What is Digital Transformation?

by Clark Boyd

Posted on Aug 7, 2020

Digital transformation is really about transformation of people, not just your business. In this episode with host Will, digital marketing and branding specialist Clark Boyd breaks down the five myths of digital transformation and looks at how changing your digital mindset and culture are more important than just buying the latest tech solution. 

Transcript - Digital Transformation


(Recorded April 21 2010)

Will: Welcome to "Ahead of the Game," a podcast brought to you by The Digital Marketing Institute, giving you insights from industry experts to supercharge your marketing skills. Today is the modern mindset, where we explore those soft skills that are so vital to developing your career. And this episode is all about digital transformation. I'm Will Francis and I'll be talking to Clark Boyd, a digital marketing expert and author based in London. Clark has helped brands like Adidas and American Express shape their digital strategy, and he trains digital marketers through a variety of institutions and programs, including Google, Cambridge University, Imperial College, London, and Columbia University. It's his job to understand on a deep level how digital transformation works, how it should work for a brand in the 2020s. And we're going to hear all about that today. Clark, welcome to the podcast.


Clark: Hi, Will, great to be here.


Will: It's great to have you and really looking forward to hearing what your take on digital transformation is and how you're seeing that quite broad, abstract, but vital topic and discipline applied within marketing. So, it is a very big topic. Tell me, if you talk to someone back home at Christmas, or maybe someone who's just not in the digital world at all, in your professional life, you know, how do you explain what digital transformation is in just a few simple words?


Clark: So, as you said, big topic indeed. I would try and summarize it as using digital technologies to create a fundamental change in how a company operates and how it creates value for customers. Now, digital transformation is a response. It's really a reaction to a world that has been completely changed by the digital revolution. We can all sense that, and we have high powered computers in our pockets. We're able to access information everywhere that we are. That changes how we behave and it changes our expectations too. Businesses, on the other hand, are quite slow to adapt. So, we as people have become used to speed, everything is instant. Businesses, a lot of their practices were defined in the first industrial revolution. We're still working in a lot of those ways. We work through, you know, the division of labor. We have checks and balances within the company. It's quite hard to get things done, move quickly, bring in new technologies, and adapt. So, digital transformation is about really building the corporation or even the small business that's fit for purpose, that reacts to the modern world.


Will: I mean, there are just some brands that really struggle with that, aren't there? I mean, particularly, on a previous episode, I talked to an e-commerce expert about that and, you know, the big high street retail brands really struggled to move into e-commerce. And some still do. You know, I mean, there are some shops that have been shut down during the Coronavirus crisis and they don't have an online outlet. And they're massive high-street chains. But is digital transformation as simple as that? Is digital transformation, you know, a high-street shop puts in its wares on a website available for sale, or is it something deeper than that?


Clark: Yes, that's a great point. It's not as straightforward as that. Unfortunately, in a lot of instances, it's not just that. I think it's one of the great fallacies around digital transformation that because it's stimulated by technology, that technology in itself is the response. That if you bring in new technologies, if you have AI in your organization, then, you know, you're up to speed. That is the very kind of definition of being up to speed today. But if we look at some retailers, I was researching, I spent a while in Spain earlier this year before I was locked down, now it seems like a very long time ago, and I was trying to research local businesses because you don't hear that much (I'm based in London), you don't hear that much about what's happening in Spain with businesses there. And if you look at the group of fashion retailers, including the likes of Zara, and Massimo Dutti, you know, everywhere in Spain, when they were going through a digital transformation, yes, of course, they wanted to sell their products online, but that was just par for the course. That's basic modernization. It's not a transformation at all.


What a lot of retailers would do is look at what you can do with the store experience. You know, have iPads in there, have an AI assistant, and all of these things. But they looked inwards instead. So, their way of responding to a much quicker world was “how do we transform the processes that we have?” How do we change our company culture? How do we as a company behave differently? How do we completely change how we think about delivering value? So, that meant things like sharing data across the group. It meant trying to optimize their supply chains as much as they could, using real-time inventory checks. You know, these are the things that would transform a retailer more than fancy gadgets in the store. Which looks on the face of it like a transformation, but it's not changing how the company operates. It's a mindset shift, but it's culture too.


