Episode 5: Daniel Rowles

Building a digital culture for a successful digital transformation

Daniel Rowles is CEO of Target Internet, a digital marketing guru, consultant, and proud author of many books, including the subject of today’s podcast, Building Digital Culture.

In this special edition of Not Another Book Review, our guest presenter is our very own Sam Warburton, Design & Content Creator at Ad Esse. Our guest is also the author of the concept under discussion.

Read the transcript

Table of Contents

(00:00) Podcast introduction – Not Another Book Review

Rhiannon Gibbs:

Hello, and welcome to this fifth edition of Not Another Book Review, the podcast where our guests will share concepts or ideas they have read about in books and their experiences of applying these concepts in real life. Much like our approach to consultancy, theory is all well and good, but it’s the application that matters.

Today is a special edition of our podcast. Not only because we have a guest presenter, our very own Sam Warburton, Design & Content Creator here at Ad Esse, but also our guest today is the author of the concept under discussion. Daniel Rowles is CEO of Target Internet, a digital marketing guru, consultant, and proud author of many books, including the subject of today’s podcast, Building Digital Culture.

Daniel, thank you so much for joining us today and Sam, over to you.

(00:47) An introduction to the book - Building Digital Culture: A practical guide to successful digital transformation

Sam Warburton:

Thanks for the introduction, Rhiannon, and thank you Daniel for joining us today. For our listeners, I thought it would be good to start off with telling us a bit about the book, and what is a digital transformation?

Daniel Rowles:

Building digital culture is basically all about how you create a successful digital transformation. Just to clarify that first of all, all that digital transformation really is, is where are we now as an organisation? And where do we need to be in order to operate in this fast-changing environment?

Where this was all born from, was that a few years back now, Accenture came out and basically said, “75% of organisations are either in, or about to be in, a digital transformation.” And then they also put another stat out about a week later saying, “75% of digital transformations fail,” which is a bit of a worrying set of statistics.

So, we wanted to look at why were they failing? Why were they succeeding? And see if there’s anything that could be learned from that. And what really came out was, we went off and eventually interviewed about 300 organisations. And I then continued that research with Imperial College. I’m a programme director at Imperial College and I head up their digital transformation programme, and we’ve continued to interview organisations. And what I think is great about this is, it started off as a bit of an idea for a book, but there’s a fair bit of academic rigor behind it, AND it’s very, very practitioner-led in terms of the interviews. And basically, what came out is, there was a lot of factors that make organisations succeed or fail.

So, we went off and we collected those together and built the data together, and then broke that down into a framework. Now, the way that we looked at it, we highlighted 14 areas. And I say WE, because I was co-authoring the book with a guy called Thomas Brown. So, I should really highlight that because Thomas is a great consultant in all things digital transformation. We worked out an audit, and it basically came down to 14 different areas, and we’ll get into one of those today a bit.

You can audit yourself against these and work out where you are. So, what we’ll do is, I’ll send the link through and we’ll put it into the show notes. You can download the audit and put your own organisations through it as well, just to see how you kind of gauge against it as well. But that’s kind of where it came from.

(02:56) Communicating digital transformation using the SIBA approach for buy-in to change

Sam Warburton:

So, one of the key points that stood out for me, was the importance of translation and communication. You mentioned a framework called SIBA in the book, and I thought it would be good if you could explain this a little bit more for our listeners?

Daniel Rowles:

Yeah, completely. So, let’s just talk about the translation and communication piece first of all. So, the whole piece is that you need to make sure everyone understands what’s going on within the transformation. You have to decide what the transformation means to the organisation, why you’re doing it, what it’s going to achieve, and why everyone else needs to be behind it. So, there’s that definition piece that comes first of all. And that takes leadership buy-in to get that done. You define why you’re doing a transformation, what it’s going to achieve.

The key part of that is to understand that, in reality, a digital transformation is not an end destination. It’s not that you’re going to do the transformation. You are going to go through this process. It’s all done. There you are. You’re a beautiful butterfly, you come out of your cocoon, and it’s all done. The reality is, you’re creating an organisation that can cope with ongoing change.

So, as part of that, because this is going to take a long period of time, we have to communicate to people and help them to understand what this means to them, and how it’s going to impact them on a day-by-day basis. One of the things that we saw was that those digital transformations that have been the most successful were the ones that really focused on stakeholder management. When I talk about stakeholder management, I really formalise stakeholder management.

