Who can help your company with its digital transformation?

Karl Moore and Niketh Pareek ask a great question, and from a useful perspective: the world around us is being changed totally by a number of trends — mobile, touch/tablet, cloud, social, and the shift to a  distributed, discontinuous, and decentralized world of work, and businesses must be fundamentally transformed if they are to survive, let alone thrive. Companies are likely to have to reach outside to bring in people with a deep understanding of this transformation.

Karl Moore and Niketh Pareek, Digital Transformation – Who You Gonna Call?

What makes digital transformation so different is that rather than being technology driven, this phenomenon is largely driven by consumer trends.

Consumers are considerably more sophisticated users of technology then they have been in the past, accustomed to the convenience that smartphones, social networks and cloud-based technologies have afforded them.  They now know the potential benefits of these tools, and increasingly demand that all types of information technologies conform to those expectations.  Just about every consulting company worth its salt has created a digital transformation practice. However, finding the best organization to help you co-create your digital strategy may lead you to seek out firms you may not have considered: advertising agencies.

I’ll split hairs by saying that it’s not ‘consumer’ trends, but learning from the revolution outside of business, on the open web, and how we, as people, are being changed, and the changes we are making by what we adopt.

I agree with the authors in their implicit rejection of the digital transformation practices of management consulting companies, in general, with a few caveats, but let’s return to that after the examination of the argument for agencies. The authors argue that

  1. agencies are close to the action, and may have gained valuable experience on behalf of other clients
  2. agencies are staffed with people who ar e’pushing the boundaries’ in the mobile/social/tablet sphere
  3. agencies have gone through, or are at least farther along than your company, their own digital transformation
  4. agencies’ obsession with analytic tools will prove valuable for your company, and will help keep track of progress.

My sense is that agencies might be a good source for a Chief Digital Officer to poach, but the fundamental premise of outsourcing something as central and critical as this transformation to outsiders is like outsourcing the reason for the company to exist, or its core strategy.

You might be able to use outsiders to shake up your thinking, to send your executive team to a three day workshop with mutants from an agency hand-picked to stretch your team’s thinking, but after that is done, someone — and I think it needs to be a CDO — will need to push the transformation from within. By all means bring on folks to help turn on and integrate analytics, or to implement a new social customer support center, or support spontaneous outbreaks of cooperative tools. But don’t hand over the crafting of your organization’s future DNA to an agency: you’ll wind up with a failed project, and years squandered.

And the same holds true for management consulting firms.

And the proviso? I think there are a small number of truly outside the norm thinkers, who can have a strategic impact on businesses seeking digital trasformation, without being the CDO, and while working in an auxiliary role. But these are few and far between: perhaps a few hundred or a thousand, worldwide. Unless you are lucky enough to connect with one of these — maybe I should make a list? — keep it tactical.