Why I’m a convert to digital transformation (and why now’s the time to start)

If you've been cynical about the term 'digital transformation' in the past, you'll have been in good company. But now's the time for B2B marketers to get onboard the bandwagon, says Joel Harrison

If I’m honest, ‘digital transformation’ is a phrase which I have been fairly cynical about – at least until quite recently. Like 'digital disruption' and 'big data', it seemed (as the FT put it a few years back, referring specifically to big data) to be, ‘a nebulous term generally chucked around by people with something to sell’. How apt in the marketing industry.

Digital transformation also seemed to originate largely from B2C – another reason why I was sceptical, as it referenced a context outside my frame of reference. The imperative regarding digital in the B2B world always seemed much less grandiose. It was about getting the job done, often in difficult circumstances, and always with limited budgets.

Most marketers in B2B have always been focused on deploying digital channels and techniques as and when they became available, and more importantly affordable – and that meant there was typically a huge lag and or gap with B2C. There was no time or remit to transform: only iterate and adapt, often more reactively than anyone concerned would like. But that’s life in B2B!

However, in the last few months, I’ve had my opinion about digital transformation comprehensively changed – this is largely off the back of three presentations I’ve seen by marketers at three different events of ours. Those responsible for my volte-face were Emma Roffey of Cisco (speaking at Ignite 2017); Paul Stevenson of O2 (speaking at the B2B Leaders Forum 2017) and Jos Brenkel of HP, at a recent roundtable that we did for our B2B Marketing Leaders in association with Expandi Group.

So what did I learn from these luminaries that so altered my perspective? There were two main things:

Firstly, simply that digital transformation is much, much more than embracing channels, techniques or even technologies on an ad hoc basis. In the truest sense of the expression, it’s about profound change or changes in the way that marketers work, think, operate, behave, are organised, and (perhaps most importantly) relate to the rest of the business… and many other things besides. To qualify to be called ‘transformation’ the breadth and depth of change should be ambitious, and potentially daunting, at least for some.

Secondly, whilst the term is almost hackneyed, most B2B organisations have yet to embark on a digital transformation journey. And in many cases haven’t even started thinking about it. Why? Because they don’t know what they could or should be striving to achieve. That’s not to say they aren’t being proactive and progressive in continuing to adapt and evolve their processes and activities to do good marketing. But that’s not the same as embracing transformation, where you seek to make a step change or in your marketing (or even your business) – to make a genuine break from what went before.

Why not? Well, here there are a number of contributory factors which work in combination to create this result, but bravery and remit, or the lack of them, are generally prominent among these. With the average tenure of a B2B CMO or marketing director being about 18 months these days, their ability (not to say willingness) to build a business case to undertake and effectively deliver a root-and-branch transformation can be difficult if not impossible in this timeframe. Marketing leaders, rightly or wrongly, are often too focused on demonstrating their worth in the here and now, or at least the next six months, to seek to drive home change which (by definition) may be expensive, unpopular, slow to deliver and carry a significant element of risk.

But that’s not to say they shouldn’t try, and there appears to be a growing groundswell of interest in B2B in embracing such far-reaching and fundamental marketing-led change. At least, there is if discussions such as the recent roundtable on the topic of digital transformation are anything to go by. We had a great turnout for this event, with marketing leaders attending from a wide variety of sectors, including manufacturing, financial services, information services, media, professional services, pharmaceuticals and (of course) tech.

Different sectors mean very different contexts for transformation, as do variations in organisational culture, management ethos and personalities of key stakeholders, with the result that transformation programmes at different organisations will be very different in character and form. Despite this, it was possible to tease out some common threads from the experiences of the marketers present at our roundtable, the most prominent of which are as follows:

  • You need a catalyst for digital transformation – it won’t come out of nowhere. These can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes – GDPR has done the job for some organisations, and forced companies to rethink their approach to communications. The threat of a £20 million fine is highly effective in focusing the minds of the c-suite on the need to make changes. Marketers can deploy this fear factor to their advantage. Other catalysts cited by those at our roundtable included demands for growth from the board, or a focus on costs. These opposing scenarios require profoundly different thinking.
  • You need a vision to deliver effective digital transformation – although it's possible this vision won’t be apparent at the start. You may just need a direction of travel, and a scoping exercise will define the vision. But you can’t proceed indefinitely without one. And when you define the vision, you need to stick to it.
  • Digital transformation is not the same thing as digital optimisation. Optimisation is not so traumatic, and is often relevant in a post-transformation scenario, where you’ve made a big leap forward and you’re seeking to ensure it remains relevant to evolving market conditions. Optimisation is about honing, tweaking or tuning what you’ve already done.
  • The agenda driving transformation must be that of the customer. Effective transformation isn’t about catering to the whims of the board, or the ideals of the marketing department. The only agenda that truly matters in digital transformation is that of the customer. Customer centricity will define success. The board is unlikely to understand marketing, let alone its agenda, and therefore is unlikely to ever be convinced to align with it or be led by it towards something that they don't understand. But if you put all the onus of transformation on understanding and serving the customer, then resistance will fall away.
  • Inclusivity is essential. Arguably the biggest challenge in delivering digital transformation is ensuring that you bring everyone with you – and critically that includes not only all the members of the marketing team, but also other related functions like sales. For the sales team, the key question that you need to answer is ‘what’s in it for me?’ Unless you can answer that in a compelling way, you’re unlikely to get them aligned or committed.
  • Don't diminish the marketing that went before. When it comes to the rest of the marketing team, it’s critical that your message doesn’t read ‘what you’ve been doing before was wrong’ but instead ‘what you’ve been doing was right for the time it was specified, and you’ve been doing a good job. But the world is changing.’ Motivation is an obvious potential casualty. The first and most important group you need to bring with you is the marketing team.

These facets of effective transformation just scratch the surface of the discussion at our roundtable, and the intricacies of this fascinating topic. But rest assured, now that I’m a convert, it’s something we’ll return to regularly – first and foremost at our Ignite event in July, where it will be one of the main content streams.

If you’re a B2B marketer who hasn't embarked on a transformation process already, it’s likely to be something that you will embrace sooner, if not later. It’s not something that can be put off indefinitely, and the sooner you start your journey, the sooner you'll reap the rewards. As the old Chinese proverb goes, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second-best time is now.