To stay relevant in the digital economy, technology, media and communications companies must evolve on two fronts: externally and internally. The trick is that they must do both in tandem — and many find this difficult.
External evolution relates to the role the company is playing to help propel the digital wave forward. Namely, what new and game-changing digital products, services and business models is the company innovating and bringing to market successfully? This type of evolution is also about how the business positions itself among its competitors in the digital market and responds to new market demands and rapidly changing consumer expectations. Are those approaches effective? How does the company know?
Internal evolution, meanwhile, is about the ability of the organization to strategically transform its business processes, technology infrastructure, workforce culture and more to compete effectively in an increasingly digital age. Evolving internally is vital to supporting the company’s external evolution. Yet business leaders don’t always make that association.
At some companies, external dynamics — shareholders’ views, consumers’ sentiments, market perceptions about the company’s brand or reputation — are the impetus for external evolution. To respond, these businesses are constantly channeling resources into developing new products, services or campaigns, often at the expense of addressing internal issues that could cause the business to falter, or even fail, over time. Siloed business processes and weak cybersecurity practices are examples of such issues.
In other organizations, too much change is undertaken too quickly, both internally and externally. These businesses launch sweeping digital initiatives that aren’t backed by well-thought-out strategies. They also fail to evaluate the competitive landscape thoroughly. They focus on trying to outpace known and well-established rivals, and overlook or underestimate emerging players that have the potential to disrupt the marketplace and erode their market share.
In both examples, these businesses are making digital journeys with blinders on. One group is focused on short-term wins that don’t spark meaningful or lasting change. The other group is barreling toward a finish line in a race without an end, paying little or no attention to emerging threats and changing conditions in the field around them. In either case, the decisions these companies make are unlikely to position them for long-term digital success. I suggest a better approach below.
Look inward first
Using technology to improve operations internally is one way for companies to further their digital transformation and bring it to a broader scale. Evolving internally builds a safe foundation that can support their external evolution. For example, a business that has the right digital processes in place and is not burdened by legacy IT systems undermining its agility can score a number of operational successes — from simplifying or automating repetitive or labor-intensive business processes to implementing new tools to enhance workforce communication and collaboration. These successes can then be translated externally into the ability to innovate quickly, deliver better service to customers and meet the expectations of stakeholders.
I recommend reading Protiviti’s white paper, Catching the Digital Wave of Change, which explains how the way a business embraces technology can, in turn, help to change the way employees and customers perceive the organization. Change from the inside shines to the outside.
Tear off the blinders
When setting the strategy for a digital initiative, businesses must analyze the markets in which they are operating, as well as the competitor landscape. In their quest to achieve digital transformation, they must be careful not to miss what’s happening in the “ecosystem” around them.
Ron Adner, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, explained in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article that the “nature of disruption is changing … [and now] occurring at the level of ecosystems,” rather than at the product or service level. He posited that businesses need to “approach their competitive strategy with a wide lens that captures ecosystem dynamics” if they want to succeed in an Internet of Things world.
Adner pointed specifically to the example of a well-known company that produces imaging products with its historic basis in photography. That company’s long and painful journey to becoming a digital company as an example of what can happen when leadership “does not appreciate the dynamics of the broader ecosystem around it.” The company did not respond fast enough or appropriately to changes in the digital imaging ecosystem, and it cost the company dearly. Adner wrote that the “lesson for today’s leading firms is that risk lies not only in a lack of attentiveness to disruptive change but also in embracing the wrong part of the change.”
I don’t have much more to add to Adner’s insight other than to say that wearing blinders — not looking at the whole picture — in the digital era is likely to cause a company to lose or never find its way. Businesses may miss the right moment to pursue transformation or make the wrong decision about how and what to change. And no matter how innovative the business may be today, if it’s focused only on achieving one type of change or pursuing only one goal blindly, it’s bound to be overtaken or pushed off the track by competitors in the future.