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What is digital transformation? There is a lot of talk at the moment about this process, where an organisation overhauls its capabilities in order to reach digital enlightenment.

This is a large-scale change that typically takes years and cuts across strategies, people, processes and technology.

While there are internal elements to this, such as new social collaboration tools for employees and adopting more agile ways of working, much of the desired transformation relates to customer-facing activities, especially sales, customer service and marketing.

But what do we really mean when we talk about 'digital' anyway? What is a 'digital organisation'? Clearly we have gone beyond using just ‘online’ or ‘internet’ because those words do not adequately encompass mobile or other channels and media that are increasingly digital.

But I think ‘digital’ actually stands for more even than this...

For me, an organisation is digital if it exhibits two things:

  • First, it focuses on the customer experience irrespective of channel.
  • Second, it has a digital culture.

Customer experience 

If you have read Marketing Week and Econsultancy's Modern Marketing Manifesto, you will know that customer experience is a very important part of what we believe marketing to be. In this regard, ‘digital’, as defined by a focus on customer experience, is very much the domain of marketing.

Many quintessentially digital businesses show this focus on customer experience although not necessarily through digital media.

Luxury retailer Net-a-Porter focuses a lot of effort on customer service, personal shoppers and packaging; Amazon now impresses more through its delivery and fulfilment than its digital properties; and the Gov.uk strapline for its digital transformation program is ‘digital services so good people prefer to use them’, showing their commitment to customer experience.

digital transformation

Digital culture

So, to the second point, what is a ‘digital culture’? Over the years, by talking to organisations who are sophisticated at digital marketing and ecommerce, and from doing a lot of primary research, I have seen a number of recurring characteristics of a ‘digital’ culture or mind set. And - no surprise - these correlate very highly with what we have defined as modern marketing.

A digital culture is commercially-minded, irrespective of specific job functions. Decisions are data-driven. This does not mean there is no instinct or creativity but that ideas are tested and decisions are based on the resulting evidence. A digital culture is customer-centric.

It is transparent, with data, including commercial performance, widely shared. It is collaborative, with multi-disciplinary teams that often change by project.

A digital culture is empowered with the ‘permission to fail’ and ‘ideas can come from anywhere’ mentality. It is hungry to learn, embraces change, and is agile in its working practices. There is an entrepreneurial ‘growth hacker’ mindset where technology and marketing are closely aligned: the marketers tend to be tech savvy and the techies are marketing savvy.

The working environment, both physical and virtual, is also very important. If you look at the office spaces within a digital culture, they are open plan with spaces to huddle.

Look at images of Google’s offices or the new BBC offices in Salford for examples. The organisational language used is subtly different: you tend not to hear about ‘departments’ but ‘teams’. The working tools tend to be cloud-based and collaborative.

Many larger organisations who are creating digital, or interactive, teams are creating new office environments which are very different to the corporate HQ, specifically to nurture this digital culture.

One long-established brand is a good example of how digital transformation can be done. Back in 2006, Burberry was significantly underperforming compared to its peers. Angela Ahrendts took over and instigated a transformation program, focusing in large part on customer experience and driven by digital technologies.

She said:

Digital has been a catalyst for everything in the company and, when we got everyone on board with this concept, they were clamouring to become even more connected.”

Burberry is now doing very well. It experienced an 18% jump in sales in its first quarter this year, and Ahrendts is to move next year to Apple, arguably one of the finest exponents of customer experience in the world, as senior vice president for retail and online stores.

In the end, as demonstrated by Burberry, the real opportunity for what we’ve called digital transformation is actually the transformation of the entire business, its culture and its financial results. 

Ashley Friedlein

Published 4 November, 2013 by Ashley Friedlein @ Econsultancy

Ashley Friedlein is Founder of Econsultancy and President of Centaur Marketing. Follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (7)

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Joseph Buhler

Joseph Buhler, Principal at buhlerworks

Yes, indeed it better start with culture and finding a satisfactory answer to the question of WHY? When those are the starting points success is maybe not inevitable but easier to achieve. Sadly there are too many examples where these strategic issues are not addressed and the tactics applied result in disappointment that could be avoided.

The success of Burberry is evident and recognized with the result for the CEO being a key role at Apple.

almost 3 years ago


neha jason

great article more valuable contents and helpful resources. thanks for sharing this article

almost 3 years ago


Andrew Croasdale

Thank you for an interesting post Ashley. While as an industry we find it helpful, I wonder whether even the expression 'digital' may hinder at times. 'Digital' can be seen to exclude key elements of the customer experience, such as product and service design (perhaps the strongest card in Apple’s customer experience) and elements of an integrated view, such as customer call centres. It may sound obvious, but perhaps it’s quite simply about a 'customer experience culture'?

almost 3 years ago


Antal Ruiter

Executives in every industry – from media to electronics to paint manufacturing – face a bewildering array of new digital opportunities.
They are paying attention, but they have few signposts to guide them. Most stories in the business media focus on fast-moving startups like Zynga and Pinterest, or on a few large high-tech firms like Apple, Google, or Amazon. Unfortunately, to many leaders, stories of these nimble and innovative firms just do not make sense for traditional companies that are older, larger, and burdened with inflexible legacies. We decided to find out what fast-moving digital innovations mean for large traditional companies.
In two years of study covering more than 400 large firms, we found that most large firms are already taking action. They are using technologies like social media, mobile, analytics and embedded devices to change their customer engagement, internal operations and even their business models. But few firms have positioned themselves to capture the real business benefits. Our research points to a real “digital advantage” to those that do. Digital maturity matters. It matters in every industry. And the approaches that digitally mature companies use can be adopted by any company that has the leadership drive to do so. See: /www.capgemini-consulting.com/the-digital-advantage

almost 3 years ago


jeremy swinfen green

A very interesting article and I especially like the thought that digital businesses have "permission to fail". But isn't that at odds with your suggestion that "ideas are tested and decisions are based on the resulting evidence". It isn't always possible to test things - partly because "not everything worth counting can be counted" and partly because sometimes there just isn't time (think social media).

almost 3 years ago


Sebastian Crump, Freelance at SCRUMPH

Will there be any roundtable events on this topic in London? I remember the accessibility/usabiliy ones fondly from a few years ago.

almost 3 years ago

David Sealey

David Sealey, Head of Digital Consulting at CACIEnterprise

Great commentary Ashley.

The research that CACI and Econsultancy conducted confirmed this point. Organisations who were able to deliver a highly integrated customer experience typically had:

1. A cross functional CX team
2. Management buy in
3. The culture to deliver it

Those who were failing to deliver a strong customer experience lamented over internal politics, silos, lack of time and organisational structure. Technology wasn't the key point.

Someone at the top of the food chain in an organisation needs to make digital a top priority and then do everything possible to breakdown silos and get functions working together.

I guess our role as modern marketers is to keep spreading this message to get CEOs behind it.


almost 3 years ago

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