Fourteen years of Digital Transformation

My first recollection of what was to become Digital Transformation is somewhat hazy, but I remember a couple of events which have a timestamp.

In 2005, Tim O’Reilly wrote “What the hell is web 2.0“, an article of still unsurpassed clarity; if you haven’t read it, yet, stop and go read it.

Now, I’ll wait.

I liked it so much I started writing a series of blog posts, the first of which starts with a this comment:

the “Web2.0” moniker is something we have been developing a lot of experience over the last couple of years

allowing me to date my professional interest in the thing that today we all call Digital Transformation circa 2003, hence this post’ title.

I also remember our first large client(*), a multinational company in whose Italian sub we managed to find someone crazy enough to risk the budget he had for a project on an approach completely unproven. The project turned out to be extremely successful, won a whole truckload of awards and kept growing and growing. At some point, however, the need of the Client for our support diminished as, essentially, they had learned everything there was to learn and continued on their own.

Such is the life of Agencies.

This event notwithstanding, the relationship was and remained good, and we did many other projects together, albeit none ever was as ground-breaking as the one in 2003. Nine years later I left the Agency world and wrote two books (this and this) which are deeply rooted in these learnings: I assumed that, by then, my knowledge was not (only) mine anymore, since nowadays Digital Transformation consultants are more abundant than bartenders.

Fast forward to 2017, when I get a call from that same client, but from another country. The person who calls me is someone I had never met before, had never heard of the project we did in Italy; in fact he does not even know me, except for the fact he attended (and liked, obviously) a workshop I gave in Riga, Latvia and when his boss asked if he knew someone who could run a Digital Transformation Masterclass, he thought of me.

In preparing this session, we demanded the audience (a dozen people who are responsible for marketing and communications for that company in a certain region) what were the issues they were trying to address.

To my huge surprise, these were EXACTLY those they had in 2003: it’s like knowledge had not spread around at all; despite the roaring success of that first project, our approach never turned into a true best practice and was never widely adopted.

Questions included:

  • why should we be doing this?
  • who should we talk to?
  • what should we be talking about?
  • how do we establish meaningful though leadership?
  • how do we keep it alive?
  • how do we connect it to our Brand?
  • what if we’re not selling a product?
  • how do I engage the rest of the organization?
  • how do I know if I’m being successful?
  • what should I measure?

So while I am flattered that after all these years the same client in another country is asking for my help, even if just for some training, at the same time I am bothered because – despite my approach being correct – I failed to really make an impact even on a Client which fully experienced its success.

Perhaps I was too ahead of my time, perhaps my books are not engaging enough (the forced readers in my family tell me, no, they aren’t), perhaps the methodology is awaiting some complementary element which will make it truly understandable and, therefore, useful.

Being right is not even the beginning of the solution.


(*) sadly, the client won’t be mentioned. Unlike other cases, I am not cleared to do so, and it will remain unnamed.

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Digital Transformation Workshop

hurdleI will soon be inaugurating a new half-day workshop on Digital Transformation, kicking off in Munich (Germany) on july 10th.

(BTW, if you’d like to book me for one in your city, please email me)

Following a discussion with my longtime friend Ralf, this workshop has a different structure from the ones I have done in the past: Digital Transformation is likened to a road trip with a number of intermediate stops, and along the way there are detours and roadworks and other obstacles. The workshop helps the audience to correctly identify the root cause of each hurdle, suggesting ways to overcome them.

Each hurdle is caused by some typical organizational situation, to the point I have begun to actively look for them when they do not surface spontaneously, and have developed standard answers and suggestions to each of them.

To avoid making this post impossibly long, I have broken it down in individual posts, each dedicated to a specific Roadblock:

Roadblock #0: Loss of Control

RB0This is labeled number zero because it is a problem that surfaces way before anything is done. In fact, it’s often the reason why nothing gets done, so until you overcome this fear, any effort is doomed to fail.

Traditional marketing offered a lot in terms of top-down control: advertising is the dream of anally-retentive managers, but even the less control-oriented disciplines carried a lot of attention to the issue of control: you control the message, the environment, you control who to be interviewed by, you control the language.

If the worst comes to the worse, a big spender could alway choke an unfriendly media by boycotting it (and perhaps encouraging others to do the same).

The latter does not really happen, except in extreme cases and when it does, its effectiveness is highly dubious, but it works like the Emergency Eject button in a fighter plane: hit it and you’re off to safety. Reassuring, if extreme.

Well, in the brave new world none of that exist and – mind you – we’re not talking about something that may happen in the future, but of things that already past us. The digital (publishing) world still relies on (much lower) ad dollars to survive, but the non-publishing world never received ad dollars or if it does, it’s through the impenetrable and uncontrollable PageRank algo which determines what gets viewed and what not.

The fact that we don’t know that they are talking about us, does not mean that they are not so my suggestion is “Get over it, control is gone, and will never return”.

Once we free ourselves form the nostalgia of a long gone past, we can concentrate on how to manage this new situation. Because while Control may be gone forever, Management is here to stay, and this is what my methodology is all about.

Roadblock#1: No Harmony

WRB1hat does “harmony” mean?

Does it mean we sing the same words and notes, or does it mean the words and notes each of us sings go well together?

As anyone who sang in the shower knows, the answer is the latter; leaving the metaphor, our message must not change to uniform itself with the rest of the choir and sing from the same score.