Will: And those things as well, those kind of novelty surface things, they don't really serve the needs of the customer. They don't improve how quickly a product gets to a customer or how quickly it can be checked, whether a product is in stock in a different store or when it will be back in stock. And those supply chain, those kind of deep internal things that were, you know, probably based on quite outdated systems.


Clark: Indeed. So, I think where a lot of these technologies come from, and God knows I've been in the room and probably voted for a lot of these things, but they come from a position of what can we do? What is possible today? And we all want to be at the cutting edge, you know, and it comes from a good place. It's - we want the company we're working with or working for to be the best in the business. We want to get ahead of the competition. So, we focus on what we can do, push that to its limit, and lose sight quite often of what we should be doing. What are the things that customers actually expect? What are they looking for from their interaction with us? Maybe it isn't virtual reality headsets. The likes, I've seen virtual reality headsets that help you tour a brewery. Not necessarily what I want from the beer company. Maybe better delivery and, you know, cheaper prices might be what I'm more interested in. And you can use technology to do that. So, you're absolutely right. I think keeping a close eye on what those expectations are, and I am the competition as well. You know, we shouldn't lose sight of that and what they're doing in the market and how you can be ahead of them, but it doesn't always mean going for the shiny object.


Will: And I suppose the caveat to that is there's always an early mover advantage, or there are always enough innovation points to be scored, as one way of putting it, you know. And there are brands who do that and will play with new technologies, but not whilst neglecting those deeper kinds of issues of delivering a really high-quality customer experience.


Clark: Yeah. So, I'll probably return to this point, but this idea of having a strategy behind it and having clear expectations of what you're wanting to achieve will make a massive difference. There is a tendency, because we're often going into the unknown, to leave these things quite open. So, we will give this a try and we'll see what happens. We'll see if we get more sales as a result of it, but you're much less likely to achieve that goal without aiming for it. Now, what you mentioned there is that sometimes you can have a smart mirror in your retail store and be the first to do it and get a huge amount of press and you look very innovative, and it scares the life out of your competitors. They think these guys are really ahead of the game. That's very beneficial.


That is huge. That doesn't matter if it completely revolutionizes the shopping experience forever, but as a strategy that is very useful, and a lot of companies do that. Now, as a subset of metrics there, so you might want to look at press and, you know, social media off the back of that… as a subset of metrics you could look at, well, does this improve the customer experience? Use it as a trial, you know? It's a good way to test and learn. You have one thing you know you'll achieve and then another thing which might not happen, people might not use it that much. So what? Move on to the next thing. And that's a big part of digital transformation actually, is that iterative process, being able to learn, being set up to take those learnings in and move on to the next thing and constantly have an innovation cycle going.


Will: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. So, okay. For people listening who find themselves in a meeting about digital transformation and being told, "We're going to embark on a digital transformation project here at the company," how do you brief for that? How do you brief a team or an agency to embark on a digital transformation project?


Clark: Really interesting area of discussion. Actually, a lot of the research and certainly my own as well shows that the most successful transformation projects, whatever shape they take, and that'll be different in every company, they do have one thing in common, and that is that they tend to be led from the top. There is, even if it's not initiated by the people at the top of the business, they are at least bought in and they are delivering the message to everyone. They create a vision behind it, often even a story behind it. And there's a long-term strategy of what it is that they're trying to do. There's a clear idea of where they're going with their digital transformation project. It is pretty impossible to brief that to someone if you don't know what those goals or objectives are.


