Getting digital strategy right

Exploring digital at the 2016 European Communication Summit

For the second time since I took over as digital strategist for EuropeAid at the European Commission, I gave a talk on digital strategy, this time at the European Communication Summit in Brussels on 7 July.  

It was a talk I enjoyed a lot because I learned as much from the questions of the audience as I hope they did from me. Several communication experts came to share with me after the talk some of the challenges they’re facing in implementing a digital transformation or adaptation exercise in their organisation, and it was fascinating to hear about their own experiences implementing a digital strategy.

Below is a summary of the talk in the form of 4 main questions anyone working on a digital strategy should ask, and here are the slides of my presentation.

What is digital?

There is no easy answer to that question and even textbook answers won’t work, because what is important is what employees and managers in your organisation understand by ‘digital’. In the conference room at #ECS16 (check out the hashtag for a snapshot of some of the best quotes and ideas from the conference), I did a small post-it exercise where I asked the audience (roughly 100 people) what they understood by ‘digital’.

Here’s a word cloud of their answers:

As you can see the items which most people agree on are the ones about digital as related to or enabled by technology. Yet, the number of answers shows that almost every person has a different definition of digital in mind.

Why go digital?

I often hear senior management or stories about senior management pushing for a digital strategy without really asking themselves why go digital. It was the same situation for social media 5-6 years ago.

At that time, social media was not marginal anymore in Europe from a business perspective, yet one could perfectly function without it. The cool cats were on social media, so any CEO with a flair for what’s different and new wanted his or her company to be on social media too.

Even if digital transformation is the buzz word of the mid 2010s, there are still many who don’t see or don’t want to see the underlying drivers of digital transformation. They only see the proximate causes of digital change, often summed up under the catchy word SoLoMo:

  • social, with customers or citizens now more and more interacting with organisations through these channels;
  • local, with geolocation enabling the geo-targeting of information to customers at the right place and at the right moment; and
  • mobile, with most people in Europe today constantly carrying their Internet and their apps with them.

Everyone wants to leverage these three phenomena in PR, comms and marketing, but they tell you nothing about why YOUR organisation needs to go digital. The main underlying reasons for going digital I have witnessed or read about can be summarised as follows:

  • innovation: a digitally enabled environment contributes to more innovation within any organisation, and in turns helps it be more competitive;
  • vision: some leaders have a clear outlook of what the future of their company is, and this involves going fully digital or being digital by default (eg Google, Facebook, Airbnb, etc.);
  • internal pressure: more and more employees enjoy a level of connectivity and digital savviness in their personal lives which is sometimes in stark contradiction with the digital offer at work. This means employees are disappointed and often frustrated with their professional working environment, and this in turn negatively affects employee morale and motivation;
  • external pressure: clients and customers expect to receive service across company channels, including social media channels. Unless you radically transform your customer service and marketing departments, how are you going to face this and other externally imposed constraints?

Which reasons is your organisation going digital for? Take some time to think about it before you draft your digital strategy or action plan. If your strategy is not transformational, then it’s not a proper digital strategy. Check out slide 7 of my presentation to understand how your organisation will be transformed through digitalisation.

Who should drive the digital strategy?

Remember Plato’s Cave Allegory? It illustrates the longstanding debate between rationalists and empiricists, between those who believe there are things that just have to work as one conceives them working and others who think one makes the best use of something by testing it and experiencing it first.

This debate also feeds into your digital strategy when you are asking yourself the question: who drives the digital strategy? There are those who defend the top-down approach and those who advocate for the bottom-up approach. In truth, both are right because you really need to tackle digital transformation from both sides to generate positive feedback loops that take your organisation to the next stage.

Here are some of the things you’ll benefit from with a top-down approach:

  • leading by example (ideally at the highest level of your organisation),
  • digital champions among senior management, and
  • stronger coordination of your digital action plan.

And here are things only a bottom-up approach can bring to your strategy:

  • breaking silos,
  • giving employees more autonomy, which in turns generates more ideas and creativity, and
  • peer pressure (this will accelerate change within the organisation).

Take a minute to think about which direction your digital strategy leans towards now. Look at neural cells and the way networks operate. Your best bet is to structure your strategic touch points the same way a network works, with multiple command centres. This enables your strategy to be more flexible, nimble and efficient.

How far do you transform with your digital strategy?

I’m often asked where to draw the line in a digital transformation exercise. To help with this question, I use two diagrams:

  • One represents the intertwined worlds of IT, communications and HR. A digital transformation or disruption exercise usually starts with one or more of these departments.
  • the other diagram represents the level of disruption of your digital strategy. At best it only affects tools, one step further it also impacts processes. If you are brave enough, people will also experience digital transformation themselves (by learning digital skills for eg). The holy grail is of course when you achieve a ‘digital’ culture at work.

My personal experience is that you cannot address these areas (IT, comms, HR) and these steps in the digital transformation exercise separately. Ideally, your strategy covers all of them simultaneously, with your action plan being very precise about where and when each of the areas/steps is being addressed. Be aware of positive or negative feedback loops, be in listening mode throughout the whole exercise. There will always be winners and losers of any digital transformation exercise. Make sure you identify and address them in your strategy. As you can imagine, there is no one-size-fits-all digital strategy.

At the European Commission for example, there is no digital champion and no central digital strategy, but each area – IT, comms, HR –  has a distinct digital strategy and a plan, and they work together where necessary to make these happen.

Where do you think your organisation stands in terms of areas being digitalised and in the steps to achieve a fully digital culture?

Check out the slides of my presentation if you haven’t already and let me know if the above reflects how you’ve experienced digital transformation yourself or if there are other questions you’ve had to deal with.

A version of this article first appeared on Aurelie’s personal blog. She spoke at the European Communication Summit, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year in Brussels on 7 and 8 July.  Read an overview of the event here.

Aurélie Valtat

Aurélie Valtat is the digital strategist for EuropeAid, the EU’s international cooperation and development arm. Previously, she managed digital communications at the Council of the EU and at EUROCONTROL, and was responsible for communications at PostEurop and the Alliance Française in Belgium. She also worked at UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, reporting on cultural heritage in Asia and the Pacific.