5 Questions on Digital Transformation with Brian Solis

Back in April, we attended Social Media Marketing World in San Diego. Aside from the amazing food and beautiful scenery, we had the pleasure of taking in some really fantastic keynotes.

One of our favourites, hands down, was Brian Solis.

Brian Solis is a principal analyst at Altimeter Group, a Prophet company. He is also an award-winning author, prominent blogger/writer, and keynote speaker. A digital anthropologist Brian examines how technology has influenced and transformed businesses around the world.

I caught up with Brian for a quick chat around design thinking, digital transformation, and the importance of culture in the workplace.

HK: Why is it necessary for enterprises to design their customer experience? How has this changed in the last 10 years?

There’s this idea that companies need to change because the times are changing.

But then there are those innovative companies who want to be be more beloved by a new generation of customers. Understanding what it takes to be successful in that regard means that you need to understand how people (your customers) are different than you previously thought. But also, it’s taking those insights and applying them to the infrastructure of your organization so that you can work differently and compete differently.

When you invest in technology and expertise for reasons other than being competitive, it shifts the perception and definition of success. This shift in perspective shifts even to what it means to “work.” It gives way for a new culture that’s entirely human-centered.

And yet, there are so many companies who fail to see that opportunity.

HK: On that note, what would you identify as the biggest obstacle to enterprises who maybe want to go through a digital transformation, but are getting stuck?

One of the biggest obstacles is the sheer operational structure of organizations. They’re built on management infrastructures, which by nature are designed to support and reinforce existing paradigms. Within those management structures, you have a very human system of governance, which includes politics, ego. These qualities define the company (which usually tends to be risk-averse). Everything that you reward, everything that you refuse to accept – that’s the culture.

But there are individuals throughout the company who truly believe that there has to be a better way to operate. They have an innovative spirit, and they want to spread their ideas. The biggest question is whether they can push through the existing management structure before they leave the company.
This is why I like to emphasize the difference between leadership and management. When we look at employee engagement and what separates an innovative organization versus an organization that exists purely to compete, it comes down to the culture around progressivity and experimentation.

HK: At your talk at SMMW, one of my favourite quotes was: “We get so caught up in the marketing game that we forget the bigger story we’re trying to tell, the more meaningful side of things” – would you care to elaborate on this?

Well whether it’s marketing, or whether it’s employee engagement, or even whether it’s getting executive support, what it comes down to is this: whether we know who we’re talking to, and whether we know what’s important to them.

We need to meet somewhere in the middle of what we’re saying and what people want to hear.

“This is just how we do things” is engrained in metrics and processes. “Doing it differently” means taking a risk – and this isn’t usually rewarded. In fact, it’s usually the opposite! Risk taking is frequently punished in some regards.

So we’re teaching people in the workplace to not be relevant. This is the reason why you have employees who are disengaged at work. The leadership is generally unhappy, and it all sends the same message: we refuse or ignore the opportunity to change the dynamic of how people are communicating. It all comes down to culture and our ability (or inability) to feel like we can try new things.

HK: In five years from now, when many enterprises have gone through and completed the “digital transformation” we call it, what comes next?

Well, I don’t believe that any company is going to achieve a full digital transformation in terms of what it’s truly supposed to be, simply because we’re not done evolving as a society because of technology.

If we look at the 6 Stages of Digital Transformation, the final stage is being in a state of constant innovation and adaptation. It’s an organization state which has elements within the infrastructure of active innovation. It would mean entire teams dedicated to digital transformation and innovation who ensure that processes are constantly becoming more customer-centric.

But it’s ongoing. You’ll still have challenges of bringing new ways of working to the company. Or you may have pockets of people who don’t fully understand the need to support innovation.

The key understanding is that change is constant now. You’ll always be working inside of the organization to create relevance.

I think the closest you get to the ability to remain relevant is how you invest in culture. I don’t believe that companies fully appreciate culture yet. It’s still a soft, squishy subject. We pay more attention to transactions, reports, results, earnings – but we don’t understand the human dynamics that govern those issues or how they’re relatable to the outside.

Understanding how to invest in a culture that still allows you to achieve those results is important, of course, but without empowering people and changing standards to encourage upward mobility in the employee base is how you build that type of dynamic that will lead to a full transformation.

Delivering value to shareholders is just one aspect of a successful business. When we think of brands that have failed to embrace disruption (Blockbuster, for example), the emphasis became too focused on earnings reports rather than focusing on the customer and employee experience.

To be a shareholder now means that you have to be a stakeholder, too. What’s good for customers and employees in the long run might look like a dip in profitability for the short term. But that’s what yields greater returns in the future. Unfortunately, some shareholders still don’t see it this way.

HK: In your opinion, what has been the most profound, technological impact on the business world to date?

I speak a lot about Digital Darwinism, which is technology and society as they evolve. When we look at desktop PC’s, the internet, mobile phones, social media – these have all had their respective impact on business and society.

Even though businesses are making strides in the right direction, they have changed how they see these technologies impacting the societal front. Change is slow, and the purpose of why you’re changing is often just determined by the technology itself (hence social media teams, social media conferences, et cetera.) But we’re not really doing anything new! We’re developing ways to use the existing stuff to communicate with people.

The minute we understand there’s a greater purpose for technology and platforms, and what we actually do within these channels, and what impact they have on people and expectations, that’s when that strive to compete becomes purposeful and accelerated. It brings a true competitive advantage.

Hannah Kovacs

Author: Hannah Kovacs

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