If it is just, "We're worried we're going to be disrupted and go out of business, we've heard that can happen, we need to be up to speed," it's not that useful for a team to work with. Digital transformation, in some ways it can be positive, it is broad, it can mean so many things, and in other ways it is negative because you leave people a lot of room for interpretation. So what might happen then is that, yeah, you install a new social media marketing platform and you're no longer using Excel spreadsheets. People convince themselves that that is digital transformation. It needs to be led with a proper innovation. It doesn't, of course they won't know the details of exactly what you're going to do. But it could be we want to be fit to serve today's customer. We know that they are doing X, Y, and Z differently. We've seen the competitors, A, B, and C, are working on different innovation strands. We want to know what our mission should be. You can work from there. But without some sort of vision about where you're going, it is impossible to brief that to people, because they will pick up on it and take whatever meaning they want.


Will: So you need that overarching vision, but you also, you do need some sort of numbers, some metrics, some KPIs to measure success by. I think that's important too, just to clarify because I think a lot of people would embark on those projects thinking that you can't get that specific. But, of course, yeah. I mean, you need to understand what you're trying to drive here. Is it, you know, quicker service at checkouts? Is it, you know, I don't know, a quicker loading time on websites or shorter delivery times or what have you? Okay, that's good to know. So, what are the kind of most commonly held myths and misconceptions that you encounter when you work with digital transformation?


Clark: Yeah. Quite a few as you can imagine. I think it was about five, I think five main ones. I'll try and I'll probably forget along the way what's number I'm on but the first one would be that it is about technology, that it begins and ends with technology. This creates often a false disconnect between people and technology. So, we exist separate to it. If we invest in these new technologies, we will be...and this happens quite often. It's not as simple as I'm making it sound…we do fall into these traps and all of us are quite guilty of it. We want a solution. We want something that makes us feel...essentially, we want to know what good looks like, we want to feel like we have now transformed. This is us. We are up to speed. And technology is an easy way of doing that.


It's quite comforting in that sense. But if the people don't know how to use it, if it's not effectively replacing what you were doing, if you don't know what the technology is meant to do. So it could be, to come back to your point about metrics for this, well, you could be using technology to create operational efficiencies. You could be looking to reduce the number of calls you get to your call center. Anything like that could be quite useful, or you could be looking to drive growth. You might want more market share, revenue, profit, all of those things. You can do that if you are able to train people to use the technology properly and they know what they're aiming to do. So, that would be the first one. The second is that there's a finite period of transformation. So people, again, we're conditioned to think in this way. If we do X, then Y will happen. And it's hard as well because I have every sympathy, I don't mean to be glib about that. I understand that businesses are investing money in these transformation projects and they want to know that something comes off the back of it.


Will: Yeah. They want certainty that we're going to do this for three months and then that's it. We're done, we're digitally transformed forever.


Clark: Yeah. And I understand that. You know, I think I'd probably be thinking the same because that's the way our whole system works, you know. You put a line item in, you want to come back the next quarter, quarterly earnings and say that we did that and then this happened. You can still break it down into different periods of activity though. So, you can look at it as, you know, you have an objective of reaching full digital maturity as an organization. And that could mean your business model, it could be in your operational processes, your talent. It could mean the skills that people have. It could be any of those things, how you acquire new customers, and then set short-, medium-, and long-term goals that you're constantly working towards. But there won't be a finite period of, as you say, well, in six weeks, we'll be able to put a big tick beside digital transformation and it's done.


The third thing would be that it's actually almost always about efficiency rather than growth. People think that...this is often what people end up thinking with AI actually. And, you know, I could certainly go on for a long period about that but looking at it as a way to cut costs, to maybe even reduce overhead, sub smaller offices. And, you know, this could be a good way to move forward. The idea is, of course, that you will become more efficient in what you do but you should be looking at digital transformation as a growth engine as well, as a way of seizing that next opportunity, of really being ready for the next 5, 10, 15 years of business after, you know, years of working on the past system. The fourth bit is that you can focus on one area and that will equate to transformation.


