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Five Keys to Driving Successful Initiatives as a Digital Expert

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October 23, 2020
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6 minutes
Lynn Hunt
Lynn's diverse perspectives on business stem from her extensive experience as a management consultant - her role as a beloved wife, mother and grandmother adds further depth to her insights.

Anyone who has been consulting for any length of time will know that recommending changes is one thing. But, to make the change happen is far more complicated than you ever anticipated. This is true whether you are a traditional consultant working for a large firm or a freelancer working from a digital expert platform.

The success statistics for change initiatives are not encouraging. Research shows that fewer than a third of transformation efforts improve company performance and sustain those gains. The success rate for digital transformation seems to be even lower at about 16% - and this is even in so-called tech companies.

I have a suspicion that these statistics – at least on the digital front - are about to improve significantly. The COVID-19 crisis has brought technology capability to the forefront of thinking in most companies around the world. Companies probably have never before been as open to digital transformation as they are now.

Despite this, there is, unfortunately, no shortcut to driving successful initiatives. The bad news for even top digital experts is that their expertise may not be enough. The truth is that much of their projects' success will come from what happens inside the client company. Companies must take specific steps to ensure the implementation of solutions provided by the digital consultant.

Research is showing that the critical factors required within organizations include:

1. Having The Right People With The Right Skills

Investing in talent, especially at the top of the organization, is a prerequisite for successful digital transformation. Having tech-savvy people in leadership positions and also in specific project roles is critical. Some organizations appoint a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) or a Chief Analytics Officer (CAO). Often, this person has to the change effort on a full-time basis. One research finding is that companies that appoint such an expert are 1.6 times more likely to successfully implement digital changes.

You may ask what you, as an outside consultant, can do about this? In my view, the first thing is to be aware of how important it is for the success of your project. Another is to design your intervention in such a way that you can advise the client appropriately. As an aside, digital expert platforms are a great source of the expertise that companies need, either for the short term or even on a more permanent basis. You can perhaps guide the client towards them as a solution.

We started this article by giving failure statistics for digital transformations. Unfortunately, no matter how much of a digital expert you may be, the client organization's skill and commitment levels will ultimately decide how well you can implement your ideas. The best digital consultants continuously monitor and work to influence these elements.

"Business leaders are saying that they've accomplished in 10 days what used to take them 10 months. The crisis has forced every company into a massive experiment in how to be more nimble, flexible, and fast." - Kate Smaje, Senior Partner, McKinsey Digital

2. Embracing Speed And Agility

Until fairly recently, executives said that cost-saving was their top consideration for introducing digitalization. That has changed. Today, business competitiveness is the driver. Linked to competitiveness is speed. A successful digitization project would be reflected in the company quickly adapting to new technologies and responding to learnings from data and analytics.

Some other significant changes included increased migration to cloud-based systems. Moreover, increased spending on data security, advanced technologies for decision-making, and an increase in outsourcing practices. Simultaneously, automation, artificial intelligence, and advanced analytics have been applied within operations and supply chain processes.

Research undertaken by McKinsey highlights the speed at which some of these changes occurred compared to what would have happened if the pre-crisis pace of adaptation had been maintained:

  • Remote working and/or collaboration: 10,5 days against an expected 454 days. This is an acceleration factor of 43.
  • Advanced technologies in business decision-making: Approximately 26 days against an expected 600+ days – an acceleration factor of 25.
  • Migration to the cloud took about 23 days, and introducing outsourcing practices took about 27 days – all against pre-crisis expectations of more than 500 days.

One of the biggest learnings for organizations from this pandemic must surely be how vital technology is for business survival. A second learning is that speed of implementation is critical. Actions taken during lockdowns have shown companies what is possible – it is unlikely that they will return to previous laborious approaches.

The challenge for digital experts now will be to maintain the momentum and urgency. They will have to demonstrate speed and flexibility and introduce agile work practices that help companies revisit and rearrange their priorities more often than before.

3. Empowering People To Work In New Ways

People's empowerment has become something of a cliché. However, it is a requirement for a successful digital transformation. A typical mistake made by technical experts is introducing a digital change without ensuring that people understand what has changed in the way they work.

The project design should ensure that people at all levels within the organization are given clear roles and responsibilities for transformation initiatives and are held accountable. At the same time, shared responsibility and accountability are required from teams and larger units.

A variety of mechanisms can be introduced to support new ways of working. These might include open work environments or cross-functional teams with end-to-end accountability. Employees at all levels should be encouraged to express and try out their ideas as part of the transformation process, test prototypes, and collaborate across traditional barriers.

Top digital experts will be mindful of this need to empower people to work in new ways and design their change management interventions to facilitate it.

Digitizing Day-To-Day Processes

This success factor is similar to the previous one. A significant digital change must be supported by changes in how business is done on a day-to-day basis. Digitizing work processes and procedures increases the chance of transformation success in another area of the company.

Digitization might include tools:

  • To facilitate analysis of complex information or to make information more easily accessible
  • For rapid testing of prototypes with customers
  • To enable self-service for employees and/or customers

Also, it is useful to update standard operating procedures to incorporate digital methods and technologies. Performance management systems should include the evaluation of newly-required behaviors.

Digital experts undertaking transformation projects would do well to include recommendations for digitizing day-to-day processes to sustain more extensive changes.

4. Changing Executive Mindsets

Executives can no longer think in terms of business as usual. Where before they might have thought about technology for new products and innovation, they should now be applying their minds to how technology can improve the company's core business.

They also need to be bolder and faster. The companies reporting increased turnover and profitability despite the COVID-19 lockdowns. They gave attention to filling tech talent gaps through training or acquiring new staff – often outsourced from digital expert platforms rather than permanent.

Communication of change has always been important. However, an interesting finding is that communicating changes in the organization seems to be more effective via technological means, including interactive social media platforms.

All of this represents a real opportunity for digital consultants, especially those working through digital expert platforms. They have the technical skills themselves and the expertise to implement them in client companies. They can do this as external consultants or even as temporary or contingent staff for periods, exploiting the trend towards outsourcing and also epitomize the new way of work - agile, independent and technology-driven.

Achieving Digital Transformation Success

The best digital consultants will want to make a difference to their client organizations and ensure that their digital transformation projects are sustainable. Hopefully, they will be mindful of the five keys described in this article and will move beyond the purely technical aspects of their work to include steps to change their clients' mindsets and actions.

The COVID-19 crisis has opened enormous opportunities for independent and freelance digital consultants and digital expert platforms. This does not mean that they will have a free ride – but the chance of successful transformation projects is undoubtedly more predictable than it was before.