Putting digital to work in 2016

Digital was a hot topic in most board rooms in 2015, and the conversation is expected to grow significantly in 2016.  The expectations of business benefit of digital initiatives continues to increase and most executives have at least one major digital initiative under way.  When you speak candidly to most executives you may be surprised to learn that many do not have a clear path to achieve the business benefits they are hoping to see.  They're hoping for the business benefit return.  They're hoping that they got the right advice and made the correct decisions.  Many just don't know.  The most common challenge to digital initiatives is the lack of talent and leadership in this extremely complex and fast moving space, and many executives have not yet accumulated the necessary digital talent. 

What success looks like

High performing organizations, in the broadest terms, have figured out how to use digital.  They have set an aggressive agenda of digital projects.  They've learned how to attract and retain talent.  They've taken hard looks at resources throughout the organization and reallocated key resources (including talent) to digital.  They've learned to take more risks and to move faster; and they've stitched this into the organization's culture of execution.

Today's high performing organizations have active engagement from the c-suite for digital initiatives.  The best of the best often have personal sponsorship of digital initiatives by the CEO.  Critical digital transformation projects require hand-on engagement and sponsorship at the highest levels; especially for an organization that's in the beginning stages.  Sometimes it takes the CEO to align digital initiatives with the context of the organization and to truly integrate it into the business process of the organization.  Digital isn't a bolt-on to an existing business process.  It's an enabler for reconstructing business processes to the needs of the world we live in, today and tomorrow. 

The Most Popular digital initiatives

Digital is pervasive, throughout all aspects of an organization's business.  We'll focus on three of the most popular initiatives today. 


Hands down, the number one initiative is the digital engagement of customers.  With more and more of the buyer journey (B2C and B2B) occurring through digital channels, and with today's buyer becoming more independent and demanding, there is a growing need to connect earlier and with much more relevance.  Most organizations are really just getting started and those that make early advances will enjoy a significant competitive advantage, while their peers catch up.

Business Process Automation

Process automation will continue to grow in 2016, especially in the manufacturing space and more heavily regulated industries.  Look for digital leaders to standardize and automate more and more repetitive processes.  That includes a greater use of robotics to in manufacturing and distribution functions.  It includes more workflow automation and machine learning for data rich and regulated industries like finance, insurance and healthcare.  Repetitive work, historically performed by employees will be handled by software and machines. 

Digital engagement of employees

Employee engagement (or lack of engagement) should keep every executive up at night.  Many employees struggle to make and maintain meaningful connections with the companies they work at.  Distributed companies with remote workers are normal now and the pace of the business makes it a challenge to keep a team connected and aligned.  Digital leaders will continue to invest in systems that puts the right information in the hands of the employees, where and when they need it.  They'll begin to view their corporate knowledge and content as an asset.  They'll develop content models that enable the proper storage and retrieval of the ever-increasing amount of company data.  They'll implement knowledge management & collaboration tools that teams can use, on any device. 

What to avoid

So, how do digital initiatives fail.  There are myriad of challenge points with digital.  We'll cover the most common here. 

  • A lack of talent & leadership:  Acquiring strong digital talent is difficult, especially when an organization is in the beginning stages of a transformation -- when they don't know what they don't know yet.  There continues to be a supply gap for strong digital talent, which makes acquiring talent that much harder.  Look inside your business for the best talent.  When possible, dedicate those resources to your digital initiatives and work diligently to equip your team as soon as you acquire new skills & systems.
  • Old school mindset/culture:  Digital is as much a mindset as it is a collection of technologies.  Organizations will evolve from rigid, methodical & slow to agile, adaptive & fast.  A culture of experimentation and fast failures is needed to excel.  That can be a challenge for executives that have a 'because we've always done it this way' mindset.
  • Fiefdoms/ sacred cows:  Digital, across all industries, is wreaking havoc on legacy business models and processes.  You can't implement a transformational enterprise-wide digital strategy if you have key departments or business areas that are exempt.  In most organizations, there are at least one or two 'don't touch' areas.  Challenge these exception areas to ensure that they aren't putting the enterprise strategy at risk. 
  • Lack of patience:  Here's a common scenario.  Leadership at an organization, tired of being behind the digital curve, invests significantly in a project, hoping to catch-up.  They overset expectations around a 9 to 15 month project and start asking for results 30 to 60 days after launch.  The project loses post-launch momentum, and the organization falls further behind.  Big-bang projects (moon shots) are seldom successful.  The reality is, digital transformation is a grind of of building disciplines & technologies against a defined maturity model. 
  • Lack of, or poor underlying strategy:  If you don't know who your customer is, putting in a CXM is not going to help you talk to them.   If you don't have a consistent production process, you're going to have a hard time applying automation to it.  Make sure you know, and can articulate your core business purpose, strategies & processes.  It's not uncommon for digital projects to expose large gaps in an organization's business model.  If you run into this, view it as a positive and an opportunity to shore-up. 
  • Lack of investment - external and internal:  you can't excel on the cheap.  Make sure you match your external hard $$ investment with internal time investment.  A very common condition -- company outsources the development of a marketing automation system, company intranet, etc.  Consultants do 90% of the planning, 100% of the development and then hand it off to the business after an accelerated training allocation.  It's no wonder the initiative fails to gain traction.  The business was ill-equipped to take it over from the consultant. 

How to get started

As you'd expect, the 'how-to' is going to be the inverse of how projects fail. 

  • Make sure your foundational business strategies and processes are sound.  If not, shore them up. 
  • Commit leadership to your digital initiatives, starting with the CEO.
  • Make sure your investment is proportional to your expectations.  Recognize value and don't be afraid to pay for it.  Lowest bid mindsets are for commodities, not for strategic work. 
  • Build a consistent cadence to your digital initiatives that's anchored by a multi-year roadmap.  
  • Communicate key learning moments across your organization and celebrate (even small) successes.  Digital initiatives can be extremely rewarding and a lot of fun.  Embrace and enjoy the work.