You Don’t Need A Digital Strategy, You Need A Digitally Transformed Company

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Tom Goodwin

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Tom Goodwin is EVP, head of innovation at Zenith Media and the co-founder of the Interesting People in Interesting Times event series and podcast.

More posts from Tom Goodwin

Editor’s note: Tom Goodwin is senior vice president of strategy and innovation at Havas Media.

In 2015 it seems foolish to have a digital or mobile strategy, you just need a business strategy for the modern world. Whether it’s Uber reinventing the transportation business, Instagram changing the nature of photography or Netflix disrupting video content, what binds these companies is they brought digital thinking to the very heart of their companies, not just bolted it onto the side.

From Tesla to Instacart, Hotel Tonight to Twitter, BuzzFeed to WhatsApp, every high-growth, high-profit, high-value unicorn was constructed with one thing in mind: the modern world.

These are companies founded in a world of new behaviors, inspired by new technology and liberated by new market dynamics. They have ignored all existing companies in their marketplace, they’ve been propelled into rapid growth unencumbered by the same elements, assets, knowledge, learned behavior that once fueled the incumbents.

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us: a classic Marshall McLuhan quote that most perfectly explains the current business reality. These companies realize that the modern age is a time of scarce attention and abundant connectivity, where smartphones are our primary access and point to everything; where money and everything is digital; where the interface layer is where the profit is; where physical assets and employees are liabilities; and where providing a slick, best in class human experience will create your companies most profound business.

What these companies have all learned is that new technology is everything, and it’s essential for every company and every person to be cognizant of the possibilities it provides. Much of the world has collectively failed to learn the lessons from the past and see that when a technology really arrives, it blends into the background.

When electricity became widely available after the industrial revolution, it didn’t change things overnight; it took many decades for it to make a difference. To start with we used it at the edges and embellished what we had. Factories used the very same belts to power the same equipment in the same places and, powered by one electric motor, the benefits were marginal.

Only in retrospect was the error of their thinking obvious. Some 20 years later it was clear that electricity was core, it was something that changed the very fabric of what was possible and how to do it. The real power of electricity allowed factories to be arranged in totally different ways, to reduce staffing, work 24/7, make new things and, above all else, relocate from locations near fuel to areas near ports and population for workers.

Of course in 2015 we dont have electrical advertising agencies or have electricity strategists or heads of electricity, It’s just a given that everyone gets it. So why is it we allow ourselves to talk about digital the same way?

Technology is not oil to lubricate; it’s oxygen to grow ideas and change business. Modern businesses need to disrupt themselves at the very core, empowered by what new behavior and new technology make possible. Banks need to reevaluate their roles in the modern world. Gyms need to use technology to become health partners. Car makers need to become transportation solution companies. Why didn’t a telco invent WhatsApp? Or GM start Uber or Kodak create Instagram? Or Blockbuster, Netflix?

Digital transformation is not about a digital department, a mobile strategist won’t save your company. It is not the role of any additional unit to take your company from irrelevance to leadership. It’s a philosophy that all must adopt. If you’re a physical retailer, your role is not to have a better app than your mall neighbor, it’s to reconsider the entire purchase process up to and including delivery and return and the entire relationship with customers over their lifetime.

If you’re a hotel company, use technology to bring to life everything that hospitality and personalization can be in the modern age. From freeing staff stuck behind desks to iPad-carrying helpers, to reconsidering the role of hotels in a future world of freelance workers and telecommuting.

Hertz is a good example of technology added at the edges. I can book a car using a decent app, and as a Gold member my car is sometimes featured on a digital display. But that’s it.

If I want to extend my booking or change locations it’s a painful series of phone calls. If I want to upgrade, its frantic key-pressing at the point of collection for seemingly hours. Using technology in a deeper fashion would allow iBeacons to send me live upgrade offers I could accept with one swipe. More advanced technology may incentivize one-way rentals that suit the business, allow per-hour rentals when it maximizes their fleet. These are not gimmicky edge use-cases; these are ways to increase fleet utilization and boost profits significantly.

You dont need a head of digital or a digital department. In fact you should banish the word digital as an entirely redundant word. But your company needs to understand these changing times and prepare to reimagine yourself for the near future, based on what new possibilities and threats new technology provide.

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