It’s quite easy in the back of your mind, to have, you know. I know John’s opinion on this, I have Sarah’s opinion on this, and I think I can manage those people and so on. Whereas the reality is you really need to formalise your approach to it and re-address it on a regular basis.

One of the key things is, first of all, we define things really clearly. We have that leadership buy-in that goes into this, and then, we’re going to go through and have a stakeholder management plan to go through that and look at that effectively. And then from there, we need to work on that process a little bit.

The SIBA Approach

In line with that whole thing of stakeholder management, communicating things clearly, trying to take people on the journey, the SIBA thing is just really, you start off with thinking about what the story is you want it to tell them. What’s the narrative behind this that’s led to what you’re going to do, and why you’re going to do it? And I think narrative’s really important because it really helps you tell the story and build that narrative internally. And we found it was important that kind of story was told again and again. I.E., where are we now as an organisation? What’s the problem with that? What pain is that causing to our customers or to our internal customers and so on? And therefore, what are we trying to do with this as we go through this? We’re kind of laying out what we’re going to do in the transformation.

Then the ‘I’ is the implications. So, the implications, basically saying, what is it going to mean to them? And this is where the stakeholder management piece really comes in. So, how is it going to impact them? How is it going to impact your organisation? So, everyone has clarity on that. And working through stakeholder management is really important because you need to find out people’s opinions of how this is going to actually have an impact on them.

One of the things that we normally do right at the beginning of a transformation, I talked earlier about auditing things. I.E., where are we now? It’s really good to go out and start that communication early, so that you’re asking people, “well, I think this is where we are as an organisation. Where do you think we are? Where do you think the opportunities are?” and so on. And I’ll come back to that point a little bit later on because it starts the communication early.

When you get to implications, you want to hear from them, how they’re feeling about it. Do they think this is a great idea? Do they think this is yet another initiative that’s just more work? Then you’re going through and you’re thinking about, what are the benefits? From this, what is it actually going to achieve for the organisation, and how is that going to help us as we’re going through things? I think that’s really important, to understand why we’re doing this, and to remind people, because one of the things that can happen an awful lot, is that we go through, we start a transformation, and some sort of problem happens and it drags on.

These things can be multi-year projects, and we’re kind of forgetting what the benefits are going to be in the long term. The great thing with this is, if you can come up with some things that are a win for the business, so efficiency or increased revenue, but also a win for the customer. If you can align those two things, then there’s a really clear benefit and we can say why we’re doing it. Then what comes from that is, okay, what are the actions then that we need to go through to achieve these things? So, it’s a nice way of framing the conversations, and always getting us to take that step back and think about, why we’re doing it? How it’s going to impact those people? How it’s going to benefit us? And then how are we going to action that? And revisiting that on a fairly regular basis.

There were a couple of things that came to mind while we were doing the research. The first was, there was a lady called Katelyn from Deloitte and she was head of digital at the time.

One of the first things she did, just to start up this conversation about implications, was to go and interview all of the partners at this firm and find out what they thought of digital. What did digital mean to them? What was really interesting was that she got 35 interviews, and she got 35 different answers. So, this means very different things to different people. That alignment is really important of understanding how people feel about these things.

Alistair Welham was one of the guys that we interviewed as well. At the time, he was a director at Aegon Insurance. He now does a lot of board work with a lot of very successful businesses. Alistair talks about, one of the things you want to do, is a questionnaire at the beginning to ask people what they think the opportunity is, what you’re good at, and what you’re not good at digitally at the moment. Just to see how that aligns. One of the things we do is we get people to do this audit and we score it. We give it a number and then we see how different people score. By doing that, you start to understand people’s feelings about this.

The challenge of digital transformation is that it’s about people, it’s about change, it’s about technology amongst other things, and it’s about culture more than anything else at the end. Those are all things we struggle with, and the difficulty is the people bit. Taking this communication approach can have a big impact on making people kind of understand and buying into the whole thing.

(09:41) How to overcome resistance to change

Sam Warburton:

So, our clients often face some resistance to change on this journey. How would you get stakeholders on board?

Daniel Rowles:

Yeah, so I think there’s going to be a range of stakeholders involved. One of the first things we say is leadership buy-in is the most important thing in this, because if you can fix leadership buy-in, you can basically fix pretty much everything else. You can get sign off on things, you can get momentum behind them, and so on. In that approach, there’s that bit of stakeholder management.

Shock and awe approach

We might do ‘shock and awe.’ Shock and awe would be bringing an external speaker in and they basically say, “if you don’t do this, your organisation will fail.”

