance steps.  

Your learning curve cannot normally be overcome with only the help of your existing in-house staff as they will probably not have the experience (or even the ambition) inherent to successful transformation. You will thus likely require outside assistance via consultants, advisors, and in some cases peer mentoring. For the latter case, understanding how peers have successfully gone through a transformation effort provides the context that is a requisite to deep appreciation of the journey as well as the destination. One sentence that you will certainly hear is “We questioned everything.”  

Step 2:  Shed Distractions

While assuring that business interests are continually driving your efforts, leave the “digital” details to your CIO or your CTO or, even better, assign a Chief Digital Officer whose role is to guide your organization from its “analog” state to a “digital” state through the deployment of new technologies. 

Two impediments to avoid:  Vendor hype and buzzwords. 

A recent television commercial played endlessly in the United States included this dialog:

A tech-vendor rep natters to a gaggle of prospects as they tour a huge hangar area filled with technical tools, large screens, keyboards, servers, white boards. “This is a modern software factory, a hub of digital transformation. This is what you build to compete, where insight drives experience, where automation drives better apps faster, where Agile isn’t just a buzzword, it’s a way of life…security, strong yet frictionless, all working together at scale. It’s about moving to new from old.”

The only sentence in that spiel that is not buzz-laden is the last.

Bottom line:  seek out consultants, conferences, and guides that do not require techno-translators and who are devoid of hype. 

In a recent interview with Enterprise Alliance, here is how Mico Yuk, a global leader in business intelligence and data visualization, summarized her approach:

Mico Yuk:  There are three inter-related barriers that need to be overcome. The first is unsurprisingly a fear of change.  Fear of change is augmented by a fear of what they do not understand. And finally, business leaders are daunted by how difficult digital transformation appears to be. 

Once these fears are addressed, the second barrier is that business leaders have little to no idea of where they should start. They need to be guided to the first step and then a second, and a third, and onward. 

Enterprise Alliance:   What can you best do to help get past these barriers of understanding and help them get over the fear?

Mico Yuk:  I tell them a story and the hero of the story resembles them. As the path to transformation then becomes relevant to them, we can eradicate three other fears that tend to crop up:  loss of time, loss of money, and insurmountable difficulty. 

Story telling is how it begins and with the right guidance, combining technical knowledge with acute business acumen, you will become increasingly proficient; your fear will turn to acceptance and your acceptance will evolve to a full embrace.   

Step 3:  Initiate Organizational Transformation. At base, the goal is to vastly improve the way you work and, most pointedly, the way you attract and keep your clientele. To envision dramatic change (not incremental) requires senior staff to also become informed and then to actively collaborate in the stories. These stories need to be shared, repeated, endlessly honed, constantly improved. There must be waves of happy endings that lead to continued creativity and satisfaction. Such activity is not project-oriented; it is a life style.  

Throughout, you must be ever aware of the speed at which these technologies evolve and that the learning curve is perpetual. Each organizational destination is a stepping stone, not a final resting place. Be aware as well that digital transformation is vast and there are no renaissance people who have mastered all of its folds and dimensions. In similar fashion, your leadership members will each have somewhat unique learning curves and directions. Some will re-learn, from A to Z, the process of business design. Others will explore new analytics methods and possibly data visualization wherein actionable intelligence derived from data trends, patterns, and correlations can be more easily recognized by business leaders and strategists. 

Digital transformation, at an organizational scale, is not easy. If it were easy, all of your competitors would have already succeeded at it and you would also be on the verge of extinction.

It takes time and it takes patience. So how is digital transformation going to succeed in an environment in which CEOs and their C-level cohorts are slaves to quarterly results? Improve the story, demonstrate a happier ending.

Postscript: If you leave it all up to IT, nothing will operate but everything will work

Of the many mistakes made by clients and vendors in the last quarter century of enterprise applications efforts, perhaps the single most damaging has been the near abandonment of such important initiatives by CEOs and their business leader cohorts. Viewing the acquisition of ERP, Client Relationship Management (CRM), HR/Payroll, and the rest of a suite of business applications as “a technical undertaking”, business leaders ceded the baton to their CIOs, CTOs, and hosts of IT engineers with results that spanned from disappointing to devastating.

Business leaders, listening to technical hype, simply failed to appreciate that the true subject of enterprise applications is “business process excellence” and that information technology is merely the underlying enabler. Projects that should have been business-led were too often authored and steered and driven into the ditch by technocrats. 

In 2019, the stakes of a variety of initiatives viewed collectively as “digital transformation” are exponentially higher.  While implementation of enterprise software affected the job description of everyone in an enterprise, digital transformation will alter the entire career path of everyone in the enterprise.

This time around, CEOs, you must maintain a firm grip on the transformational wheel. You must be the story teller. Tell it well. Tell it often. We’ll be listening.  

[*the origins of the title quote are murky; many sources say “anonymous”, some attribute it to Marcus Washling.]

Enterprise Africa Summit 2019

Too many vendors tells CEO’s “how” to acquire ‘digital transformation’.  At this unique two-day event, CEOs are taught to determine “why” they should follow that path and what steps they need to take to succeed. No vendor hype. No buzzwords. 

“Imagine attending a tech event where you understand every spoken word”.

For more information: https://enterprisealliance.io/events/enterprise-africa-summit/about/