So, you may decide that your marketing needs an overhaul. We need new systems in place. We want to be the best in the industry at how we get to market with our content. It needs to be agile. It needs to be all those great things. And then you forget about the other areas and focus on that one strand. You do need to be thinking about those areas I mentioned. So, your whole business model can be completely rethought in a digital age. You could be thinking about new ways to create capture value, new ways to even partner with previously rival firms, to create new spinoff companies that can be more innovative if you aren't necessarily that way inclined. It's about your people, the way that they think. It's also about having a common language across the organization. Does everyone at the company understand what you're trying to achieve through digital transformation?


Do they know what it will look like when you've been successful? You know, all of those things really matter. How do you bridge those gaps between departments? That's how the modern corporation should be functioning. Now, the fifth one, and I remembered that I had five. So I must...


Will: Good. Really impressive. Thanks.


Clark: I'm stunned because my memory has been awful of late, but at least I can remember that my memory has been awful. So, that's a good point. The fifth one is that every company needs to be digitally transforming or else they're going to go out of business. There is a real sense of panic, and I'm sure I'm not allaying that by saying, you know, there's no clear certainty about this. You have to be thinking in these nuanced terms. And that's the reality that we're in. But there's a real skill in knowing when actually you don't need to undergo all of these fundamental changes. There are some organizations where it is enough to modernize a few of their processes and keep an eye on what the customer is expecting and what they'll expect next.


There are a lot of companies that have invested in technologies that they don't need. And I've written lots of research reports about this, and that is the uniform across marketing leaders, from massive companies to tiny companies. They all say, "We have a marketing stack with things in it I bought because I thought we were falling behind and we don't need that." So, I think there's, in terms of being a decisive leader, there are good ways to think about this and think, okay, we know that that's going on in the world today, but we're going to position ourselves a little bit differently. It's not about, you know, disrupt or die. That's a literal slogan I've seen on an office wall.


Will: Yeah, same here. What comes across when you talk about it is that digital transformation, and this is my experience as well, it's really a transformation of people. And that's actually the thing that I've struggled with previously in companies I've worked for, and with, and in, it can be like pushing water uphill, transforming teams to work differently. And the problem I come across with digital transformation is that it's not only new. So people are resistant to new things. That's already a barrier that's up. But there's something about digital transformation projects that can seem faddish, can seem, oh, it's just a shiny new thing that the CEO is obsessed with. It's his latest toy. It can seem like, well, this isn't really what we do. This isn't the heart of what our business is.


This isn't why we all turn up. This is just some kind of new-fangled thing. And it'll be, you know, it'll be gone again in a year or two. So, there's lots of reasons to dismiss it, really, I think internally. And people, it's very hard at the executional level, you know, the mid to lower levels in hierarchies to actually get people bought into this stuff. Because as soon as you back it up with strategy speak as well, that just cements the fact that it's a load of consultant speak and it's not for them. And it's not really what this business does. I mean, I'm sort of just airing my own issues with it, but that's the biggest challenge I've come across, and it's happened a few times. How have you seen that surmounted? How have you surmounted it if you have?


Clark: Well, I've certainly been on the receiving end of the consultant speak, and I've had that experience of you go for, say, a company meeting and everybody's there, you've got a couple of hundred people and the CEO talks about how everything's going to be transformed digitally. And this is a huge thing, and they've probably got a consultancy firm in to help with it. And they've got, you know, a little white paper on what it means and call it something like, back then it would have been a 2020 vision for the company. And the problem is, first of all, we're all kind of, well, cynics like myself anyway are predisposed to dislike that kind of talk and to find issues with it. But the problem is when you go back to your desk, nothing changes. So, there's no change in how you operate as a company.


You might have a new technology to help with collaboration that doesn't work and the people aren't necessarily using. The key bit here I think is if you are, even if you're, you know, your department heads, never mind being the whole company head, is to have that this whole customer-centric idea that we have about, we need to be on top of what today's customer wants. Really important, but you need to start thinking of people within the corporation in the same way. What are their needs? What are they doing on a daily basis? How can we help them get things done and not add more friction? It's so surprising that people who are great at this, you know, the people who rise to the top of these companies have obviously done a great job with that. They know the industry, their job is to see where the customer's going, but they don't apply that internally.