Message originality must be preserved, but it must be tuned to the fact that there is a conversation already going on; when joining a group conversation at a party, any socially not inept person uses the first minutes to listen to what the conversation is about before chipping in. Of course if you’re already drunk by then you may not do this, and this is usually a sure sign you had a few too many.

The first step in my methodology calls for some reconnaissance, i.e. using the fantastic privilege that the vast majority of conversations in the digital world happen in writing for a tuning exercise: how are they talking about the topic we’re interested into? And who are “they”? Where to they go to find conversation partners? Are we (maybe) already in those conversation, despite our silence? Are our clients, employees, advocates and detractors already doing something to our Brand?

The end result of this phase is a so-called Ontology (in fact, looking at the chart representing it, my good friend Rod re-christened it “The Onion Chart”) where the topic is divided in sub-topics, their relative importance is measured and a hierarchy is established.

Experience shows Ontologies are relatively stable over time (of course, I am sure there will be counter examples) which means that a yearly refresh is usually enough.

For all the ink that was poured over automatic sentiment analysis software, while I am sure we will eventually get there (maybe using Cognitive Computing) I still think the human mind is the unsurpassed tool to perform this phase, its only problem being its scalability: going beyond the dimensions that can be analyzed by a single analyst in a reasonable time, requires the addition of an organizative layer in the form of someone who keeps the individual analysts in sync and makes sure the end result is a close approximation of reality.

That approximation however balances out with the fact that we do not rely on statistical techniques to ensure that the sample is representative (as for example they do with opinion polls) because we analyze the whole universe and also the fact that we observe (public !!!!) conversations without intervention, therefore avoiding the influence that sometimes biases polls.

Roadblock #2: Walking Alone

RB2Digital can be arcane, and this is the reason the “easy” solution is to hire a few guys who get it, and task them with the problem, so that you can forget about it and get back to business.

Why waste time to understand Social Networks, the sharing economy, virality? Hire someone who does!

Unfortunately this means not understanding the extent to which the world is becoming digital, not just Communications, or Marketing but the whole Society is being transformed in ways we could not imagine.

Digital Projects cannot be pigeonholed, but other non-specialist functions must be involved at the right time, with the right story and in way that are relevant to them.

Successful digital projects (usually starting in Marketing) involve progressively Communications, IT, Sales and – finally – the top management; each involvement step must have the right preparation, ask the right questions and involve all those who have a role. A promotional program to be fulfilled at the Point of Sale must be vetted by the person managing the Retail channel, to make sure it does not conflict with the existing incentive scheme.

As a result, truly successful digital projects are the result of involving rather than excelling: it must be everybody’s success, not just those “who get it”.

Roadblock #3: Big Data

RB3In digital, everything can be measured. In fact, data accumulate way faster than we can interpret.

To put it another way, there is so much data out there it’s easy to lose sight of the information.

Secondly, it’s not uncommon to fall for the trap of looking at the finger instead of the moon it’s pointing to: likes, shares, comments are all great metrics, but a properly designed project will track the impact on the business.

Nowadays the notion of Client Journey has become quite common, as each potential client moves from being unaware of our product or service, to being aware of it, to consider it for a purchase when the time comes, to use it and feed back its usage experience to us. Depending on the overall experience (and not just one tiny step in isolation) the same Client may move form the Indifferent state to become either an Advocate (powerfully promoting our offering to other potential Clients) or a Detractor (whose fearful force we must deal with).

Our program will HAVE to be designed in a way to capture each state change and linked to lever we can act upon to accelerate or decelerate a transition. It’s important that this is recognized at the very beginning and this approach baked into whatever we do, so that it’s then easy to spot the data that carry information and make decisions based on what the information says.

Roadblock #4: Wrong skill mix

RB4How is the ideal team made up?

In keeping with the general concept that this is not some arcane discipline reserved for a small group of privileged cognoscenti, the skill mix we need to have at hand is quite varied.

The list over the years has actually grown to include even more capabilities: sure, technical ones are there (you need people who “really” understand how this stuff works, but the most important thing is that these people are strong enough to push back when other want to achieve something that’s impossible.

You will need creativity, you will need someone to go find those nuggets of interesting contribution we can make to our target community. You will need someone who knows the route by heart and makes decisions for the team, but – not surprisingly – you also need someone who can navigate the complexity of your own organisation which, like any other organisation in the world, will resist change.

The success of the team must be an inclusive one, engulfing those that the project will sail by: nobody can be left behind, because there is nowhere to be left at. Going Digital is radical and irreversible.

Finally, the team may and will rotate people in and out depending on the moment: while you need the nutter who will bring up crazy ideas every second, you probably don’t when you are about to finalize the execution of an important phase.

Roadblock#5: No Leadership

TRB5his is the roadblock you find when you thought you had done it. Yeah, the project is firing on all cylinders, targets are being met, but you can’t complete the mission, because management won’t play.

There are many reasons why management won’t play: afraid of losing face, wrong demographics, shyness (can a CEO be shy? Of course s/he can !).

This can be somewhat difficult to manage, but of course we can train, brief and support our higher-ups. At the end of the day, however, they will have to walk the talk, and this can be a challenge, no matter how well prepared they are.

TH excellent news is that while it’s easy to screw up in the world of digital, fixing mistakes is also pretty easy: there are very few errors that cannot be fixed with a simple “I am sorry!”.

At the end of the day, courage is about doing what needs to be done, rather than doing it perfectly.