Now that that will work for some boards, but some more than others. There’s a famous story of Jonathan MacDonald, who’s an amazing public speaker and futurist, and great thinker. He walked into the board of Kodak and basically said to them, “you’re going to fail,” and they literally laughed him out of the building. We all know what happened to Kodak afterwards. He then went on to speak to other companies, did similar things, and really turned them around. So, there’s that approach.

Find a figurehead

There’s also the approach where you make them the figurehead. You say, “look, we need to do this. We don’t fully know all of the implications yet. We know there’s some unknowns here, but we need you to figurehead this, because that will get everyone else’s stakeholder buy-in.” If the leadership are willing to put their hand up and say, “look, there’s some unknowns in this, but we know that we need to do it.” that can really figurehead things and make it work. Where the CEO and the board are really behind it, that will really help with all the other stakeholder management.

Make it other people’s idea

There’s another one where you make it other people’s idea. The approach we’ve done before, so we were in this particular organisation, a really large company, and we said, “look, you need a new website, and you need a whole new CRM, and all these things, you need a digital transformation.” They said, “oh, a new website? Why do we need any one of those? We only built that one eight years ago.” There was an attitude that it didn’t need replacing. So we said, “okay, what we’ll do, we’ll get five of your leading customers,” and these customers were spending millions of pounds each, “and we’ll sit them in front of the website. We’ll get them to try and do things on the website. Literally just go and try and find products and services and so on, but we’ll switch the web cam on, and we’ll record their faces while they’re doing it.”

We got all these recordings of people going “What?! Where do I click? This website’s awful!” and so on. We edited it into a three-minute sequence and just walked into the board and went, “look, this is what your website is doing to your customers. What do you think we should do?”

“Oh, we need new websites and new systems.”

“Good idea.” So, there’s different ways of approaching that first bit of leadership.

Empathy with workforce resistance

The next bit with everyone else in the organisation, is mapping them out and working out where they sit on that map. Dealing with people that are difficult generally, it comes down to that implications bit that we just spoke about. What does this mean for them? Is it they think it’s a waste of time? Is it, they think something they do is at risk?

One of the groups we found a lot of challenges with is sales teams in some organisations, where you’ve got very senior sales teams. A lot of those people have been doing the job for a long time, and they’ve been doing it the same way for a long time, and it’s been successful up until now. Their attitude is generally, “well, why am I going to change this? Because what I’ve been doing up until now works,” but the problem is the environment around them is changing very quickly, and therefore it’s going to stop working. If you think about cold calling and things like that, and just how much it doesn’t work anymore.

In those cases, there’s a lot of trying to understand. The empathy piece becomes really important to understand why they’re resistant. If you can do that, then you start to be able to take them on a bit of a journey.

Educate everyone and avoid putting the ‘cool kids’ in the corner

Education sometimes is key to this as well, which is really about, “maybe you don’t really understand some of this stuff. You feel a bit threatened by it, or you feel a bit silly, and therefore your resistance goes up.” Put education programmes in place so people can understand this and feel more comfortable having conversations that they don’t feel pushed out by this.

The other thing is that you don’t want digital to be the ‘cool kids in the corner’. You don’t want digital over here, and everyone else somewhere else, because the risk of that is that again, it’s an ‘us and them’ situation. And digital is something that enables every other area of the organisation, rather than it being a separate thing. You can have a centre of excellence that helps everyone get there with it, but actually it should be integrated into the organisation. I think those are a few of the things that will help with that resistance.

(14:02) Key elements for a successful digital transformation

Sam Warburton:

From your own experience, what key elements do you think the most successful digital transformation have?

Daniel Rowles:

There’s lots of overlapping areas. We’ve talked about translation and communication. That tied us back into leadership, and so on. The thing here really, and why the book ended up being named what it did, is that, everyone thinks it’s about technology. “If we get the right systems, we’re going to be fine.”

The problem is, even with the right systems doesn’t mean you change your processes or use those new systems. We might be so busy firefighting and doing the day-by-day that we actually never get round to doing things in a different way. It may be that, we’ve got to do something really difficult and therefore there’s a risk to it, so we just don’t bother taking the risk. But then in the long-term, that will damage the organisation.

The importance of culture in a digital transformation

What this all comes down to in today’s changing culture, which is why the book ended up being, Building digital culture, because the reality is, the approach of using data to make decisions, taking calculated risks, but doing that in a way that involves stakeholder management, making data-driven decisions, having an approach of ‘test and learn’, all of this great stuff that we want to get out of a transformation, in reality needs cultural change.

