No, you don’t need a digital strategy

A couple of years back when working as strategist at Ziggy Creative Colony I wrote a blog post (in Swedish) about how digital strategy needs to get less digital and more strategy.

The need for digital strategy and digital strategists has increased exponentially over recent years. With the transformational force of digitalization comes a need for companies to to understand, prioritize and ‘manage’ digital. However, ‘digital’ can’t be managed as a separate asset and digital strategy as a concept is bound to be unsuccessful.

The concept in itself is fragmented. Digital strategy can mean anything – a piece of documented decisions that handles digital media, marketing and traffic acquisition, web sites and content, social media, sales and e-commerce or the choice of platforms and IT. It can be owned and driven by either the marketing director, the sales director, the CIO, or… The common denominator is that the perspective (and, when applicable, the consultants used) will naturally be that of the owners responsibility, manifesting digital as a silo within the company.

To be fair, the need for a distinct digital strategy did make a bit of sense some years back, when digital still was mainly a matter of getting above all marketing and IT to work together (often for the first time) to be able to deliver and launch web sites and align on the KPIs for the investment. Today, digitalization has evolved far beyond that point and in order to do successful digital transformation, ‘digital’ needs to be at the core of every strategic decision, from corporate and business strategy, to production, logistics, HR, marketing, retail, customer service, IT and so on…

More mature companies have started to realize this, and as a response many have started to build up internal digital capabilities, often as a separate division. To build a centre of excellence can in theory be a good first step towards something else. That is, if the division has the required mandate from the board (which I wrote a post on earlier; how to digitally fuel the boardroom) and clear directives to function as a coach on the journey towards the next step (always transforming and ultimately striving to eliminate itself). Otherwise, digital capabilities only risk being built up in yet another silo, creating the feeling within the rest of the organization that a) digital is already managed to we don’t need to care or b) digital is supposed to be handled by experts so we don’t get a say. None of which is good and with B as clearly the worse option.

Beyond aligning different perspectives, successful digital transformation often needs to be very concerned with changing the company culture itself, thus breaking down limiting silos rather than acknowledging them.

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Four examples of organizing around digital transformation in place at companies today. Source: MIT/Cap Gemini Consulting – Digital Transformation, A Roadmap for Billion Dollar Organizations

Apart from that, the concept of working with set strategies (often articulated as 3, 5 or even 10 year plans) within an area under constant and rapid change is problematic to say the least. Think about it, your predictions 10 years ago about today. How did it go? And thus, how probable is it that you’ll be able to correctly predict the future this time? I’ll leave that for now but will come back to the topic in a later post on agile strategy and frameworks (so stay tuned, folks).

So, what do to then and how to approach digital as an old organization with limited knowledge and current capabilities? Some quick ideas below:

  1. Make sure you have the correct capabilities on the board-level to be able to understand what digitalization is about, what and thus what it will take for the organization to transform. Have a clear purpose and vision based on a customer centric outside-in idea
  2. Sure, build a centre of excellence. Give it a very strong mandate and only hire people you absolutely trust. Make sure the function is that of a catalyst for change throughout the rest of the organization rather than a division centralizing the ‘ownership’ and ‘management’ of digital
  3. See the centre of excellence as an (infinite) interim state, meaning they ultimately should aim to eliminate themselves. Although, do have a long-term view upon it. Set the expectations right and get the measurements in place
  4. Adopt agile and lean methodologies and make sure you fail fast, learn and act on the learnings. Learn to think like a startup. Experiment and accept that you’re in for a long, bumpy but very exciting ride and that nothing ever will be perfect in a fast-moving market

Digital transformation won’t fit in a silo. And if forced into one you risk doing nothing more than (at best) pretty makeup, which won’t give ROI, but even worse risk leaving the organization in a state of disappointment and sense of having been burnt.

Image credit: Reynermedia @ Flickr

Christoffer Vollmer

Leader, Consultant, Futurist & Advisor with more than 20 years experience from Strategy, Marketing, CX, Business Transformation & Tech.