Run your digital strategy through people not presentations

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Digitalisation has meant huge opportunity: to get closer to customers; to innovate your products and services; and to even reshape industries. But, at the same time, your organisation can be blindsided by rapid shifts in the market – leaving you in permanent “react” mode.

So how have CEOs and executive boards responded to this new normal? By adding a digital spin to the same old tools: Vision 2020 mission statements and 3-5 year digital transformation roadmaps. The problem: these no longer work.

How many times have you seen beautifully-crafted communications campaigns for a perfected strategy replaced by a new version a few years later (with new “No, we really mean it this time” branding of course)?

In the face of rapid market changes, five-year plans developed in the boardroom are not worth the power-point they are written on. They assume a predictable, stable world where threats are knowable, customers locked in, and employees follow a playbook. In the digital age, more flexible and participatory strategy approaches are critical to navigating the unknown.

Uncovering alternative approaches to strategy formation

If traditional approaches to strategy development no longer work, then why do they still endure?

To find out, I recently co-led a research project into uncovering alternative approaches to digital-age strategy. Speaking with 18 CIOs and CDOs, we heard an awareness of the problem, but most executives struggled to find alternative options.

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Everyone we spoke to agreed that involving their people in strategy development and execution instinctively feels like the right thing to do. But most could not envisage how this would actually work in large organisations as opposed to a Silicon Valley start-up. In short, there is a lack of understanding within large organisations of the frameworks and methods for managing the shift to a more flexible and participatory approach.

Strategy in a Digital Age

Digital strategy needs to become something that touches and involves the whole organisation in order for it to effect ongoing change. It is not just about customer apps nor technology platforms. It is a complete reimagining of how you think about your internal structures and processes – from closed rigid horizontals and verticals, to open fluid information-sharing networks.

Internal communications teams are perfectly placed to step up and lead this shift in approach as the vanguards of traditional information-sharing structures in organisations. In particular, through our research we found two distinct areas that communications professionals can play an active role in reshaping, and have broken this down into practical steps to both get started and level-up if you’re already past the basics:

1) From boardroom roadmaps to distributed strategy design

The best execution of strategy is not a roadmap developed in your boardroom. It is time to trust that your people know best what needs to happen to effect change. Communicate direction clearly, check for alignment continually, and let them do the rest.

  • Get Started:All organisations we spoke to acknowledged that the first step in engaging employees is being clear and transparent with your digital strategy. This is nothing new, and something IC pros can do with their eyes closed. What companies are now starting to recognise is the importance of making this a two-way conversation rather than a broadcast message. A financial services firm we spoke to uses their Jive platform to create a real-time feedback loop of their digital transformation activities. If you haven’t already, invite employee input on key strategic decisions before they are made using your own digital collaboration tools or intranet.
  • Level Up:Whilst inviting input is preferable to just ‘telling’ employees what to do, it still assumes those at the top of the hierarchy are best placed to make the final calls. Digitally-mature and responsive organisations take a radically different approach by empowering the employees closest to the information to take action in service of the strategic direction. General Electric uses a technique called ‘teaming’ to empower their employees to take on roles that were traditionally performed by management, to allow for decision-making as close to the product as possible. Comms teams can support this shift through a continual articulation of the strategic narrative, facilitation of an ongoing conversation on alignment and surfacing of stories to showcase best practice and learning.

team strategy

2) From prediction to sense and respond

With today’s market uncertainty, predictions rarely come true. Instead of sinking your comms budgets in internal marketing campaigns for five year roadmaps, your people are the best early warning system you have. Invest in engaging them as your ‘human sensor network’, to spot new revenue areas and places to innovate.

  • Get Started:The first step to respond to shifting market dynamics is being able to sense the changes taking place. Many of our interviewees leveraging the most value were using internal collaboration tools – and inviting all their employees to take part. One organisation told us that employees use Slack to share and discuss industry intelligence that eventually percolates into strategic initiatives with the senior team. Comms teams would be well placed to take a lead in facilitating engagement in this ongoing conversation as part of their regular programming, and take the lead in spotlighting the hot topics to the wider organisation.
  • Level Up:Once your ‘human sensor network’ is working effectively to cope with change, the next step is to spot new revenue areas to take advantage of change. We spoke to a media organisation who established a Hack Day process, to bring cross-functional teams together to develop and test innovative ideas in a time-boxed environment. Consider hosting regular ideation or hackathon-style events on key topics that seem ripe for exploration, even virtually using social collaboration tools.

Challenging assumptions and processes that have prevailed for decades is no easy task. But I hope through our research that we have provided not only an alternative approach to facilitating employee participation but also a view of how it can be done incrementally, with many small actions that internal communications teams are well placed to take. Over time, these combine to shift mindsets and habits to produce outcomes better able to cope with the future – all it takes is to get started.

By Laura-Jane Parker of POST*SHIFT