By Gloria Lombardi

Businesses will not succeed in the digital era without skilled leadership and the right digital talent. Leaders and other employees who do not have the attributes to reimagine their company and work will trail behind those who embrace the opportunities of the digital era.

We know that businesses’ ability to innovate is fundamental to the prosperity of our economy. Therefore it is vital that leaders and teams are confident and competent in the communication and delivery of the digital strategies that will support growth and create new business models for the future.

Digital is fast becoming a prerequisite for businesses to gain a competitive advantage. Beyond new capabilities, a modern digital business also supports endeavours to improve employee and customer experiences.

But true transformation is disruptive; the organisation must change, as much as tools and processes. Agility and speed may be required in the fast-paced market, yet major decisions must be made that impact the foundation of business.

How can businesses thrive through digital transformation? What tools and mindsets should they adopt? And, what does it actually mean to be a leader in a digital world?

MARGINALIA spoke with Tim Hughes, CEO and co-founder of Digital Leadership Associates, and author of ‘Social Selling – Techniques to Influence Buyers and Changemakers’. In this interview, Tim describes the latest digital transformation trends, and points out the challenges and misunderstanding around using social tools for business. He shares advice to leaders at all levels on how to thrive in the digital future we’re building, reminding us that “every day is a school day”.

Gloria Lombardi: What trends do you see around digital transformation, considering your ongoing work with leaders?

Tim Hughes:  The implementation of digital requires organisations to change. Quite often, people see digital as being some sort of IT or computer-led project rather than seeing it as a change to the people, the processes, and the IT systems.

It may seem easy to add in some social tools, perhaps to the lead generation process, but nothing will come of social if you don’t involve, train, and show people how to use the tools, and how to listen, share, and engage across social. Expecting people to just adopt new ways of working just because you provide new tools is folly.

Many leaders still expect digital to be a kind of magic; a few buzz-word incantations and change ‘happens’ at a wave of a wand. We see companies fail when their tactic is to just deploy tools and tell people ‘we’re sharing content now’.

GL: How can leaders bring people along on the digital journey, and avoid those problems?

TH: There are three elements, which are core to any digital transformation programme: the people, the process, and the technology.

Quite often, certainly in the IT world, digital transformation is seen as an excuse to replace old legacy systems: the organisation will replace old tools with something new that probably costs less, and looks better; and it might have more of a ‘Facebook look and feel’ rather than the user interface of an old mainframe system of 30 years ago. And that’s fine. But, in effect, the business is just lifting and shifting – taking one piece of IT out and putting another in, which may not change anything.

Whereas the organisation should be looking at boosting efficiencies and achieving better ways of working. Many businesses overlook the ultimate objectives when they approach digital transformation.

Everyone needs a clear understanding of  the fundamental differences between the words ‘digital’ and ‘social’. Being digital is not the same as being social. At Digital Leadership Associates, we refer to digital more as the hardware. For example, the cloud, mobile, big data, analytics, Internet of Things (IoT), sensors, user interfaces, software as a service (SaaS), wearables, etc.

Whereas social is more about culture and collaboration, co-creation and communication, conversation, engagement, etc.  

GL: What are the broad digital transformation trends for 2018?

TH: At Digital Leadership Associates, we see the use of social networks inside organisations as being critical. Not just in terms of using external social channels such as Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. But using social collaboration tools internally, to run the organisation. For example, we don’t use email internally unless we ‘have to’. All our internal communications take place on Slack, the so called ‘WhatsApp for the enterprise’.

With those real-time, chat business tools, people use everyday language and so conversations can be informal and straight to the point. This openness and informality allows for greater efficiency as people are freed from the need for lengthy, overly formal message crafting that is typical of email.

We run the entire business on social channels. Even externally, my contacts interact with me mainly through social channels. The people who still try to reach me via email often want to sell me something or spam me.

So email traffic is dropping off quite significantly. And, with the implementation of the GDPR rules and regulations in Europe in May 2018, I’m sure we’ll see email use decline even more.

In terms of emerging technologies, we are seeing voice search taking off. Take, for example, Amazon Alexa. Recent studies indicate that voice search represents 24 per cent of all search worldwide. And, unquestionably, within 5 to 10 years we won’t have keyboards; we will be talking to and with our screens.

