After years of discussions, digital transformation has finally become a reality at many organisations.

And along with actual transformation projects has come the realisation that digital transformation in practice is quite different than digital transformation in theory.

So what have practitioners learned about digital transformation that most of us don’t already know? What are the secrets to digital transformation success?

To find out, Econsultancy recently invited dozens of client-side marketers to discuss their digital transformation experiences. At a roundtable hosted by Damien Cummings, CEO of Peoplewave and Principal Consultant at Econsultancy, participants provided insights about how digital transformation really works, with the main points summarized below.

1) Digital transformation is really about survival

The first secret revealed by attendees is that digital transformation is not about getting ahead of the competition.  Instead, for most firms, digital transformation is started to head off bankruptcy.

As one participant said, ‘with our digital transformation programme, we are trying to disrupt ourselves before being disrupted by others’.

The reason that struggling firms are more likely to adopt digital transformation is that transformation is not high on the priority list of profitable businesses. Instead, successful firms are under pressure to deliver short-term results, not long-term transformation strategies.

Marketers attempting to start digital transformation at their companies were encouraged, therefore, to highlight negative metrics in their reports and point out weaknesses in the current business strategy.

‘Fear is a great motivator’ quipped one participant.

2) There is more than one way to get buy-in

We’ve often heard that top-level buy-in is required for any serious digital transformation effort, but those who have digital transformation programmes underway offered some tips on how to get it.

First off, if you are petitioning the management, they said, then you need to go beyond presenting the benefits and showing profit projections. Instead, marketers need to talk about end-to-end processing and the key decisions that the CEO and his team have to make in order to make digital transformation happen. Spell it out for them, said one delegate.

Furthermore, appealing to the c-suite was not the only way that marketers were able to get support for digital transformation. Another popular technique for getting buy-in was the ‘bottom-up’ approach. Here, marketers simply enabled customer-facing staff with new digital tools and data and let them initiate the changes in processes. This created an environment where management had to either go along with the changes or appear as if they were dragging their heels.  And these days, few people want to appear to be technology laggards.

3) Agencies are not typically used for digital transformation

Veterans of digital transformation also revealed that agencies, while great enablers, struggle to drive change at organisations.  Because of this, they advised that agencies should not be relied on for digital transformation projects.

Instead, management needs to review the skills and competencies they have internally and hire the people they need to complement the team.

Agencies, according to participants, should continue to be used for outsourcing marketing functions. They can even be used to a greater extent once transformation is underway, freeing up resources.

4) No one has figured out the best organisational structure yet

Attendees who were currently working on transformation could not agree on the ideal structure for a new, digital organisation.

Some had implemented a 2-speed model where transformation was taking place in ‘labs’ outside of the reporting structure and slowly implementing changes in the main business. Others said that it was necessary to integrate innovation teams into the organisation straight away so that everyone was on the same journey.

While no consensus on the ideal structure was reached, most agreed that the best overall approach was to train up internal staff, empower them to make changes, and trust them to figure out how best to transform the organisation.

A word of thanks

Econsultancy would like to thank our table host Damien Cummings, CEO of Peoplewave and Principal Consultant at Econsultancy for guiding the discussion and eliciting the secrets of digital transformation from our many delegates.

We’d also like to thank all of the marketers who attended Digital Cream Singapore 2017 and shared their valuable insights. We hope to see you all at future Econsultancy events!

Based in London and want face-to-face digital transformation training? Explore our Fast Track course.