They don't think about, well, how can we convince people? How can we make their lives a little bit easier? The most important bit of it is actually building this in to the company processes. I almost hate myself for using the word process. It used to annoy me so much, but it's true. It's, you know, the way that you get things done, how is your day to day life in the company materially different, better, faster? Do you feel like you're getting more done, achieving your goals better? Exact same as you would think about a customer outside. They don't want to hear buzz speak. They don't want to be advertised apps. They want to be involved in the process. They want to have everything on their terms and it will be up to them. You know, I've invested in technologies and put it in front of a department.


And then you look at the usage figures and nobody's using it. And it's not because they're not innovative or it's not because they just hate something new. It's because it wasn't better than what they were doing before. It wasn't easier. They weren't used to it. So, there's a real skill in using that sort of customer-centric lens to applying to how things actually prove that this is the way to do things. Don't just talk about it, actually make things happen differently. And if you can't do that, then perhaps it's worth going back to the drawing board with the whole digital transformation idea. Maybe it's not fit for purpose if people aren't going to buy into it.


Will: That's a really great point, actually. I'll definitely use that. I'm going to take that into the future because it's a great point because I think that a lot of management teams do dog-food their staff, as the saying goes where, you know, they feed them stuff that they wouldn't themselves consume. You know, I ran a digital transformation project at one of the big UK newspapers as the external consultant. And there was a bit of cynicism. And there were just, there were things that just weren't adopted, like this was back in 2010. So, we tried to implement Yammer and amongst many, many other things. I mean, the whole process of journalism digitally, and no one used it. And thinking back to things like that, and no one needed it, no one needed it. We just thought, "Well, that's the thing that's available now."


And it's a work tool that it kind of looks good and sounds good. And the idea behind it is great, this idea that we can sort of create mass collaboration. But why? What for? What was the point of having this internal company social network? There was no point. And the only people that didn't understand that was me, my business partner, and our client, the head of digital. But everyone else understood that this was totally useless. And so, you know, I've definitely learned that lesson on both sides, because I think a lot of that happens, you know. We create new processes, workflows, and tools, and what have you because we want to get something out of staff or teams. But it doesn't make their workflows or processes any better. It doesn't give them any benefit. And you're just never going to win in that situation.


Clark: Yeah, it's a bit like, I was watching last night, the program (on TV) about the history of maps. And it reminds me a little bit of that, of how, you know, in the 17th century leading up to the Great Fire of London, they made this huge map of the whole city. And it looked beautiful. Everything was laid out. It was meant to.. and in the 18th century they updated it. The idea was to make it look more beautiful than Paris. And it completely removed the whole human experience of a city. And everyone knows, of course, it's, you know, the people that make the place and so on. And they were able to smooth out any of the kinks along the way. And everyone loved that. You know, it's a piece of art. But it's not reality. And people like William Hogarth was painting down on the street and the fact that it was absolute mayhem. You know, there were rats everywhere.


There's loads of things going on that shouldn't have been, but it's a nice comforting illusion to have this order, where there's really chaos. And we've all seen that in meetings. So, you sit and you all believe in it. It's not that you're doing this on purpose. Someone puts up a hierarchy of the organization and it looks beautiful and they've got a designer to work on it and it feels great. But then you've put the people in the wrong place. The reporting lines don't actually make any sense. People are, you know, are going to different people for different things than you expected because, you know, that's the reality of it. And the closer you stay to those pain points, same as we would with customers, the better the solutions will be. It might not look as beautiful but at least they'll be realistic.



Will: That's very true. So what do you think about the difference between digitization, digitalization, and digital transformation? Because I think for anyone listening, I think they are key distinctions to make, because we've touched on it already. You know, it's not just sticking a shop on the internet. Digital transformation is something deeper, but there are these different tiers of making a business digital or helping a business to benefit from digital.


