In recent years, all things digital have been evolving at lightning speed. As a result, digital turbulence has become the new normal. Time to take stock and turn that turbulence into stability. What have we learned so far? What do we know? What can we take as a fact? Professor Stijn Viaene compiled years of knowledge into a book that he aptly titled Digital transformation know how.
The book comes at the right time, Stijn explains. “The importance of digital transformation may have been extensively put in the spotlight, but companies still struggle to implement it. Time and time again, surveys have showed it is difficult to bring about a digital transformation, even though everyone agrees that this type of transformation - regardless of its format - is essential to the survival of our organisations. Many people still feel they are the victims of digitisation. That being said, they want to try to understand it. This is reflected in the number of people who take part in our training programmes, and probably explains their popularity.”
Stijn has been conducting research into value creation through IT for over 20 years, in collaboration with various companies. In 2012-2014 the concept of ‘digital transformation’ was introduced to indicate that the changes in modern business operations caused by digital developments are gaining momentum. Moreover, with its Digital Leadership training programme, Vlerick became one of the first business schools in Europe to launch a specialised digital transformation programme, with a unique focus too. While other programmes emphasise innovation and a tabula rasa, Digital Leadership takes the transformation of the existing organisation as the basis.
“Over the past few years, we have developed a certain expertise in digital transformation through research with and for companies, training and consultancy”, Stijn explains. “I felt we were ready to take stock of all that expertise, which can serve as – excuse the jargon - a minimum viable terminological and reference framework for the next fast-paced evolution.”
It is important to note that the concept of digital transformation has also changed since it was first introduced: version 1.0 claimed that digital transformation mainly refers to the use of technology and the development of digital skills, like data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence; while version 2.0 focuses on the growing realisation that the transformation itself should also be tackled. “That is why I define digital transformation as a fully-fledged, integrated business transformation - with a focus on business - in which digital technology plays an important role”, Stijn explains. “And that definition implies the need for leadership and organisational agility.”
This definition formed the basis for the book, or rather for the first article that inspired it. In that article Stijn argued that the success of a digital transformation depends on the agility of an organisation, which, in turn, requires a combination of four types of leadership. In this framework, leadership should be interpreted as behaviour, regardless of position or hierarchical responsibilities. Moreover, any type of leadership is the result of close collaboration between a group of people, spread across the organisation, according to Stijn.
The article on the role of leadership was published in the May 2017 issue of The European Business Review (TEBR). It was featured on the cover and attracted a great deal of interest. There were so many requests for information and further analysis that another five articles were published between July 2017 and August 2019. Each one focused on a different key aspect of successful digital transformations: a redesigned strategy, the valorisation of the customer experience, optimal use of data, ecosystems and partnerships, and the dos and don’ts when creating an agile organisation.
These six articles form the skeleton of the book - from strategy to leadership and organisational agility. It also contains extra case studies and information that could not be included in the TEBR articles due to space constraints. For those who are not entirely familiar with the concept and importance of digital transformation, the first chapter gives an overview of the developments that emphasise the need for transformation. Simply put, they give an insight into the context.
When so much is written about a given topic, there is the risk that you can no longer see the wood for the trees. According to Stijn, the strength of this book lies in the fact that it is basically a summary: “It is not a full compendium of two thousand pages, but it enables you to gain an understanding of the main topics and decide what you would like to learn more about. It also contains numerous references to other works. Moreover, it doesn’t illustrate the stories of the usual suspects - the Amazons, Googles and Netflixes. The case studies are local ones, making them very relatable. However, since the book is also intended for an international audience, I decided to write it in English.”
“When organisations fail at something, they are often tempted to scrap everything, start all over again or hire yet another consultant, only to discover that too doesn’t work”, he continues. “Thanks to this book, organisations needn’t start from scratch. It provides fundamental, yet pragmatic answers to important management questions and offers a validated terminological and reference framework - a basis that is stable enough to be used as a starting point, yet leaves enough scope for learning and exploration. The book calls for digital transformation to be tackled jointly, as a community. And in order to succeed, it is important for everyone to speak the same language.”
Stijn stresses that this is neither a self-help book nor a cookbook. “After all, every organisation is different. This book gives you, as an organisation, the ingredients to come up with your own recipe.”
Who is the book aimed at? “At everyone who wants to help redesign management and leadership practices in our modern digital - and turbulent - world, at any level of the organisation”, Stijn explains. “I deliberately chose not to exclude anyone. The book is aimed at people who want to become leaders, play a leading role and no longer passively accept the digital transformation, but feel the need to take control of it as co-creators. This book offers guidelines for them to get started, but it shouldn’t be seen as a manual.”