We all talk a good game when it comes to digital transformation. For years, we’ve been nodding our heads when we hear that our companies have to be digital-first to be driven by real-time data. How getting rid of the ballast of technical debt and embracing the next wave will free our time, our people, and our balance sheets from the ways of old.
But the truth is, stories of true digital transformation are still rare in today’s business world. Recent Gartner research suggests that nearly 91% of organizations have not yet reached a transformational level of maturity in data and analytics. That means nine out of ten executives nodding their heads haven’t fully invested in, or had success in changing, their internal culture and systems.
It’s made me wonder what we all need to do to cross to the other side—to be able to be counted as leaders of the next wave.
From where I sit, marketing organizations seem to have taken the lead on this charge. The impact of new tools, new data, and new people not just wanting, but needing data to do their jobs, has begun to creep out to other departments. Where it’s worked, cloud technology has been a key enabler in every case, and that trend only continues to build. By 2020, according to another Gartner study, anything other than a cloud-only strategy for new IT initiatives will require justification at more than 30% of organizations.
But why, after 20 years attempting digital transformation, are most companies still behind in their adoption of new technologies and data-driven cultures? The biggest factor I see shouldn’t surprise you; it’s a problem we’ve been talking about as long as transformation has been on the tip of our tongues: Silos.
Companies have grown accustomed to their data silos. They haven’t seen what a truly modern and fully functional business looks like from the inside. They haven’t learned to demand a better system, and many still don’t believe that a better system is even possible. And because of this, they are still looking at their business—their customers, their sales, and their support performance—through a fractured lens.
What I’ve learned is that the only way to get a business connected and truly transformed is to tackle those silos—through culture, people, processes, and especially, through technology.
Consider marketing data: How can a CMO be effective without an understanding of sales data? Performance, pipeline, and revenue trends are just as important to marketers as the campaign metrics they’ve always watched with close eyes. And consider a sales organization with full knowledge and real-time metrics around marketing activities. Bringing the two together only makes sense, and will allow the executives from both groups to form a true working partnership instead of sending PowerPoint attachments over email like grenades lobbed over cubicle walls. The same goes for merchandising groups having insight into real-time inventory levels, and consulting groups understanding new customer support trends without having to wait for a quarterly update.
We’ve forgotten why these walls went up in the first place. It wasn’t people not wanting to work together, or mandates from the C-level to “stay in your yard.” It was technology. The data had no way to flow from here to there and back again. The licenses only allowed for a handful of installed users before the prices went through the roof, while leaders demanded all the right information before acting, only to see the weeks and months tick by without consensus.
It reminds me of advice from my dad, a Colonel in the Marines. He always said that leaders making decisions with more than 75% of the correct information are, by definition, hesitating. The lesson he learned from his service was that the team picking a route and heading to the top of a peak is most likely to get there first, while those teams trying to strategize each and every element of the journey will find themselves behind, staring up at the team ahead of them that’s already setting up camp at the top. But this time, as business leaders have been waiting for data to solve their problems, the technology has actually caught up.
While you weren’t looking, the root problems of digital transformation—the ability for systems to combine all types of data and make it accessible across your organization—grew up and became what you’d always asked for. Now, with APIs, and cloud and mobile access, your people and leadership are the ones that need to catch up—with their idea of what a technology can now do, and what it means for their roles and opportunities.
The biggest hurdle to digital transformation is no longer technical. It’s become a people problem, which presents a new set of challenges and opportunities for all of us. We need to become more mature in how we operate. We need to grow comfortable with transparency and promote cultures that embrace the truth and aren’t afraid to make quick decisions based on real-time information.
We need leaders who embrace a single truth for companies that, for decades, have hidden behind differing opinions on how to measure success. We need people that trust their gut and experience, but know how to verify and tweak their viewpoints based on data. We need aligned goals, true accountability, and a hunger to embrace the grind of strategic decision-making, instead of churning on monthly reporting that’s outdated by the time it hits your inbox.
When I’m sitting down with another CEO who has put the work in to get their data, in real time, at their fingertips, it’s a magical moment: an epiphany.
These problems have always been the tough ones. But the leaders that look to better themselves and transform their organizations will be more competitive, more agile, have a more engaged workforce, and be sought after for future opportunities. They’ll drive more efficient organizations and change how we think of “business as usual.” Technology will help fuel their progress, but it’s not enough. It’s up to all of us to push forward and change, to take our organizations to the best place the technology allows us to go.