On the Evolution of Digital Dinosaurs

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5 minute read

Speaking to Andrew Gunn, author and consultant Euan Semple, one of the first to introduce social-media tools into the everyday operations of large, successful organisations, discusses why digital transformation is as much about transformation of culture and leadership as it is about technology.


Explain to me what you mean by digital dinosaurs?

Digital dinosaurs are businesses and organisations that have a very hands-off attitude to technology. And where a stock response, particularly among senior people is ‘I don’t do technology’.


So, what is changing now?

Whether they like it or not, they must address the fundamental issues raised by automation, artificial intelligence and the rampant growth of social media. Many leaders find these new areas deeply challenging as they undermine the industrial principles on which most large organisations are based – rigid hierarchies and inflexible processes.

Then there are broader societal and cultural changes that are enabled by technology, not caused by it. There are industries are being thrown up in the air by start-ups that see the world differently and can do things differently through technology.


Why is a ‘digital transformation’ the right transformation?

The word digital is so broad as to be almost meaningless. It means different things to different people. For marketing people, it is a way of selling your product online. For some industries it means a fundamental re-engineering of delivering services, for others it means the launch of entirely new products.

‘Transformation’ means managing things differently, accessing information differently, using networks differently. In the context of organisations, a common interpretation of digital transformation is a change in leadership processes.


What does a successful digital transformation look like?

It is easier to digitise your dysfunction than deal with it. So unfortunately, very few organisations have been successful; mostly it is lipstick on pigs.

Where you see progress, it tends to be among leaders who are intuitively comfortable online. They understand the unpredictability, the volatility of the online environment. To really bring in a digital transformation, you need to understand where you are heading and why that is different. An important part of this is conveying to people the risk of not changing, leaving the path clear for someone else to reinvent your business, like an Uber or Airbnb. It is also the excitement of shifting your contribution up the value scale – becoming entrepreneurial rather than bureaucratic, all this needs to be sold to people by leaders.

On a practical level, leaders need to find those who are already displaying signs of digital engagement within companies, and get them on board with the broader transformation agenda. These might be groups regularly using digital tools, such as Slack, those who access the views of others who are not their direct reports, and those who can see patterns in conversations between wider groups of people. These might also be people who work online and regularly hold meetings without the need of a physical space. Leaders also need to get around fixed organisational hierarchical caution that prevents people listening to lower-level staff who come up with brilliant ideas.

Then it’s about scale. This means having enough people engaged in the process, having active thoughtful, engagement.

The amount of bureaucracy that most organisations bury their clever people under is still a real issue.

Those companies that are constantly working away at shared problems in a visible, online, near-instant way have a far greater ability to react, than an organisation that is still in an analogue, meeting-driven, hierarchically-cautious, paper-driven business.


How does a digital transformation impact communication?

In this day and age, most of us are beginning to tune out marketing copy. Many organisations are busying away, frankly polluting my network with stuff that is not actually interesting or useful. When an organisation has the confidence, courage and inclination to share thoughtful insights about the fascinating work they do, I would be much more interested in following them and recommending them to my network.

Yet when I talk to organisations about this, the first response I usually get back is, ‘I’ll have to ask my boss about that.’ There is so much legacy caution and baggage in terms of processes. The amount of bureaucracy that most organisations bury their clever people under is still a real issue.

Then there is the practical, tactical stuff, like how to write effectively for a fast-moving network of bright people, as opposed to ass-covering copy.

If you get good at using the digital tools available and behaving more effectively internally, then I think companies can become significantly faster, more efficient, and find less expensive ways of doing things.


Why is it less expensive?

Because you don’t waste time faffing around re-formatting PowerPoint documents that nobody is going to read. Which is frankly how an awful lot of people spend their lives. If that is all you are doing, then there are bots now – and increasingly there will be even more bots – that can do your job much more quickly and for practically nothing.

The way to add value and maintain your employability is to think harder about more difficult problems and get better at sharing with others in your organisation and your network.


How would you measure progress towards digital transformation?

It’s difficult. But when people from their own perspective say, ‘What’s the ROI on this?’ meaning digital transformation, my response is often, ‘I don’t know, but it is happening anyway, it’s happening around you, it’s happening to you, and so you justify to me the ROI of ignoring it?’

It would be great to move away from the measures we currently use. We need to bring groups together from a variety of backgrounds and differing perspectives. I like Nominet’s Digital Futures Index, as it serves as a trigger for these important conversations. It draws a comprehensive line in the sand, from which we can measure our progress across the whole breadth of the cultural and philosophical shifts that are needed if the digital dinosaurs are going to survive.


Euan Semple is a public speaker, writer and consultant. He is author of Organizations don’t Tweet, People Do: A Manager’s Guide to the Social Web

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