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If every organization is behind at digital transformation, who is actually leading? PHOTO: Ray Hennessy

The secret to long-term business success is "digital transformation" — or so we've been told repeatedly over the last three years.

At conferences, during meetings, in conversation, no matter what the original topic, the talk inevitably returns to digital transformation. 

And while I buy the premise, the reality is messy.

Organizational dynamics, installed technology, available technology and a rapidly evolving industry greatly complicate the process of digital transformation.   

Which has resulted in a common phenomena: over and over people tell me — and frequently in hushed tones — "we're way behind in digital transformation.” This came up repeatedly at a recent conference. 

As I listened to company after company start conversations with “we’re behind,” I thought, if everyone is behind, who is leading? 

No Easy Path to Digital Transformation

Of course, companies like Amazon are clearly at the cutting edge. But aside from high-profile notables, for the most part everyone is in the same boat: grappling with strategy and in the early stages of implementing technology to support digital transformation efforts. 

It’s time to stop worrying about being behind (except for those folks who told me they were still trying to make the case for digital in their organization — you really are behind), and let go of the notion that other companies are moving more efficiently through the digital transformation process.

There's no easy way to get through digital transformation. For starters, no one has invented a digital transformation platform. So we have no choice but to construct a marketing technology infrastructure using disparate and complex products, many of which don't integrate with each other. 

Complicating this effort is the existing technology infrastructure virtually every company has in place. While it may not lend itself to future requirements, it isn't easy to decommission. Custom integration code surrounds and touches many of the products in today’s marketing infrastructure environments, which puts the whole system at risk if you try to replace a product.

With a unified customer experience as the end goal, digital transformation efforts end up touching virtually every department in the company. This can be particularly challenging when there is no central oversight of technology purchases and management. 

Success requires clearly defining who owns the process and who will manage the coordination between teams and departments.

And finally, once you think you have a plan and are starting to implement technology, is it immediately disrupted by some new trend or technology? Augmented reality, anyone?

5 Digital Transformation Tips

In speaking to marketing operations professionals and CMOs who have been working on digital transformation efforts for longer than two years, some useful tips emerged.

1. If the organization is not structured to naturally support centralized oversight, create a cross-functional team or task force that is committed to operational visibility and working together to drive digital transformation. Key stakeholders in this process should include the marketing lead, the CIO and any product head.

2. In developing a marketing technology strategy, start with data integration and work to create a “single source of truth” for the organization. Choosing the right Data Management Platform is critical to this process. Everyone leveraging the same data set creates a solid foundation for a marketing technology infrastructure.

3. Pay attention to internal technology skill proficiency as you map and implement your technology strategy. Ensuring you have skill redundancies for all infrastructure platforms is extremely important. Put a long-term training strategy in place as you make major technology investments to ensure you fully utilize the feature set of each of the platforms.

4. Understand this is — and will always be — an iterative process, and make sure all of the stakeholders and decision makers understand it as well. Their continued support and allocation of budget relies on their understanding. Digital transformation doesn’t have a beginning and an end — there is no end!

5. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Focus first on developing your core infrastructure and don’t worry about the different non-integrated products in various departments. You can handle those when your basic infrastructure is in place and operational.

Keep Your Eye on the (Moving) Prize

So are you behind? Chances are, probably not.  

However, you could be soon if you don’t start moving towards digital transformation. Embrace that you live in a messy environment with lots of moving pieces and focus on getting the fundamentals right: a coordinated organization and a single source of truth from a common data management platform. 

Then enjoy the chaos and work to plan, implement and iterate a continually evolving marketing strategy.