7 Questions to Ask Before Your Next Digital Transformation

October 04, 2019

7 Questions to Ask Before Your Next Digital Transformation

unsplash-logo Jon Tyson


Although digital investment is almost unquestionably the right course of action for most firms, organisations still struggle to create the desired results. Estimates of digital transformation failures range from 66% to 84%. Such a high failure rate isn’t surprising, as leaders are trying to create entirely new competencies and wedge them into an organisation with strong legacy cultures and operating models.

While most executives are pros at managing change, digital transformation is a much deeper change than the usual process or system update. Of course, digital technology can be used to improve or augment existing ways of operating, but it also opens entirely new ways of doing business based on digital networks like Uber, Airbnb, Yelp, and the Apple Developer Network — which is where a great deal of the digital value resides.

So as you navigate your own digital transformation, we recommend beginning with a few questions that go deeper than “what talent do you need” or “how much money will you spend” and probe broader organisational readiness.

Is this a digital upgrade or a digital transformation? Most companies target digital transformation and end up with digital upgrades, using digital technology to increase efficiency or effectiveness at something your firm is already doing. For example, increasing your marketing spend for digital channels or upgrading internal communication systems. On the other hand, a digital transformation occurs when you use digital technology to change the way you operate, particularly around customer interactions and the way that value is created—for example, Apple using its developer network to create software for its devices.

If you discover that you are actually embarking on an upgrade instead of a transformation, ask yourself if that will be sufficient to maintain competitiveness when business models based on digital networks create market valuations four times higher than the rest.

Are you really bought in, and is your team? Digital technology and business models are on the radar of every executive, and there is an expectation that most companies must change to keep up. However, a situation that we have seen over and over again is a leadership team trying to lead a digital transformation that they aren’t particularly passionate about.

We all have core beliefs about what creates value in the world, and these shape the way we allocate our time, attention, and capital. Most leaders have decades of experience focusing on assets like plants, real estate, inventory, and human capital. Shifting away from these habitual priorities takes self-reflection and openness, and often a concerted effort to build new patterns in thought and action.

Are you prepared to share value creation with your customers? The latest technology-enabled business model, network orchestration, is premised on the fact that companies can allow customers and other networks to share in the process of value creation. Uber relies on a network of drivers; Airbnb relies on a network of property owners; eBay relies on a network of sellers. These networks are essential to the organisations, and, by accessing external assets, these firms are able to achieve outstanding profitability.

Sharing the workload seems like an obviously winning proposition, but many leaders are hesitant to relinquish control and rely on a network that lies outside of their chain of command. Working with these external groups requires new, co-creative leadership styles, but also can allow organisations to tap into enormous pools of capabilities and under-utilized resources.

Have you put walls around your digital team? A digital upgrade requires a well-defined team with a narrow scope. A digital transformation requires a team with a cross-functional mandate and strong support. This becomes an important point because organisations usually do not change their internal structure as a part of digital transformation and so the teams working on these transformations get slotted into the existing structure. Where the team actually “sits,” both physically and in the org chart, can affect their ability to influence the cross-functional groups integral to real digital transformation. We have seen many companies limit the progress of digital by basing their team in marketing or IT.

Do you know how to measure the value you intend to create? You manage what you measure. For most organisations, the focus is on physical capital (for making and selling goods) or human capital (for delivering services). These firms track inventory, productivity, utilization, and other traditional Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

Digital transformations don’t always affect the KPIs a company is already measuring. Of course, the end goal of a transformation is to affect revenue, profitability, and investor value. Along the way, however, it is useful to track intermediate indicators. For many digital network companies, this includes sentiment and engagement as well as network co-creation and value sharing. For example, when judging the success of the Developer Network, Apple can measure the number of developers creating apps for their app store, the amount of money generated by those apps that Apple shares with their community, and customer satisfaction with apps.

Are you ready to make the tough calls about your team? There is an old saying: “It is easier to change the people than to change the people.” Said another way, sometimes a new vision requires new people to create it. For many, the digital people you need on your team and on your board don’t reside in your organisation—at all, or at least not in the right quantity. Many of your current staff will be dedicated to doing what they have always done and will create resistance and roadblocks for change.

To make room for your digital transformers, make the tough calls early on regarding your team and board. In our experience, nearly half of your team and board will need to turn over during the course of a successful digital transformation. Although painful, it’s really a good thing for the organisation—creating a balance between the old and new.

Will you be ready to spin off your digital business? Sometimes the upstart inside the organisation becomes bigger and more valuable than the parent that gave birth to it—or risks not attracting the right talent or suffering turf wars between digital and legacy. (A great resource on this is The Second Curve by Ian Morrison.) Often, separation is required to enable both the parent and child to continue growth.

Google is an expert at both creating new ventures and enabling them to grow; witness their recent reorganisation into Alphabet to enable each of its major businesses to pursue their own potential (including Google and YouTube). In other organisations, the new, digital business will actually absorb and improve its parent.

Transforming an organisation is difficult, and the research proves it. But it is still worth doing. Forrester’s assessment is that by 2020 every business will become either predator or prey. As a leader, you likely already know the basics of managing change, but a digital transformation goes deeper, and thus makes different demands on you, your team, and your organisation. In return, however, you have the opportunity to invest in the most profitable and valuable business models the market has seen.


This article was originally written by Barry Libert, Megan Beck and Yoram (Jerry) Wind. They also co-authored the book The Network Imperative: How to Survive and Grow in the Age of Digital Business ModelsBarry Libert is a board member and CEO adviser focused on platforms and networks. He is chairman of Open Matters, a machine learning company. Megan Beck is Chief Product and Insights Officer at OpenMatters, a machine learning startup, and a digital researcher at the SEI Center at Wharton. Yoram (Jerry) Wind is the Lauder Professor and a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in Philadelphia. Full credit goes to HBR, who published this article over a year ago. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.

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