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I’ve been working with senior executives in medium sized companies who’ve found themselves challenged by the pace of digital change. Most of these organisations are turning over more than $100 million, have more than 300 staff and suddenly see the need for digital transformation.
Why only now? Well it’s simple. They are extremely pragmatic businesses who do what they can to compete, and have generally done it very well. They simply don’t have the resources, financial or otherwise, to allocate additionally to a huge transformation project. So it’s not been a priority, and they have been able to still grow, make more profit compete etc.
However, the proverbial muck is now 300mm away from the fan blades. Consumer behaviour has fundamentally changed and new – digitally driven – competitors have sprung up wherever there was a gap. Business as usual is no longer an option. And the companies I have worked with know it.
The process of helping them as they transform has been interesting. Most of the CEOs are hands on, let’s get it done individuals. In many cases I find myself dealing with the founders. They are almost always over 50, so are not digital natives. But this doesn’t stand in their way. They know what they want to achieve and have no issues walking through the complex details of the digital industry and its challenges. They are also happy to listen and take advice. They will listen and question for as long as it takes for them to understand.
If you go to the other end of the organisation you’ll find a bunch of people who are smart, keen and really happy to do what they are asked. Sure they are millennials, so they have some quirks, but generally they are a pleasure to work with. For a start they have an intuitive understanding of the digital world and they are quick to put themselves in the seat of the customer. They ask questions, talk to the end user, and if they are well organised they get things done.
If there is an issue in a company’s digital transformation, it can be found at the middle ring of people who aren’t digital natives and who have a stake in the status quo. It’s not about age, it’s about attitude. Transforming the way you operate and think about your company, your industry and your customer, not to mention where you fit in, can be a difficult journey. And it has to be said, there are some people who are so resistant to change that their scepticism and negativity see them end up on the wrong side of a a reorganisation process.
Those who actively seek to learn ways in which their decades of experience and knowledge can be applied in the digital space are like gold. And smart CEOs recognise their value.
Whether you’re a senior executive or a middle manager, these six steps will help you become that person who shines throughout your company’s digital transformation process and into the future. . .
So, you can’t catch up and there are a bunch of things younger people will just get and you might never really understand. But you can use your broad business knowledge to your advantage if you can build an understanding of the context in which the Internet impacts your industry or business. So start reading. Avoid books around specific skills, such as email marketing, and instead read titles like Tim O’Reilly’s WTF: The future and why it’s up to us. It puts the changes we are experiencing in context of the history of technology and outlines the challenges of transformation.
2. Understand Innovation
There is a lot of well-researched material about the challenges and issues of innovation. Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen is the architect of the term disruptive innovation and has written many books on the topic. They are all very readable and do a great job of providing a framework for thinking and doing. I personally found Competing Against Luck really useful.
It’s based on Christensen’s Jobs To Be Done theory, which holds that to create a product and/or service, you must first understand why your prospective customers will “hire” it. Put another way, what does the customer want to achieve with your product. I’ve used it many times to help frame an approach to thinking about things.
3. Understand process.
The big challenge with digital transformation is the fact there is no clear path forward. It’s all unchartered territory and understanding the process of Lean is a really useful way to think through what needs to be done. Eric Reis’ The Lean Start-up is a good primer. You should also understand a little about Agile as a process for getting things done.
While it’s more a vibe than a fixed process, it does offer a useful way to think about getting things done in a more effective way. Kim, Behr and Spafford’s The Phoenix Project is a novel about a business struggling with change and is a remarkably effective communication on the difference between getting things done and not.
4. Understand some Technical Stuff
One of the best books I ever read was TCP/IP for Dummies, which is a primer on the protocol that drives the Internet. It really does help to understand the basics of how everything fits together. You’ll never actually need this level of detail but it’s confidence building to have a strong sense of the basics.
5. Spend your own time re-skilling
Take responsibility for your own learning. No one is going to give you the time, training and money to go and re-skill. If you look at sites such as Coursera, Future Learn and other MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) the participants are overwhelmingly young people from all over the world learning new skills in their own time.
In a past company I worked in, whenever we found a new technology, we’d hand it to one of the keen young people. Two days later they would arrive bleary-eyed after long nights of learning and tell you all about it. No one is going to send you to a seminar to learn about stuff you should just know in your position and at your salary. There is so much out there to help you learn. You just need to get started.
6. Look inside yourself
If you find yourself saying any of the following things, you need to think about whether you are about to be the problem and not the solution.
Instead of: I’ve got 20 years experience in this industry
Perhaps: Let’s talk to some customers to see how they have changed
Instead of: My friends don’t use their phones to do that
Perhaps: Let’s really find out what our customers are doing with their phones
Instead of: I’m not on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc because I have real friends
Perhaps: Just get online on all these platforms and understand why 2 billion others are already there.
I was at a meeting with a senior executive of one of the worlds biggest technology service companies and he commented that experienced executives could revalue themselves because they could use their deep knowledge to navigate the unknown. Wise words. The stark reality is that you only have two choices. Find yourself navigating the challenges of late career redundancy, or be part of the future – and make it yours.
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