How to make the digital switch?

Source: Data News (05/02/2016); Author: Pieterjan Van Leemputten

Vlerick organises a Digital Leadership programme in conjunction with Data News. Participants immerse themselves in all things digital for five days. This is not a technical programme but rather about how-to’s and do’s and don’ts for entrepreneurs and employees who realise that the future is digital and that this future has already been going on for about ten years now.

Digital should be the norm. You may have heard this before, but how do you go about this in a company where the processes are already laid down, where new players make you jump through hoops or where you want it but have yet to get management on board? This and more is covered in this programme, step by step.

Professor Stijn Viaene leads the week of study, along with Joachim Van den Bergh (Digital Transformation Researcher at Vlerick). After a brief refresher course on previous topics, he explains among others how companies are better off an in ecosystem, preferably one that you establish yourself. But he also tells participants how to do this. “Start with just enough partners and only expand your network when necessary”, he says. The idea is to avoid players with overlapping interests from being in each other’s way. Make sure that everyone stands to benefit. But we also learn why companies like to buy start-ups. “Because they know how to address your clients’ digital needs”. He also gives a few examples of companies who use start-ups as a digital extension of their organisation.

The morning session continues at a steady pace. While the railways are on strike outdoors, Viaene moves through his presentation like a high-speed train, taking questions and interacting with participants. Does he say things that you have never heard before? Yes and no. Viaene combines wisdom and experiences which you may have already heard before. At the same time, he substantiates his ideas with cases and specific examples so you come to understand why this is important and why your company should become a digital leader rather than wait until it falls by the wayside.

There are twenty-six people taking part in the programme. They include C-level executives as well as a former CIO who now works as a freelance consultant and who wants to learn more about the digital switch that so many companies are struggling with today. There is also the sales manager of a large ICT company, who wants to focus more on digital transformation, which means she also needs to know how to pitch this idea to customers and how to make a difference.

Most of the participants are in their forties and fifties and have been working since before digital become the norm. At the same time, they have no problems at all with embracing this norm. Ellen Van Den Berghe, our Young ICT Lady of the Year 2015, also took part in the Digital Leadership programme. As Digital Channels Manager she is responsible for the digital side of business at the Belgian National Lottery, putting paid to the idea that this type of programme was developed to get people on board who weren’t already. This is wrong and it is also wrong to assume that Viaene is merely telling them that there is such a thing as an app store. He also explains how such an ecosystem is created. After this, the participants must come up with ideas and think about how they can initiate such a change in their company while taking into account the possibilities and pitfalls.

Digital in practice

During the afternoon session we discuss the situation of the Flemish employment agency in detail. The VDAB’s role has evolved and it is now an organisation that also provides coaching to people in their current careers. “They are evolving from ‘you must go to the VDAB’ to ‘you want to go to the VDAB’” says Viaene. This involves a lot of internal changes, in combination with new projects.

Viaene: “The CIO and CEO have to form a team in this case. If you want this to be a success, then they have to endorse this new vision. This increases the chances that employees will also accept this vision. But assurance also matters. Viaene explains that the VDAB works closely with researchers to check whether their methods are also accurate.

When it comes to the large budgets for implementing such a transformation, Viaene is categorical: “You will never have the funds to do what you want. That’s always an effort”. At the same time, an organisation has much more wealth to capitalise on, besides its bank account. As is the case for the VDAB, and its own data. Making these data freely available can generate added value, precisely because the market trusts these data. But the organisation was also able to rely on digital skills, by attracting Cegeka as a partner.

The CIO/CEO team is just one aspect. You also must really involve your employees in your strategy. “To get an official green light in a company about something, for example for a management plan, is an important step forward. It is a way of presenting your vision to all the stakeholders before it is rolled out. VDAB is currently evolving from a pure service provider to a labour market director”.

Tinder for your career

The examples and references indicate that the change may not be that obvious in every organisation. At the same time, it is never impossible as long as you go about it in the right way. Don’t wait on the sidelines, don’t muddle around. At the same time, you cannot afford to pump money or consultants into a plan without thinking it through.

After an introduction, the time comes for some hands-on work. One of the VDAB’s services is called Mentor, and is best described as “Tinder for your career”. You can create a profile as mentor or mentee and get in touch with others to discuss your career. We are kicked out of the classroom and tasked with forming groups to think about what is good and bad about the app. An assignment which forces you, as a participant, to think about a digital platform, about how it behaves within an organisation and what it can (or can’t) do for its users.

Wim De Waele takes over from Viaene for the second case. The former CEO of iMinds is currently focusing on FinTech with his company Eggsplore and points out that a lot is about to change at a digital level in this industry. “The banks are not ready yet”, he starts by saying. “Not because they are stupid. But because they are stuck with heavily regulated legacy systems. This is in stark contrast with start-up technology which can be easily implemented”. And this brings us right back to where we started earlier in the day, when Viaene mentioned start-ups. In contrast with your bank, these start-ups can take over your digital life. But De Waele also warns against the current hype about start-ups. “These start-ups are getting a lot of funding but many of them are not yet profitable and do not have a large customer base. In FinTech you have to have a lot of customers”. He is clear about the role of the traditional players: “They will continue to play a role, albeit a different one, but they are still relevant”.

The rest of the afternoon is dedicated to an umbrella assignment, which spans the entire week. It is then that I decide to leave. As my gaze turns to the stranded passengers in Brussels-North who are looking up at the notice boards, I open the NMBS app to see whether the trains are on strike. I immediately order an SMS ticket and realise that a traditional company like the NMBS already supplies a large part of its services through its app and talks to its customers on Twitter. Something which we would not have thought possible five years ago. Possibly the best proof that there is even room for the most difficult companies to digitally reinvent themselves.

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