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Digital transformation is the talk of the town. We explain why it is no hype, which people are indispensable and why most companies are just … staring at a stick.

Digital transformation

Ten primitive men are staring at a stick. One of them gets up and ties a stone to the stick. The hammer is born. During a brainstorming session around the fire, they think about their discovery. They use the new tool to defeat enemies. It strengthens their position of power in the region. Later, they realize that you can use a hammer to bash your enemies’ heads in, but also to build houses. This awareness changes their entire way of life. Many companies today are looking at digital technology and just see a stone on a stick. Some have already beaten the competition with it now and again. But only a few realize that with the tools of today you can change life.

Transformation is of all time. As soon as man could think, he started looking for ways to improve life. Through fire, tools and wheels. Through computers, smartphones and social media. The search for improvement is the engine driving our evolution.

Digitalisation is a logical step in this evolution. We are evolving from Homo sapiens to Homo digitalis, from fire watcher to screen viewer. We are working more efficiently and productively, thanks to digital technology. We are achieving growth and progress, with the help of bits and bytes.

Social creatures

Primitive man used to live in groups because it offered him better protection from danger. Supported by the group, he dared take risks. In the past, it was wild animals that posed a threat to us; these days, the threat comes from financial crises and competitors. We are social creatures, because it helps us survive.

Thanks to digitalisation, we have become more social than ever. We are in contact with people and companies on the other side of the world, 24/7. Social media, cloud and mobile technology reinforce the very nature of our existence as social creatures, which explains the success of, for instance, Facebook.

Digital technology supports us in our evolutionary search for people and companies who share our visions and values, whom we want to belong to. Digitalisation is no hype because it plugs into the core of our human system. That is why we are embracing digital technology. It improves our lives in a radical way. Today, 93% of Flemish people own a computer. Three quarters have a profile on social media and 40% percent of internet users have bought online goods at one time or other. Man is adapting. Homo digitalis is a fact. How are our companies doing?

Homo digitalis is calling the shots

A recent study by Altimeter Group into the state of digital transformation in companies anno 2014 shows that a majority of companies is investing in digital initiatives, without understanding the essence of digital transformation. They tie a stone to a stick and say: ‘Look, we are transforming.’ Only a few realize that it is not about the technology, but about creating added value to the life of Homo digitalis.

Leading companies are setting an example. Nike makes sensors for sneakers that keep a digital record of your running results and share them wirelessly on social media. This technological extra puts Nike at the centre of the digital sports experience. In the past, work was stopped at Shell every time a heavy storm moved over an oil field. Today, thanks to extensive automation, engineers can simply continue to work safely at a distance – without loss of earnings. Burberry has installed a global ERP system which unites processes worldwide and integrates the data. Their designers use the information in the system when creating new collections. The results of digital transformation are varied: increased customer satisfaction, improved employee productivity, cost savings. But the goal is always to create added value to people’s lives.

Even for people who understand this, digital transformation is not a walk in the park. It continues to be a hard and treacherous course. It fails often, very often. It demands time, money, passion and effort. It is not something to be done hastily or carelessly, or invested in ‘just because it has to be done’. However, doubt and delay are treacherous. It is a difficult balancing act. The fact is that evolution rages on. Those who want to continue to engage people should listen to the needs of Homo digitalis and start renovating.

Leaders with good common sense, please stand up

So, if it is not just a case of giving everyone and his dog a tablet, how should you go about things? How do you engage Homo digitalis in the world of tomorrow? Theory dictates that you should first have a vision, preferably one which resonates throughout the company. True, but this is not straightforward in practice. An innovative vision doesn’t just fall out of the sky, but always grows organically, from the inside out. It is the result of conflicting ideas coming together from different perspectives into the essence of a problem or need. We are convinced that digital success begins with those people who can lead this process strongly through trial, error and good common sense.

Vision versus leadership

In 1994, just before the release of Windows 95, Bill Gates declared that the World Wide Web would never be free and accessible to all. That was his vision. Windows 95 was released on 24 August 1995 without standard internet browser.

Netscape, convinced of the opposite, launched a user-friendly web browser at the same time as Windows 95. The company exploded. The market demanded 10 times more shares than were available.

What did Bill Gates do? He used good common sense. He threw his vision out of the window, changed strategy and got on board with reality. The result? In 1996, Internet Explorer was supplied as standard in Windows 95. It was the beginning of a cold war between the two companies. At the end of 1996, Microsoft had an 80% share of the market.

Leadership starts with the CEO and his board members. They have to inspire, facilitate and make decisions. Their biggest challenge is finding the right people to shape their vision. We are convinced that these crucial roles have to be carried out by people who can build bridges. At Hifluence, we call them H-people because they are capable of getting business and ICT to work together in symbiosis. Failure to do so means that any digital investment is just a waste of time, money and effort.

Not a simple process, this symbiosis. H-people have a big role to play. Transformation projects often run into trouble because people don’t communicate and coordinate enough with each other and, particularly, don’t realize enough that they need each other. The mundo digitalis forces us to work in a completely different way. It doesn’t care about the old, separate worlds we were used to.

Stop talking, start transforming

So, is transformation happening step by step, or rather in a very radical way? That depends on the circumstances and challenges facing people. A move can be an instigation to radically change the synergy between teams by physically bringing together departments or by installing new technologies.

Anyone whose existence is threatened, will transform more quickly than those who have time to experiment. You may find that your old business model is dead. That doesn’t mean it is the end. On the contrary, it is a radical new beginning. Agfa Group has evolved from a company which used to sell chemical products to a technology company which offers solutions for the digitalisation of medical records. They make the lives of doctors and patients easier. When Booking.com came on the scene, many travel agencies went under. Travel specialist Virtuoso, however, focused on providing tailor-made luxury trips and has claimed a very specific segment of the market. They did a great job: today, Virtuoso employs 8,900 consultants worldwide.

How about you? How will you engage Homo digitalis?

Nick Van Langendonck.