The danger of digital transformation without a capability strategy

Nobody is new to digital anymore. It is merely the water in which we swim; a normal, everyday part of our lives. Or so I hear. I also hear, in equal measure, about the pain and frustration that organisations face trying to drive growth, competitive edge and value from their digital transformation initiatives. In these examples, I don’t get the impression that there is much front crawl taking place in clear pristine waters, rather a lot of splashing about in muddle puddles, or worse, doggy paddle in the Atlantic.

The intangibility of what digital means makes it essential for any organisation looking to drive digital transformation to first define what it wants digital to deliver for it and its customers. Only after this can you plan what people you need and in what structure.

Digital rarely fits into a pre-defined organisational box

Some digital roles work best in discrete digital functions with dedicated teams, others maybe be more subtle nuances that require a behavioural shift in a current role. To add complexity, digital typically fails to sit nicely across global structures. Quite often technical orientated environments can leverage significant economies of scale from geographic and functional consolidation in a central resource. Conversely other digital disciplines, for example social media and content marketing, require discrete local insight in order to be effective. What is immediately obvious however is that the long term solution is rarely going to be a small team of isolated experts; which brings me back to swimming.

If we are now swimming, it implies that we were previously doing something else, let’s say walking. Swimming, by its very nature is an immersive experience. You can’t really swim and continue to walk on dry land at the same time. Recruiting a few specialists is putting a toe in the water. Launching a Centre of Excellence can make a big splash and launch a few bow waves, but as many organisations are finding, they also have to tendency to sink rather rapidly. If you are going to ‘do digital’ then it is a complete and full commitment, the whole organisation needs to be able to swim.

Achieving this is a significant undertaking and requires a comprehensive review of the organisation’s inherent operating capabilities. Many organisations fail to develop a capability strategy to support their digital plans. Typically this stems from the fact that the ‘Digital People’ try to do everything. They are the experts and consequently there are expected to and want to deliver. But if the whole organisation is swimming now, simply having everybody in the water is not going to deliver sustained success. Rather your digital leader needs to be the salty sea captain who can chart the digital waters whilst his or her crew are rolling out the swim lanes installing the life buoys and coaching those in the training pool.

All organisations now acknowledge the importance of digital...

...but digital initiatives are at risk because many have failed to take the step back and review their organisational capability to deliver against their desired digital output. At Brand Learning we have developed a digital capability maturity model that helps organisations complete this analysis. Using our tool we recently conducted research. At first it looks like good news. Six out of ten directors (57%) say their business has seen an emergence of a new culture which integrates new digital behaviours with its existing company heritage. These companies demonstrate an increasingly mature attitude to risk, recognising the need to change ahead of market disruption.

However, here’s the rub: more than a third (35%) also say their digital change still relies on hobbyists and passionate individuals and that they have no specialist digital people. In fact, only 4% would call their employees genuine Digital Natives: agile and entrepreneurial people who are both passionate about customer value and embracers of technology.

The survey spoke with 42 HR directors at some of the world’s biggest household brands and suggests that digital still seems to be handled in silos and minority pockets. Crucially, people are only one of the pillars of capability on which digital maturity is built. People come and go, but businesses looking to develop genuine long term capabilities that embed digital across the organisation need to tackle the building of digital capabilities more broadly. Digital capability building must go beyond upskilling alone and be rooted in corporate objectives, organisational structure, processes and culture.

It quickly becomes obvious that sustained digital success – and maturity – is directly attributable to the broader capability foundations that the C-Suite function puts in place. It’s clichéd to say as much. However, it is the leadership’s role to drive the overarching long term capability of the organisation. The C-Suite now acknowledges that we are in digital waters, so it has to ensure that everybody can swim.

Over the last 15 years Brand Learning has worked with over 160 of the world’s leading organisations, conducting capability analysis and establishing capability strategies that help those organisations achieve their objectives. Combining this experience with the dedicated digital expertise of our digital team, we can help you identify digital capabilities gaps and integrate them into the broader capability framework of your organisation. Contact us to hear more.


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