Digital Transformation: An Idea That Can No Longer Be Ignored

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Interview with Donny Mark Ramdathsingh MSc, PgD. Strategic Business and IT – UK & Singapore.
Chief Strategist – CTTL Ltd (CTTL)

If you consider the last chapter of Victor Hugo’s “Histoire d’un Crime” (“The History of a Crime”) and the main theme of ‘invasion of ideas’, you’ll begin to realise ideas are seemingly boundless. Whether the idea is good or not is debatable, but when it comes to digital transformation, there’s little doubt whether it’s a good idea for any kind of business.

Everyone wants to know what’s going to happen with the global economy; especially considering all that has happened since COVID-19 shut everything down, from businesses to borders. Some are visibly shaken, some are frozen, and some are hoping the inevitable recession will pass too. Others recognise the challenges they face and are doing their best to adapt.

This is precisely the situation Donny Mark Ramdathsingh, CEO of Caribbean Tech Trendz Limited, found himself in following the attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. As an IT Manager for a multinational company, he already knew the importance of technology in business.

“The sad thing about 9/11,” Ramdathsingh reflected, “was the lives lost, but also the number of businesses that were unable to remain viable.” Donny immediately saw an opportunity to bridge the gap between the physical and digital world. “In a disaster you can’t maintain those physical assets.” he said. Armed with the knowledge of what was working and best practices, both locally and internationally, it fuelled his imagination and allowed him to birth Caribbean Tech Trendz with the overarching vision being to help businesses succeed digitally.

The pace of the pre-COVID-19 world was already fast, yet many organisations underestimated the increasing momentum of digitisation, the behavioural changes, the technology driving it, and the scale of disruption bearing down on them.

Many thought digital transformation was monolithic. The luxury of time now seems to have disappeared completely. Businesses that once mapped digital strategy in one-to three-year phases must now scale their initiatives in a matter of days or weeks.

The COVID-19 crisis provided a sudden glimpse into a future world, one in which digital tools and functions have become central to every interaction, forcing both organisations and individuals further up the adoption curve almost overnight.

A world in which social media became the primary communication channel, while automated processes like online shopping proved to be one of the most efficient ways of reaching customers. A world where business owners quickly developed flexible processes for suppliers or customers and found better ways of working in this “new normal”.

Donny has seen organisations label migrating from on-premises systems to cloud-based tools as evidence of digital transformation. Others modernise their financial software by embracing real-time analytics. Still, others use digital technologies to improve the customer experience. Organisations may do all three, “but without changes to existing business processes and products, such projects qualify as optimisation, not transformation,” he added.

Reimagining the Business Model

Locally, we can consider how COVID-19 disrupted the local doubles vending landscape, a popular delicacy synonymous with street-side consumption. Traditionally, the only way to purchase doubles would have been to stand in line and physically order your doubles. Additionally, payment was always done with cash.

With physical distancing and the need to transform into a cashless, contactless society, doubles vendors were required to adapt to the changing environment. What would have been lining up at your favourite street-side doubles vendor has now become placing an order via Facebook or WhatsApp for delivery or curbside pickup; with the option to pay via credit or debit card.

Internationally, as Disney parks closed due to mandatory physical distancing and quarantine measures, the entertainment giant focused their attention on Disney+ (a subscription video on-demand streaming service, featuring a catalogue of films and TV series produced by the Walt Disney Studios).

On the other hand, Amazon, who already maintains robust digital infrastructure, quickly pivoted from providing material products to selling food items and household items which were in high demand during the lock-down period.

“Digital Transformation is Business Transformation.”

Before embarking on any new project, Donny underscores the need to consider digital transformation as part of the natural business transformation to all his business clients. In optimising any business for digital transformation, he recommends to entrepreneurs:

  1. Adopt digital technologies to help drive their business objectives.
  2. Assess the needs of their business and determine what digital tools they should implement.

Digital transformation isn’t just about technology. It’s also about people, processes, and new ways of doing business with internal and external stakeholders.

For any project to succeed, one must always ensure the fit is right as this affects how the project or business grows in the future. There must also be a clear win for each of the parties involved to benefit from the engagement positively. The focal point of the initial discovery meeting is transformation, as well as the specifics for each project. Most entrepreneurs need clarity and direction; others are more specific in their requests. These projects range from “I need a website”, “I need a seamless connection between these departments and ultimately to the customer”, or “I’d like to consider looking at this programme, would it help with profitability?”

Before you start hunting down new tech that will move you toward digital transformation, Donny advises you should have an honest conversation with your employees and leadership team about where you are currently using technology, and how. Some of the questions asked could be as follows:

  • How much outdated hardware and software are you still working with?
  • How open are your employees to the new technologies you’re adopting?
  • How far have you delved into customer journey mapping, and what do you do with those maps once you create them?