GL: Are leaders approaching digital transformation enthusiastically and with confidence? Or do they have concerns and fears arounds the future of their business?

TH: Many business leaders have concerns around digital transformation. Part of that is because change just seems to be accelerating. It’s a job in itself just to keep on top of it.

In my lifetime, we’ve gone from consuming vinyl records to cassettes. Only ten years ago, everybody was downloading. Today, we’re streaming music. So, we’ve moved from buying ‘physical’ music to streaming music within only a few years. There are plenty of other areas, in society and in the commercial work, where that type of change is happening ever faster.

When social media kicked off around ten years ago, there was a clamour to get on social. Businesses would grab their handles and design their profiles. But many didn’t know why the needed social, or what they meant to achieve with it. Projects failed. Profiles became inactive. Leadership saw no value, no return, on even enthusiastic efforts. Being on social just because everyone was apparently ‘doing’ social was a bubble.

In 2018, we’re seeing a similar type of approach towards artificial intelligence and augmented reality. Companies have started developing new projects without really thinking about why they should be doing it in the first place. We’re seeing random acts of artificial intelligence taking place rather than business leaders actually thinking about how they, as a business, want to thrive in the future and exploit the opportunities brought by emerging tech. The board, the C-level people, must decide the AI strategy, must set the direction. They have to understand how AI is going to help the company achieve its objectives, and how to communicate the strategy across the organisation.

GL: As you pointed out, social channels took off over ten years ago. Yet, as you mentioned, many leaders and organisations still struggle to use social tools effectively for business. Why is that?

TH: Social media tools are still generally misunderstood. Even though we, as buyers and consumers, may use them daily to interact with brands.

So, everyone appears to ‘get’ social, yet once people are at their desk they forget all about it, as if it’s a separate activity from their ‘real work’. They go back what they’ve always done – back to what they were doing twenty years ago – putting out stuff.

People seem to be well behind the change curve. I recently listened to Gary Vaynerchuk’s book launch speech. You might say it was cutting edge, filled with important ideas. It was a real ‘leadership presentation’.

It was for his ‘Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook’ book, back in 2013. The title refers to the idea that if you know a punch is coming, you duck. It’s the same in marketing, he says; everyone is going to say how great their products are. Whenever a product or sales person comes to you, you expect a pitch. So you duck – you tune out a lot of what they say.

The answer to this broken process is to build relationships with people – and you need to give before you can expect to get.

These ideas are still being espoused now, five years later. These ideas still sound fresh and necessary, as so many people are still marketing and selling as they did ten or twenty years ago, push, push, push. It all becomes noise. As consumers, we want to be educated (and entertained), we want to know what’s relevant to us, and we want good people in our life who incite us and maybe even make us laugh. We’re looking for people to offer us something before they expect something from us.

GL: How does this lesson translate internally, with employees?

TH: There’s a fantastic opportunity to externalise and showcase the company culture and all the good things that employees do.

I recently worked with a company that does waste management in the UK. A number of sales employees were saying, ‘We are the best in the world’. One particular sales guy was in fact extremely good in dealing with hygiene waste, like from hospitals; syringes and material that poses a health risk. He knew everything about it. My question to him was: ‘Why not externalise that? Why not show your expertise and specialist work on social? Other hospitals, health centres, even veterinarians, looking for such services will be better able to find you. Not to mention being able to help your colleagues with queries’.

This philosophy of sharing our own expertise on social channels is the same regardless of the job we are doing and the company we are working for. Sharing makes the intangible, visible, makes our talent, experience and knowledge available. Making your expertise available to others is a thousand times better than just saying you’re an expert.

GL:  What advice would you give leaders and employees to thrive – not just survive – in the future?

TH: As the common phase says, ‘every day is a school day’. Business leaders and their teams must be willing to learn something new every day. Engaged teams should always be looking for new, relevant knowledge and information, and make the time to do so.

People must effectively use their time to keep themselves abreast of what’s going on in the world, which can impact their business. So, keep reading. Keep experimenting, even at home with tools such as Amazon Alexa, for example. Reflect on voice as an interface and how AI is involved. Because if you don’t, you are going to fall behind in terms of using emerging technologies. So, keep ahead of what’s going on.

We are living in an amazing time and, while the challenges are undoubtedly many, business leaders and employees have lots of opportunities to shine.