Digital transformation in a pandemic world: 4 questions to ask

COVID-19 has forced businesses of all sizes to reassess their digital transformation plans. Consider these key questions, IT leaders
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For many years, long-standing organizations have gradually moved towards digital, incrementally adapting to the changing behaviors of their customers. Now, the pandemic has fast-tracked the need to move to digital. Simply put, organizations must have a digital presence in order to stay relevant to customers and remain competitive in the marketplace.

Nimble, fast, and consistent

Setting the stage for  digital transformation requires visionary and consistent leadership that works with a clear goal – the “why” of the strategy – in mind.

Digital transformation requires  clear communication of the "why” of the strategy.

In today’s business climate, there’s less room for error than ever before. That means it’s essential for enterprise IT leaders to remain nimble and to think fast. Here are four thought starters to provoke and challenge your company’s approach to digital transformation.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

1. How can you "think small" during digital transformation?

“Think Small” was a famous advertising slogan for the Volkswagen Beetle. Even as many Americans upsized their cars in the 1950s, Volkswagen prompted people to reconsider their habits – a strategy that today might help many large companies stay in the game.

Smaller companies, which may be struggling to keep the lights on, should focus on now. This type of thinking is critical during times of great uncertainty. In a few months, the future will likely come into greater focus, and as clarity returns, so should long-term planning.

In practice, this breaks down differently for different types of businesses.

For example, IT product companies would benefit from focusing on improving their current offerings instead of expanding or adding to them. IT often has new initiatives such as new enterprise software, large upgrades, new equipment, new processes, and personnel. Instead of introducing more risk at this time, stick with what works for your organization.

Instead of introducing more risk at this time, stick with what works for your organization.

Service-based organizations should cater to the needs of existing clients – strengthening relationships with the customers they have rather than attempting to broaden their audience. Narrowing the focus will limit growth, but it will also promote financial and organizational stability for the short term. There’s a great deal of ambiguity in the market right now, and small, tactical movement allows time to course-correct as the world turns. For now, thinking short-term – or thinking smaller – reduces the risk of making bad decisions.

2. Do you have the tools required to excel?

Adopting the right tools has a trickle-down effect on process improvement. For instance, remote work becoming mainstream can greatly influence hiring practices and talent recruitment. Once a company has remote workers, the path to becoming fully digital becomes much clearer, and the tools to use more apparent. Specifically, if your organization uses tools and software that are not cloud-based, multi-user, and collaborative, consider finding alternatives.

3. Have you adopted a digital-first strategy?

Digital has historically been an afterthought – or at best complementary – to business strategy. But now that the world has changed and consumer behaviors have evolved, it’s essential to think digital-first. Enterprises must shift to meeting and servicing their customers online above offline.

The last few months have likely permanently changed our routines and habits. Transformation is another word for evolution – as in nature, to survive we must adapt.

This pandemic has forced many organizations to close physical locations and go completely remote. Connecting with prospects, customers, and partners online has shifted for all. Ultimately, however, it will give teams the opportunity to gain a much broader audience.

CIOs today are being challenged to change their mindset as the rules of the game shift. A common strategy is to seek outside counsel from a third party or an organization that specializes in a specific need. To avoid becoming entrenched in, and limited by, your current beliefs, regularly seek advice from your network of peers and challenge your own thinking.

To avoid becoming entrenched in, and limited by, your current beliefs, regularly seek advice from your network of peers and challenge your own thinking.

4. Are your teams aligned?

Salesforce’s State of Marketing report hits on an important point that few leaders had considered prior to COVID-19: marketing and IT team alignment. The report shares a disconnect between the two: IT leaders don’t believe they are aligned with the marketing team, while marketing leaders believe they are aligned with the IT team. Leaders need to ensure there is alignment throughout the organization, as well as a solid plan and framework to approach their digital transformation strategy.

Because marketing/product teams typically craft the strategy around how consumers perceive a brand and its products and services, misalignment between those who execute the vision can be particularly detrimental to the overall customer experience. Digitally, this manifests as load time performance issues and mountains of technical debt that can slow future development progress on even the simplest of features.

Alignment requires setting the tone, and that should start at the top. CIOs can help eliminate silos by clearly articulating the current and desired future state of the business and ensuring that every person understands this. COVID-19 has changed the way teams communicate and interact with each other: We can no longer rely on impromptu meetings with colleagues, whiteboards, and hallway conversations. Additionally, many of us are working asynchronously. Solid process around documentation and consensus is key to promoting alignment.

Everyone must be much more deliberate and intentional with communication. Creating documentation, establishing and enforcing policy, and ensuring buy-in are more important than ever.

Digital transformation has been happening around us – sometimes it’s been slow and steady, and other times (like now), it’s happened faster than we may feel comfortable with. These are unusual times, and they call for us to completely reimagine how we do business. Remember: Adapting is what helped our ancestors survive, and ultimately, we are far better off for it.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Tim Breslin is CTO of O3 World, a digital product agency. Over the years, he has worked in publishing, ad tech, and the startup world in leadership roles at organizations such as Digitas Health, Razorfish, The Onion, and Delphic Digital. Tim is a product-minded, operationally focused digital leader.