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Transforming our thinking about the role of digital

Digital transformation is a popular term cropping up in many organisational strategies, including our own. But what’s it all about? I attended an excellent seminar last week that prompted me to reflect on my views on the subject.

The concept of digital transformation has been around for a good while now; the must-have term every organisational plan. But in many ways, it’s just a different way of saying that you must proactively manage the user experience.

My view:

  • Be clear about your organisational goals; get the team behind it empowered and incentivised to deliver.
  • Understand your customers intimately; what motivates and influences them, and how your goals align with theirs.
  • Work iteratively, continuously and ruthlessly to deliver the best for both parties.

So, if your goals are aligned, optimising the customer experience will be at the core of everything the organisation does.

Notice I didn’t use he term ‘digital’ once there. My view is that today, digital is ubiquitous. It goes without saying that if we’re going to deliver experiences that are efficient for the organisation and meet with user expectation, digital is going to be the primary medium.

But not the exclusive medium. ‘Digital by default’ is the Government Digital Service mantra. Design for digital but be mindful of where another channel is more appropriate, and work out where digital fits in this scenario.

Digital transformation before and after – Precedent seminar

Rachel Bhandari and I attended an excellent seminar last week here in Edinburgh.

The hosts were digital consultants Precedent, with a customer case study from Herriot Watt University Business School.

The presentation they gave was a shorter version of a slide deck I’ve since found on their Slideshare profile. Same core material, but fewer case studies.

Digital transformation before and after – Precedent slides on Slideshare

Rob van Tol and Tim O’Donnell who were presenting started off with a fundamental question:

“What is digital?”

  • In house:
    • Websites
    • Tablet & mobile
    • Social profiles
    • Blogs & articles
  • External:
    • Content syndication
    • Search engine optimisation & Search engine marketing
    • Social marketing
    • Online campaigns
  • Physical:
    • Digital signage
    • Digital kiosks
    • Virtual guides
    • Virtual hosts

But ultimately:

It’s just an experience. Eventually it won’t be called anything. It’ll just be stuff.


The Precedent definition of digital transformation, which is, I think, nicely put:

Evolving an organisation’s ways of working in order to continue delivering its mission in the face of changing technology, competition, audience need and behaviour.


Thinking globally about how things are changing is critical to ensuring your organisation’s mission is aligned for future success, and they made some predictions about evolving user behaviours and attitudes, the impact of technology on the jobs market and the likely implications of climate change.

A great way to think about your mission is to leave aside where you are right now, and what has happened in the past, and ask yourself:

  • What would you look like if you were founded today?
  • What would you choose for your vision?
  • How would you train your staff?
  • What would it look like online?
Think about organisational mission as if you are a start up

A really pertinent question raised at the Precendent seminar. Source: Twitter


3 stages of digital transformation

Precedent identified three stages of digital transformation which at first I wasn’t so sure about (particularly the first point) but after the event, on reflection made more sense to me. They said:

  1. Surface: superficial change to test the case for bigger transformation
  2. Audience: transform the audience experience within internal constraints
  3. Internal: transform internal operations to match the audience experience

What I believe they’re saying here, is the same as considering the different levels at which an organisation can address user experience management:

  1. Surface – Usability. Focus on optimising the usability of a particular interface or process, in the context of a particular medium or channel
  2. Audience – User experience. Focus on the whole user experience across channels in the context of a particular user group completing a task or transaction.
  3. Internal – Service design. Focus on business processes and staff skills to refactor a user experience to be in line with user expectation, rather than how the organisation does things.

(And this is fundamentally how I believe we approach our CMS service with the ultimate goal of a more usable, user focused website. The University Website Programme doesn’t manage website content, structures or experiences in a really meaningful way because responsibility for websites is devolved across the University. But we design the CMS, our training and support to empower our colleagues to deliver more usable online experiences, using a highly usable publishing framework.)

A story of two mission statements

A beautiful example of the value focusing on your organisational mission while understanding your users was presented in the context of on-demand entertainment.

We’re all familiar with the story of Blockbuster vs Netflix, and how that played out.

But take a look at these two missions statements. One is Blockbusters, the other Netflix. (I won’t tell you which is which. Have a guess, then read on til the end to find out if you were right):

  • “To be the best global entertainment distribution service.”
  • “ To provide our customers with the most convenient access to media entertainment.”

Pretty similar, aren’t they? The point here is that one business evolved based on user trends and were set up to deliver what audiences wanted and technology enabled. The other just tweaked their existing model.

10 best practices for dealing with digital transformation

The presentation also quoted the Chief Digital Officer of Harvard. (That’s right, they have a CDO!)

Following the session, I located a good article which goes into these points in a bit of depth so won’t repeat it all here. I recommend reading it though.

10 best CDO practices for dealing with digital transformation – an interview with Perry Hewitt by the Huffington Post

  1. Build a high-performance digital team
  2. Digital should be everyone’s job
  3. Don’t do digital for the sake of digital
  4. Do fewer things better
  5. Create an atmosphere of collaboration
  6. Bake data-informed thinking into the culture
  7. Think from the outside-in
  8. Sometimes it’s better to beg for forgiveness then ask permission
  9. Get experimental and analytical
  10. Management needs to live digital

So, in a nutshell:

Go back to your mission and work out what it is you’re supposed to be doing.  Don’t focus on competitors.


Who “owns” digital transformation?

Well, that’s everyone, right? That’s what Perry Hewitt is kind of saying above.

It’s also what I’ve been saying for a long time, in a way. My often repeated mantra: “We’re all responsible for the user experience”.

But grassroots change can only go so far. We can do our best to optimise experiences and make decisions based on data and evidence, but transformation needs to be baked into the culture of the organisation. We need to be incentivised and organised to optimise for the customer. And that can only come from the top.

What Precedent basically said was “it depends” (classic UX manager response!).

There isn’t one right way to do it. The organisation’s culture, readiness, staff skills and mission all inform where responsibility should lie. Transformation isn’t a business-as-usual activity. And anyone trying to give a solution from the outside will be wrong.

So my advice to you (based on what I learned here, and read elsewhere – more reading below) is to go back to your team and reflect on what you’re ultimately here to do. Above all else, why does your business unit exist? Then set about answering this question:

What does a good user experience look like?


Resources from the seminar

And please do take a look at the Precedent slides. As well as the key points I’ve elaborated on here, there are lots of examples from many sectors (including our own) that will inspire and provoke more thought.

Digital transformation before and after – Precedent slides on Slideshare

I also picked up a couple of publications (very digital of me!) that you can download:

Blockbuster & Netflix – were you right?

I hope you didn’t cheat! 🙂

  • “To be the best global entertainment distribution service.” – Blockbuster
  • “To provide our customers with the most convenient access to media entertainment.” – Netflix

This, I think, is a powerful illustration of how two companies with essentially the same goal can head in such strikingly different directions by paying close attention to what customers want and optimising their experience over everything else.

More views and reading

In 2014 Paul Boag wrote a book on the topic of digital transformation which I really enjoyed; especially as he has so much experience as a consultant in the higher education and not-for-profit sectors.

“Why I was wrong about digital transformation and you might be too” – article and video from Paul Boag

But for me, there was a lot of focus on the digital and not enough on the customer.  Paul focuses more on UX and strategic change these days and it’s interesting how his opinions have moved on. I love how open he is with his views!

So I recommend Paul’s book Digital Adaption, and if you don’t have time for that, try the articles he’s written around it:

2 replies to “Transforming our thinking about the role of digital”

  1. Williamdut says:

    Major thanks for the forum topic.Much thanks again. Will read on… Fung

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