Companies are pushing past failed ideas of digital transformation to understand what being digital-first really means.

If the need for organisations to go digital was ever in question, the events of 2020 decisively ended that debate. The effective digital delivery of services and a consistent customer experience to match are table stakes for any business hoping to see the far side of Covid. Likewise, supporting fully remote (if not fully flexible) working scenarios for a range of employees is becoming an essential step for organisations looking to continue business as now-normal.

Many companies that don’t deliver a service or product that can be accessed, used or ordered online are sitting out the year economically. Conversely, companies who have effectively digitised are plowing ahead, demonstrating the sharp divide between those who are digital and those who aren’t.

Crossing that divide requires more than Zoom accounts and an online shop. This year, it’s more imperative than ever for companies to take a digital-first approach to business. And to do that, they first need to understand what digital first actually means.

The digital-first challenge

The prospect of being ‘digital first’ can be confusing for businesses with anything but digital beginnings. So it’s important to understand that it is entirely possible for traditionally offline, brick-and-mortar and paper-based businesses to transition into a digital-first way of being.

For all the highly publicised failure of the push for digital transformation, the past decade is full of digital success stories, from sector-defining names like IKEA and LEGO to innovative regional providers such as EFQM.

Service companies in particular can benefit greatly from an improved ability to deliver their services to customers via online, access-anywhere platforms. If you’ve built an app for that, your customers are likely to use it — particularly if the app performs consistently, is easy to use and replicates the experience they’ve come to expect and appreciate.

However, it’s important to avoid distilling the idea of digital down to a cool app or optimised website. Going digital involves leveraging technology, but it’s not defined by it. In reality, making the shift to digital means changing more than a software workflow.

A digital state of mind

Where many companies stumble is in making the mental shift to digital first. Adding e-commerce to a website is a defined project with a start date, a roadmap and bottom-line KPIs to measure — all traditionally comfortable ideas to take on.

Becoming a digital-first organisation, on the other hand, requires a seachange in thought. It means reconsidering every aspect of a business, from the tools employees use for the simplest of everyday tasks to the entire organisational structure of a company.

Crucially, digital first doesn’t necessarily mean changing all of those things, though it does mean overcoming the fear of that change. It’s adopting the kind of agile, modern mindset that enables startups to innovate and disrupt so effectively.

To be digitally minded, companies must embrace the idea of continuous change. To mature companies with established processes, that can sound like an expensive or even impossible undertaking. However, this shift in thinking is widely acknowledged as key to success in the digital age. And it can begin by exploring the idea, for example, by asking what you would do if you had to take a start-up approach to your business.

Digitally minded companies begin with the idea of an interconnected, online and physical experience that is user-centric. They start conversations with questions like: how can this benefit our customers? How can this make work easier, more efficient or more effective for our employees? Then, what tools do we need to make that happen?

What digital looks like

Many business leaders still struggle to understand the role of technology in a digital business. In truth, being digital first does not mean having all the software tools — it means having the right ones. And in many cases, less can be much more when it comes to tech.

Rather than focusing on specific technologies or tools designed to implement digital processes, consider how a move to digital thinking can benefit your business long term. Companies moving away from traditionally manual tasks and paper-based workflows are applying a digital mindset to everything from service delivery and customer support to workforce planning and recruitment, all to great effect.

When exploring ways to improve business by going digital, it helps to keep a few things in mind:

  • Consistency is essential. Both customers and employees expect the same process and result across web and mobile platforms. While the information displayed can and should be optimised for the specific device, the process for ordering a product, scheduling a service or accessing support should be consistent regardless of whether the user is on a phone or computer. Likewise, employees should be able to access files, submit reports and hand off projects just as easily on the go or from home.
  • Experience must be prioritised. As more companies and offerings compete for our time, it’s increasingly important for future-thinking businesses to offer experiences that integrate into daily life. Application programming interfaces, or APIs, are making this easier by allowing software engineers and mobile app developers to design tools and experiences that become part of our every day. The easier, more familiar and more fluid the digital experience is, the more likely we are to make it a habit.
  • Agility is the goal. By taking a holistic, long-term view of a company’s digital future, business leaders and CIOs can be smart about the technology they build and adopt. Replacing legacy systems with new SaaS solutions can be a good idea — or it can be a road to repetition. Going digital is a chance to bake into a company the ability to adapt services, products and user experiences as technology develops or as new features are required or available. Adopting a digital-first mindset can help keep the end goal in perspective when making specific technology choices.

Moving the digital-first needle

With the success rate of digital transformations hovering below 30%, it’s time for business leaders to understand that going digital is not a project: It’s a potentially radical, intentionally permanent change in the way business works.

Technology is an essential component, but it’s not a silver bullet. Simply adding software won’t solve operational problems. In fact, doing so can compound the real issues that need to be solved. Taking a digital-first approach to evolving an organisation helps address legacy issues by simplifying solutions and enabling business leaders, customers and employees to enjoy a more consistent and reliable digital future.

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Published by NearForm
18th August 2020