If you don’t have the answer to these questions, there’s a high possibility you’re just purchasing tech for the sake of simply saying you have the technology. No amount of new technology will move your company forward until you take time to answer those questions. Many companies skip this step, and it’s a huge risk.

Is Digital Transformation For You?

What’s your biggest motivation for digital transformation? Is it your company, or your customer?

Depending on your answer, you may not even be pursuing digital transformation at all. Indeed, if you’re pursuing new tech adoption for your company’s benefit: to save time, improve processes, or avoid day-to-day time-consuming activities, such as returning e-mails and sorting through sales leads. It’s likely you’re merely digitally optimising your business, rather than transforming it.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a far cry from digital transformation.

As a business owner, if you asked yourself what process didn’t serve your business, one of the answers would be digital optimisation. You will be on par with your competitors, but it is unlikely that you will advance past them.

If you’re focusing more on your company than you are on your customer, that strategy will never cut it, especially in today’s marketplace.

The Crisis Factor

The current pandemic is unlike any crisis experienced previously. Most countries have put their citizens on various forms of lock-down forcing people to be separated from friends, family and co-workers and unable to visit their favourite places for relaxation and enjoyment. In the world of work, it is forcing organisations to adapt to a remote way of doing business, thereby, dramatically altering people’s daily life experiences.

As a business leader, Donny encourages his customers to ask, “How can you help people thrive when they are stressed, fearful, and longing for authentic human connections?”

There is no doubt COVID-19 has upended the business landscape and calls for smart solutions to mitigate its impact.

Don’t Panic

For any business, the most important stakeholder right now is the human being who is craving connection and suddenly needs a new customer experience (CX). Your first consideration, therefore, shouldn’t be, “How can I grab market share?” or even, “How do I boost my topline to counteract the economic carnage I’m facing?” Your most pressing consideration should be, “How do I support my customers right now in a meaningful, human, and relevant way?”

COVID-19 Has Sparked Innovation

With change driven by new customer expectations, COVID-19 has reignited the need to work on the fly. It’s all about mastering disruptive change and the attendant risks that come with it. COVID-19 has challenged the status quo not just with operations, but also changed mindsets from risk averse to risk resilient. It is about being agile while integrating the digital component into the whole. It is about messing with traditional revenue streams and watching certain lines of business become extinct.

It requires a major organisational change and senior management must champion that change or it’s never going to happen.

The leadership team must take a proactive role; one that the middle level team or staff cannot take. The team must communicate the vision with clear priorities and make the other leaders accountable to it. Poor communication will usurp the strongest of wills.

Small Projects = Big Wins!

“How much money will it cost?”, is of course a natural consideration especially now that companies are feeling the economic pinch.

“Investment scares clients off.”, Donny shared, but he does not shy away from the fact that some capital investment is required. Price may not be the place to start because generally you will get what you pay for. “You must invest,” he says, “and look at the medium to long term view. The investment might lower profits in the short term but that will eventually improve, down the road.”

He invites his customers to look at a list of priorities, the steps they need to take and then he helps them to set clear targets. Business leaders need to ask: What are the bold digital actions we’ve hesitated to pursue in the past, even as we’ve known they would eventually be required?

Strange as it may seem, right now in a time of crisis, is precisely the time to boldly advance your digital agenda.

Donny suggests, it’s best to start with a lighthouse project before rolling out a larger project to ensure that the frontline team begin to experience results quickly.

Culture Over Strategy

Digital transformation is also about human transformation, for any project to be successful you need a strong launch team. Donny is clear, “This is not an IT project or function, all departments need to be on board. You need to determine the skills mix required, not just assessing capabilities but competencies.”

Once you have your team in place, then you can select the leader of that team, the digital change officer who will be responsible for coordinating the transformation.

The team needs to educate everyone in the organisation and answer the following:

  • Why are we changing how we operate?
  • What is happening to the business?
  • What adjustments do we need to make, to enable these changes?
  • How do we transition from a silo to a more collaborative team?
  • How do we align transformation with our business goals?

Clear support from top to bottom mitigates fear. Once the company has done its part, it’s then easy for Donny’s team to come in and do theirs. They make it easy and fun to interact with the appointed digital tech. In many cases they set up “walk-ins” where people have access to digital products they could try out and test, gain actionable insights and provide valuable feedback. The greater the buy-in, the greater the shared responsibility and the greater the likelihood of a successful transformation. The entire world is looking at alternatives from ‘brick and mortar retail Armageddon’. This is what Donny sees as trending here in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean as well. There is no going back to normal, Digital transformation is no longer a fad.

This visionary leader in the tech-sphere asks all business owners to consider:

Am I prepared to reimagine everything about what I do, and how I operate?

Donny cautions, “It would be to your detriment to be defined solely by your brick and mortar operations.” Though he also offers all business owners hope, “Small and medium businesses are poised for digital transformation and can be more agile than ever before!”