And there’s a great thing that we’ll put into the show notes as well, which is there’s a guy called Stefan Toma, and Stefan used to work at Google at Silicon valley for eight years, and I got to interview him about, what did Google do to have this culture of innovation? And what can everyone else learn from that? Because we’re not Google, right? So how can I apply that to my organisation? If you are a social housing provider, what Google does can connect to what you’re doing. And he’s brilliant at kind of saying, actually you can take these principles and we can apply them to the things that we’re all doing on a day-by-day basis.

I think that stakeholder management is important, but if you can build the right culture, then you can embrace ongoing change. You can learn and you can innovate. Innovating in large, complicated organisations with lots of stakeholders can be difficult, but if we build that culture, then you can get the momentum. That can really move the needle.

There’s a great interview with Stephan that we’ll put online, and I think it’s gold dust. I learned so much. It was incredible. I would definitely recommend it. We’ll give you the link for that as well.

(16:21) Examples of the most successful digital transformations

Sam Warburton:

Great. We’ll include Stephan’s video in our show notes for how to implement a culture of innovation like Google. So, in your experience with examples, what elements do the most successful digital transformations have?

Daniel Rowles:

I think that the bigger the organisation, the harder they are, because you’ve got legacy systems. A lot of the case studies tend to talk about banks, for some reason. Everyone’s obsessed with digital transformations in banks, because they always have these legacy systems. Not that many of us run banks, some people do, right? And I could show you lots of case studies about those, but actually, the ones that are really important are the ones that really focus in on user experience.

Focus on the customer experience

There’s some stuff that’s been done, interestingly, in the NHS around this, where you’ve got a complicated organisation. They’re taking parts of that organisation, not trying to do the whole thing at once, because if you try and boil the ocean, you’ll just lose momentum and don’t get anywhere. And what was great, is they started to talk about patients as customers, which is a very common thing anyway now. But the idea of, what is the customer experience? Do everything based on the customer experience. Everything that happens in the background is how we do things, and that’s our current culture, but that shouldn’t be it. It should be about improving the customer experience. If you look at it from that perspective and become very customer centric, those are the transformations that tend to have the biggest impact.

I think we always talk about start-ups. And if you look at start-ups, it’s because they’re agile and they’re fast and that’s easy when you’re four people and you’ve got huge amounts of funding and no legacy systems. The transformations I think are impressive are those ones where you say, “right, let’s go customer centric. Forget how we do things at the moment. What would good look like? And then what are the iterative steps to taking a pragmatic approach to get there?”

I think that auditing is a good way of doing it because if you look at these 14 areas and say, “how successful are we in each of these areas?” Let’s realistically look at them and say, “what do we need to do?” If we’ve audited ourselves, what would we need to do to make it perfect, and then prioritise it and have a list of actions. At the end of the day, a digital transformation is a list of initiatives that we need to carry out. It’s about just trying to prioritise them and keep momentum with those.

I think that the examples that I was impressed with is when we take a complicated thing, and just boil it back down to basics and say, “how do we do things better for our customer?” And what that will mean, is that they have better experience, we deliver our service better, and there’s cost savings, there’s efficiencies, and so on that comes with that as well.

(18:58) Final notes

Sam Warburton:

I think that lends itself really well to Ad Esse’s approach of continuous improvement and customer focus. So, for the benefit of our listeners, this isn’t the only book you’ve written.

Daniel Rowles:

Yeah. So, I do a lot of stuff around digital marketing as well. I’ve done digital branding, we did a podcast marketing strategy, and we also did one on mobile marketing, as well. A lot of the stuff that I do is around that connection between education, practicality of putting things into place, and how does it really work in practice? This book was a particularly special one, just because we had so many actual involvement from industry and people were showing us, what they’d done and we’ve continued the research afterwards, which is nice as well.

So, the audit has been updated, and we give that out for free. So hopefully it’ll be a really useful resource for everyone, and they can see where they sit within their progress towards this, and where they should probably focus their efforts. Hopefully that will give them a little bit of momentum in terms of getting some buy-in for the change that they need as well, and hopefully some tips about the communication as well.

Sam Warburton:

We love your practical approach, and it’s supported by hundreds of interviews and academic study. Thank you so much for being a guest on our podcast today, Daniel.

Daniel Rowles:

Thank you very much for having me. It’s been a pleasure and yeah, hope those resources are helpful for people. Thanks very much, and please feel free to reach out on social media if anyone’s got any further questions as well.