Clark: Yeah. So, digitization, I would see as kind of the strict conversion of something from an analog form to digital. So, your bank used to send you paper statements. Now they can do it online. Quite straightforward. Digitalization is focused more on how the digital world will impact people and how they work, how they get things done. So, it could be self-serve checkouts or, you know, serving yourself in airports to move through. It could be things like, well, the Zoom meetings that we're all becoming quite used to. Now, the next stage up from that, so digitization, analog to digital. Straight conversion, something like, yeah, bank statements would be a good example. Digitalization, how this new digital world actually, you know, affects people. It changes the way they work. Something like Zoom. Digital transformation is then a very much a level up from that. It might even be, you can build on something like Zoom and think of new ways to work, new ways to meet, new ways to get things done. It would be a complete rethink rather than just moving your meetings online and having the same meetings. You're thinking more about how this affects the whole weekly calendar for the organization. How do you communicate during the day outside of those calls? You know, what else can you get done online? So, more of a radical rethink of everything around it, where the others are more of a, just a conversion, taking the offline and making it online.


Will: Yeah, kind of, I suppose, like, I don't know if it's the right example, but a bit like the fact that Amazon went from being a bookstore that was already online and now most of its revenue comes from hosting, basically, hosting people's websites. And most people don't even know that. Or Apple are a good example of that. You know, they started out making computer hardware and now they are, well, they're a software and a platform business. You know, so they've gone into areas they never could have fore saw doing business in, or no one could, 10, 20 years ago.


Clark: Yeah. And the big key to their huge success, of course, in 1997, they were bailed out by Microsoft. They had better computers. You'll probably recall back then, anyone who had an Apple computer would talk at length about why it was better than a PC or why it was a better operating system than Windows. But people didn't buy more of them. That wasn't the selling point. Now, when something like the iPhone came along, they were head to head with someone like Nokia, huge company selling phones. So, you were comparing feature sets. Which phone does this better, which has the brighter screen, which has, you know, which has games on it? And then people started to jailbreak the iPhone and the conversation at Apple was, "Do we work with this or against it?" And, you know, Steve Jobs was against it. He wanted the closed system of a product. They opened it up.


And then you had developers coming on board. You had all of these network effects of people wanting to develop apps because there were more people on board and there was a virtuous cycle there. Now, why that's interesting and why that's so key for understanding digital transformation is, you now have a different business model with which Nokia cannot compete. They're not playing the same game anymore. So, they've completely changed the rules of the game. And if you're Nokia, then what do you do? You go and create your own platform and try and catch up. Maybe you've already lost a lot of vital room to Apple, it's storming ahead. So, I think that's a really good example of looking at moving from product to platform could be a huge shift there, but rethinking the whole business model of the company can give you a big competitive advantage.


Will: That is a great example, but how and when does digital transformation go wrong? Have you seen that as well?


Clark: Yeah, so most of the, most of the stats that you'll see around this and, you know, there's some really good and reputable reports from the likes of McKinsey on that. And I worked with quite a lot of professors and business leaders and the like on these things. And most people will say they've seen these things go wrong. It's interesting that they go wrong given that the whole idea of digital transformation is that there is no good or bad, that it's actually up to each company to define their metrics. And you could easily say it has gone great and nobody could really argue with you. And yet most companies say, "It has gone wrong for us. It hasn't quite worked." Now, what that suggests is their expectations are of some futuristic corporation that completely changes. And they're, what they're doing is conflicting the rate of change for people with the rate of change for technology.


The challenge we have is that we can't really use the technology to its potential. There's so much technological advancement out there and people aren't keeping up with it. So, we're kind of imagining if we bring in this new technology, we will become this new futuristic company. But then people don't change with it, they don't necessarily use it. So, the reasons that you see these things fall flat are people just buy technology. Maybe, and I can say this is quite often the case, there's a sales pitch behind the technology that doesn't come to fruition when they actually start working it, it doesn't do what it said on the box. But another big one is lacking this idea of kind of a common language, a sense of shared, even actually a base level of data literacy would be one good example across the organization. They don't make the data accessible to everyone.


