‘Freeing up five employees to focus on disruption? That won't work’

‘We must reduce digital transformation to the right proportions, far removed from hypes and woolliness. At the same time, we need to seek out the right context to frame this transformation more effectively.’ The plea of Stijn Viaene from Vlerick Business School couldn't be clearer: things could and should be different and better.

Whenever the conversation turns to disruption or digital transformation these days, you can be sure it won't take five seconds before someone mentions Uber, Airbnb or Silicon Valley. ‘It's high time to look beyond the hype,’ thinks Stijn Viaene. ‘If you ask a manager exactly what the digital transformation stands for, you will almost always get an extremely vague answer. We therefore need clear framing and we need to learn how to see the wood for the trees once again. This is something we are very keen to work on with Vlerick Business School.’

It's hard to deny it: there is definitely ‘something’ going on which is having an increasing impact on our companies.

Stijn Viaene: ‘Absolutely, and you also notice two camps developing at the same time. Some people fear that digital transformation will lead to the massive loss of jobs. Others are eagerly assuming that many new jobs will actually be created in the digital economy. But will we be able to fill all these new jobs given the current skills of the average employee? I'm afraid not. This is why we are setting up management programmes like ‘Take the Lead’, to give these employees greater insights into their contribution and their new role in the digitalising economy. It's not our aim to create digital gurus, there are enough of those out there already. We wish to allow people to serve as ambassadors for their organisation. After all, there's no getting round the fact that there is a lot of fear in the workplace these days.’

Where do you think things are going wrong? Why all this fear and uncertainty?

‘All too often, companies are still reaching out for rather overhyped solutions and formulas. For example, they might organise a digital academy so they can train people. Or they might set up an incubator, mainly keeping the innovation outside the company. There's nothing wrong with setting up training programmes or focusing on external innovation, but what about the current core business? What about those often complex structures and processes which really form the heart of a company? Shouldn't we do something with those? Will they by definition be ‘lost’? No, of course not. However, people must understand that the new reality essentially takes place in and from the environment. Transformation is therefore not a task for marketing or IT alone. It will affect every aspect of your company. Companies must realise they will need to take a far more holistic look at their operational management, from the culture and organisation through to employees and processes and to clients and strategy. The whole tanker will need to be turned if you wish to use it again. Only this will allow you to capitalise on existing strengths in the new environment and develop new strengths. Freeing up five employees to focus on disruption for a while? That really won't work.’

You are holding up a mirror to CEOs, but are your current efforts more than just window dressing? This could be a painful wake-up call for people at that level.

‘Certainly, but why else are these people being appointed and paid? If you need a CEO for anything today in this digitalising world, then it is to map out a new path. His or her main task must be to create the right context for the rest of the company and to translate to the outside world what must happen outside the company. The CEO must also seek out connections which can help to achieve this within the company's ecosystem, both internally and externally. Companies must understand that steadily increasing collaboration will be required, in complex ecosystems. The main strategy for 2016 will be exercising options. Focus on new skills and strengths, sure, but also continue to build on what already exists, even in new business models.’

Could you mention any companies which have adopted a good approach?

‘There is one example close to home which I always like to mention. It’s in the financial sector, no less: KBC. Not because they have managed to turn the entire tanker already, but because they are including all the clusters – even insurance – in an ambitious change programme. For the time being it is still an investment programme, but tomorrow it will just be their new organisation.’

We therefore need new digital ambassadors, people who can help to turn the tanker: what would their ideal profile look like?

‘In the first instance, they must represent a business approach in which the digital aspect takes centre stage. They must be able to effectively position and frame everything which happens in the company's environment, as well as including other employees in the story. It is very important for them to be able to mobilise people and free up resources to actually enable the digital transformation to take place. They must also realise that the use of data will become essential in everything the company plans to do.’

In search of ExConomy
Is your company ready for the digital transformation? Vlerick has developed a handy test which provides a useful answer to this question. The test is known as the ExConomy questionnaire. The term ExConomy represents four basic principles which are central to the new digital economy: 1. The customer experience represents value.
2. Experimenting with data is absolutely essential.
3. Collaboration leads to new strategies and business models.
4. Digital platforms ensure productive ecosystems.

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