Digital Transformation Requires More than Change

Who’s dragging whom? There’s no way around this transformation

When we talk about the digital transformation of our companies, we’re mainly talking about “Industry 4.0” and how to manage it. The reason that all this talk isn’t leading to solutions has to do with a basic misconception. While the last three industrial revolutions were only referred to as “fundamental transformation” after the fact, we have evoked Industry 4.0 of our own accord and proclaimed ourselves its experts. It would be presumptuous to assume that a select few possess the answers to a development whose end is not even in sight. The answers to the challenges of the digital transformation can not be found in concepts and blueprints but in a company’s own DNA. If companies want to live to see the end of this revolution, they must forge ahead with their own steam. They need determined leadership, motivated employees and room to create. Above all, they have to get started and stop waiting for turnkey solutions.

Even in the most remote corners of Germany, two words are echoing through hallowed company halls: digital transformation. The tone fluctuates from euphoria to sheer terror. Everyone is looking for the light switch in the black box. Even in more stolid industries, the warning prophecies are going unheeded: change or sink. Automobile manufacturers are looking for collaborations within their industry to stave off Tesla, Uber and the like. The retail sector is struggling with omnichannel marketing to the benefit of its customers. Heads are spinning in company headquarters and strategy divisions. Everyone wants to master the digital transformation as best they can. One could also say: they want to survive.

German industry is rolling up its sleeves. It will not be crushed in the fight for digital dominance. The narrative is nice. The motivation is laudable. However, the casual approach is much more symbolic politics than thoroughly developed vision. Symbols are totally adequate sedatives in alarming times — they do not effect sustainable change.

We have to shift. That has long since sunk in. The status quo is insufficient. Anyone clinging to the tried and tested is risking collapse. We know that much. It’s emblazoned in glossy letters on brochures and posters. But how do we transform? The reflex reaction is to dust off change processes stashed away in a drawer — processes conceived short after World War II that have since reached retirement age. Those kinds of pearls of wisdom are not going to help design the future. Digital can not be steered top-down, it won’t be accomplished by throwing millions at creative agencies, and it won’t be decided in back rooms. Do we seriously believe that we can manage such an enormous social upheaval like digitalization with a few people? That would be folly. We are not the drivers. We are the ones being driven. Digital transformation only works when we take as many people along for the ride as possible.

Within a few short years, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram have turned our cozy world of communications completely upside down. Mass media used to provide us with information. Nowadays every person with an Internet connection is mass media. Five years ago my friend Gunnar Bender (Director Public Policy, Amazon Deutschland) wrote: “Mass media will give rise to the media masses.” That is exactly what has happened.

The most important driver is not technological advancement. It is the people who drive the technology. They are the ones who give the technology its purpose. Having a digital mastermind for a CEO is a good start. However, the goal should be to nurture each and every employee to become a digital mastermind who represents the company and shapes the development process. We have to let them share the responsibility and give them the space to do this. Company communication is essential for ensuring that having this space doesn’t result in chaos. You have the task of moderating the digital transformation and rendering the process so that every employee feels involved and included.

And now? We have to break open structures and bust down silos. We have to find new ways of collaborating. Ideas have to be piloted faster than decrepit structures permit. Interdisciplinary teams have to be formed and sorted in organigrams. Employees have to take on responsibility and managers have to delegate responsibilities. But first and foremost we have to act. Act quickly. Make mistakes. Do it over. Get as many people involved as possible. We all have to find the answer to digital transformation for ourselves.