Digital transformation: 5 tips to keep pace with your customers

2020 increased the speed at which customers adopt new digital-fueled technologies and products. Here's how leaders can help organizations keep pace with that change
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With the global pandemic happening during a period of rapid digitalization, two forces of disruption coalesced. Businesses need to pivot as consumers have become more connected, workplaces have been restructured, and logistical challenges must be overcome.

The use of technology has been a key differentiator in how well companies have adapted to the change.  That's one reason why, according to IDC research, global spending on digital transformation products and services continued to grow in 2020.

But bridging what our company calls the digital gap - which arises when consumer behavior evolves faster than most businesses evolve  – requires more than just new technology. Here are five pieces of advice on how to outpace change and become a catalyst for transformation at your company.

1. Define the end-line vision

Many organizations fail to fully leverage new technologies and bridge the digital gap because they lack a defined vision of where they want to be. They have short-term goals but no overarching end-line vision. The result is minor improvements and tweaks to processes, but the organization is always playing catch-up and is vulnerable to disruption from more agile competitors.

[ Are your digital transformation metrics up to date? Read also: 10 digital transformation metrics to measure success in 2021. ]

You need a vision of where you want to be, with clear, tangible goals and objectives. Transformation is about the value you wish to provide to your clients and customers, the technologies that will help you achieve those goals, and how you measure performance along the way.

Without knowing the current state of your company and a clear vision of where you are headed, any talk of evolution and change is empty rhetoric. When you have measured the baseline, the next step is to consider the short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals that will take you closer to your vision and help you bridge the digital gap.

2. Get top-management support

Becoming digitally mature is a company-wide initiative that will unavoidably cause discomfort. All change results in disruption. It’s how that disruption is managed and how the organization gets comfortable with change that matters.

Successful transformation requires buy-in from top management. The C-suite needs to show leadership and clearly communicate the objectives and expectations of the digital strategy throughout the organization. The CEO, CMO, and others need to work together and make a collaborative effort to transform. It’s not something that can be delegated to IT or another department.

Management needs to champion the digital strategy and highlight how the change will benefit stakeholders and deliver on what is promised – a better understanding of customers, collaborative ways of working, and more efficient processes.

3. Think people first, technology second

Simply handing your workforce new digital tools to work with is not enough. You need to make sure your team has the capabilities and know-how to use the new digital infrastructure. As with any disruptive initiative, potential resistance to change needs to be accounted for. That’s why it’s vital to get the backing of top-level management and bring the workforce with you on the journey.

The digital skills gap is also a real issue that needs to be addressed. How will you acquire the talent you need, and how will you ensure existing employees can become adept users?

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

For many companies, addressing the digital skills gap should be divided into short-term and mid-term goals. Your organization is competing for a small in-demand pool of talent, and the need to adapt quickly is pressing. Outside partnerships and collaboration can help get initiatives moving and provide quick access to talent. At the same time, developing in-house training programs and recruitment should be a priority.

4. Transform based on client and consumer digital adoption understanding

The last 12 months have seen a considerable increase in the usage of digital channels and technologies to work, connect, and shop. Many of the digital habits picked up during the pandemic are here to stay, and expectations are higher than they were pre-pandemic.

There is no return to a bygone age. Businesses need to bridge the digital gap by transforming based on their customers’ digital adoption. You should align your transformation goals with your customers’ needs and focus on how you can provide value throughout the entire customer experience. That requires a deep understanding of your customers, preferences, digital adoption, and expectations.

For example, customer service has seen a significant shift to digital channels. In 2018, 64 percent of people would rather message than call a business. With the widespread adoption of digital channels, that number is sure to have increased over the past 12 months. In 2021, digital customer service interactions are expected to increase by a further 40 percent

People want to be able to contact businesses through the channel they prefer. It’s on companies to ensure they have the digital infrastructure to meet that demand.

People want to be able to contact businesses through the channel they prefer. It’s on companies to ensure they have the digital infrastructure to meet that demand.

5. Integrate data and AI into all processes

We’re in a new age of technological development. In previous decades, new technology was developed and deployed to perform a function until it needed to be upgraded or replaced. Now, new technologies like AI are continually learning and using data to become more efficient and effective.

The real opportunity for organizations is to embed these technologies into business processes to gain additional efficiencies. AI can be integrated with other enterprise software, analyzing data, and making decisions minute by minute and day by day.

This expands the boundaries of automation. More advanced repetitive tasks can now be taken care of by operationalized AI. The scope of what automation can achieve is much broader, facilitating a more powerful transformation and allowing for exciting edge cases.

Taking bold steps forward

Bridging the digital gap is only possible with a broad, all-encompassing transformation. Technology alone is not enough, and a siloed approach is doomed to fail. Leaders need to take ownership, ensure buy-in at all levels, and pursue a transformative vision of where the company will be and how it will improve the lives of its employees and customers.

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

Miguel Machado
Miguel Machado is CEO and co-founder at The Keenfolks, global digital gap management agency, serial digital & AI entrepreneur.