So, that can be a really good way to go about a digital transformation is thinking, “well, how can we…?” rather than, you know, “people aren't good with dashboards”. We think we are, but we can't digest that much information. How could we provide just the right information to the right departments and allow them to access it on their own terms? There's some really clever ways of doing that, the likes of Nike have done it really well internally. But you need to create that sense of data literacy and a sense that people know how to communicate with each other. How do non-tech people and tech people communicate about a project? All of those gaps need to be bridged and they're actually more about people and ways of working together, having different working groups. So, it's often about the mismatch between having this new technology that's a static resource essentially, and the dynamic resource of people and not adapting it enough to get the most out of the technology.


Will: That's very interesting, yeah, about the different rates of change between people and technology. You can buy a new product tomorrow but getting people to actually adapt to it is a whole different part of the process. And that is the transformation as we've talked about. It's interesting to talk about defining success as well. I mean, you look at brands, I know it's another tech brand, but you look at someone like Google. And, I mean, in Google's wake, as they hurtle along, are just so many dead products, so many sunsetted products that they tried. You know, Google Plus, Google Buzz, things like that that they've tried and have just failed, and yet it's a hugely successful company. And it's a constant iterative process of transforming who they are and what they're about, obviously while keeping the mission at the core of organizing the world's information, making it universally accessible.


But in ways that, you know, are quite conceptual and sometimes fail. And I think that's the thing. It's for any business operating in today's world, it is just an ongoing iterative process. And we have to embrace that some initiatives will fail and we have to have capacity for that. And I think we have to be able to discuss that openly and then not feel ashamed if you were the person that was on that project that failed. And actually, you contributed to the wider success of the business, you know, because without the Google Buzz and the Google Pluses, there wouldn't be Gmail and Google Suites for Business and all the other great stuff that they do. So, I suppose we all have to remember that, don't we?


Clark: Yeah, I think it's interesting. A lot of companies will, I suppose, get quite excited about the first wave of a digital transformation project, if we want to call it that, within the company. And they'll invest everything into one initiative, and it can often be something like a customer data hub, we're going to have this thing, it's going to be all visualizations and customers can go in. And I say this because I've seen this example in four or five different occasions, and then it doesn't work as they thought it would. They've invested a lot of money and it just sort of tails off and then they don't do anything else because, well, that didn't work. And it's really hard to focus on those small victories and trying to build from a smaller stage. You know, I was talking to someone the other day who works at BMW, and they were telling me about how they've rolled out all of these great functionalities but what they've done is tested things in smaller markets and allowed them to fail, you know, just gain the insights from that, and then start to roll it out slowly over different areas and change it along the way.


And you have this belief that the end goal will be worth it even if you have to. And it's always easy I think talking about those examples, you know, the huge, huge companies that can afford to let these things go by the wayside. But if you just scale that right down, the same principles do apply equally to lots of companies. The ones that are successful in digital transformation are receptive to new data, willing to change tack if they see that things aren't necessarily working. They are able to iterate the processes, they're constantly changing. The idea of digital transformation is (that) the world's changing, and we need to keep changing with it. So, they have this sense of constant improvement, and that applies to any company. It doesn't matter what size, could be a sole trader as much as it could be, you know, BMW.


Will: Oh, I agree. I mean, a small local shop, you know, it might, you know, try a new payment terminal and it doesn't work out and they try something else. That's not a failure. That's fine. That's all part of the process of always constantly improving, you know, always pruning your little Bonsai, you know, and it will never be perfect because, you know, but you just keep on going. And that's running a business in the 21st century, isn't it? It's the reality of it, I suppose. Well, we're almost coming to the end of our chat and it's already been fascinating. Thanks for all your insights. I suppose just one more question for you and I hope we've not covered it too much, but along the way, you know, you've clearly worked on lots of digital transformation projects. Could you kind of summarize what the most valuable lessons that you've learned have been along that journey about digital transformation?


