Learning by doing: the only path to digital transformation

 

When it comes to digital transformation, paralysis, the inability to act, comes in different shades and forms. One of them is to put everything in the hands of expensive consultants. Another is to order the digitalization of your own organization using a laundry list of hyped tech-concepts. But the bottleneck points to top management, because digital transformation can only be driven from one place: the business. Get it done already!

If you know even a little bit about skiing, you’ll recognize this picture: A group of newbies are standing on a green slope close to the children’s playground, being bombarded by a storm of words from their instructor: “Remember to shift your weight, first to one ski, then to the other. Slightly bend your knees. Slowly glide forward.” All of this to make a turn at 3 km/hr.

If the idea is not to fall while you’re learning to ski, then by all means, that’s the way to do it. But if we accept the fact that you have to fall when you’re learning something new, then it’s not a bad idea to take the lift up to the top and try the red slope. When the speed gets up to 15 km/hr, you suddenly find yourself instinctively turning the skis. Excitement races through your veins and 30 seconds later, you’re face down, eating snow. Welcome to the red slope.

Now I haven’t planned on using this space to discuss skiing. But as a metaphor for how many established companies approach digital transformation, it’s not completely without merit. Perhaps they purchase the services of a well-renowned consultancy firm as a ski instructor, and get them to write a voluminous report on the potential for digitalisation. Next thing you know, an epic work pointing out loads of lofty goals has landed in the management team’s inboxes.

The wise thoughts in the report might not be accompanied by concrete prioritisations, and the report’s helicopter view may not exactly provide the necessary fuel for action. In other words, you’re interested in skiing, you’ve got your skis on, but you need to be in motion in order to learn how to do it. You can end up in lots of different places, it’s a learning process and maybe you’ll get some bumps and scrapes along the way.

Some of the best customers I’ve worked with are these “consciously paralyzed” companies. They know that the future is digital. They’ve bought into the potential. However, the management team doesn’t have personal experience with leading a digital transformation, and they are now confused. At this point, they’re either eager to create a project, or they’re completely paralyzed and disillusioned. The best advice for them is: Find the concrete value you want to create for your employees or customers and complete a digital project. The red slope isn’t that dangerous, because it’s about running your business.

There’s also another type of paralysis. The CEO gives the digital manager (Chief Data/Digital/Customer/Information Officer) a laundry list that needs checking off. “Give me a plan for how we will use AI, ML, AR, VR, IoT and Blockchain in the future.” The CEO is feeling generous, and says that the deadline can be next Friday.

Is that helpful? No, it isn’t. The boss can’t barrel down the red slope with the help of a stunt double. (I very nearly wrote “digital twin”, just for the sake of using another fantastic buzzword).

Bottom-up doesn’t cut it. We need top-down business potential in order to make this happen, plus a bit of time and the right competences; and then we’ll prototype our way to experience. Maybe a win. Maybe a completely different change then the one we had in mind when we started down the slope and felt the wind stinging our cheeks.

That’s how we learn!