Clark: Yeah, it's been really, really enlightening actually over the last few years of, you know, having a different perspective on this compared to, you know, first being kind of being involved as a participant in these transformation projects, and then working towards leading them for clients and then working externally with universities and big companies and seeing what they're doing. And the really interesting bit has been that nobody really thinks they know what they're doing. You'd think when you're working within a company that whoever's out there is 10 times ahead and they've got this all figured out. And when you're able to talk to people quite candidly, and it's not, you know, they're not selling things to you, there is always a sense of, we're figuring this out as we're going along. And that's not a bad thing. You know, that's what everybody is doing. It's the same as a lot of digital marketing challenges actually.


The goal can seem so far away. You know, we talk about digital transformation. It's so huge that it doesn't matter if you start today or start tomorrow. What does it even mean anyway? But the best leaders are breaking it down and knowing that getting started is the most important part. They have a long-term strategy, they're changing it along the way, and that's been really quite enlightening to see, you know, from a position of uncertainty, they're actually embracing that. They're able to work with it. We think of these as paradoxical things. So yeah, if you don't really know what's happening, what's going to happen tomorrow, what do you do today? Well, actually just taking action and course-correcting along the way is the best way to do that. I've also seen, and I think this is probably the key one for me, is that boundary between man and machine and how they work best together, where people's failings tend to be and where their strengths are.


And they're not always where we imagine them to be. We like to think of ourselves as very rational, very certain about things. Data-driven, everybody says that they are data-driven, but we're not. We work on gut instinct, we work on biases, and it happens all the time. And we're not good with dashboards. You know, the dashboards that we all aim for, the CMO dashboard, it'll change everything, we are not perceiving as much out of that as we think that we are. We have other skills. It's, you know, the interpersonal way of dealing with things. It is that long-term strategy. It's getting out there and speaking to customers, listening to them, and trying to embed that within the company. The machines are good at the rational stuff. They are better at that. They can guide us along the way. So, it's been interesting seeing how people have known when to listen to that data and when to go with their gut instinct when they know something is right. I find that quite refreshing, actually. I think to most people it would be quite reassuring actually that, you know, out there, these aren't kind of machines leading these corporations towards ever more glory. They're uncertain about things, they're questioning themselves, but, you know, at least finding a way forward, always trying to move forward with that uncertainty.


Will: Yeah. That is a reassuring note to end on actually, isn't it, that, you know, everyone's figuring this stuff out as we go. And it is that kind of blend of human intuition backed up with and supported by some, you know, machine-generated data. Well, Clark, thanks so much. It's been fantastic to hear what you think about digital transformation. It's certainly made it all a lot clearer to me. I really appreciate your time. Just tell our listeners where they can find you online.


Clark: Yeah. The best way is probably my hi, tech newsletter, which you'll find through my LinkedIn and you can search for. I do kind of a weekly roundup on the latest in tech and, you know, people I've been talking to and things I find out. So yeah, normally, go through my LinkedIn, search for Clark Boyd, there's only one of me and you'll see the link in there. But yeah, thanks a lot for having me, Will. I've really enjoyed it.


Will: Been a real pleasure, Clark. Thanks very much.


Clark: Thanks a lot. Bye.


Will: If you enjoyed this episode, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And for more information about transforming your marketing career through certified online training, head to digitalmarketinginstitute.com. Thanks for listening.

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Clark Boyd
Clark Boyd

Clark Boyd is CEO and founder of marketing simulations company Novela. He is also a digital strategy consultant, author, and trainer. Over the last 12 years, he has devised and implemented international marketing strategies for brands including American Express, Adidas, and General Motors.

Today, Clark works with business schools at the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, and Columbia University to design and deliver their executive-education courses on data analytics and digital marketing. 

Clark is a certified Google trainer and runs Google workshops across Europe and the Middle East. This year, he has delivered keynote speeches at leadership events in Latin America, Europe, and the US. You can find him on X (formerly) Twitter, LinkedIn, and Slideshare. He writes regularly on Medium and you can subscribe to his email newsletter, hi, tech.

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