Dreaming with digital in 2021

In 2020 many organisations underwent a crash course in digital in order to survive, but success in 2021 and beyond will require leaders to develop a coherent digital vision for their business.

  • Article   |
  • 06 January, 2021

Over the last decade, digital moved from the periphery to the core of business activity. However, for many organisations this realisation only fully dawned during the pandemic as countries around the world went into lockdown. Overnight, retailers without a multi-channel strategy, manufacturers without a digitised supply chain, and knowledge firms without remote working systems confronted the prospect of breakdown and even oblivion - and they were forced into rapid digital adoption just to survive.

The sustained nature of the COVID-19 crisis has meant that 12 months on, there has been no reversion to the pre-crisis norm, and months of disruption are still to come as cases reach new peaks in many parts of the world. Even as vaccines are rolled out and the world slowly recovers through 2021, the duration of the crisis means that many of the digital habits formed by consumers and companies will become permanent. 

The consequence of this acceleration in digital adoption has been a new acceptance among leaders that digital is now the way of doing business. However, those companies that survived 2020 by hastily adopting digital will not thrive in 2021 and beyond, unless they build upon this moment to develop a clear digital vision for their business.

Leaders need to dream with digital

As leaders embark on the new year with a mixture of optimism and trepidation for what 2021 will bring, in the realm of digital there is no room for caution. Instead, leaders need to dream and dream big. For while the COVID pandemic focused unprecedented resources on digital adoption, once the catalyst of the virus recedes there is a risk that the crisis-driven approach of 2020 will fall apart in 2021 without a clear long-term vision and relentless execution.

Your digital vision will play three important roles for your organisation and it is the role of the leader to take charge of defining it. First, the vision brings clarity on the strategic objectives digital is helping your organisation achieve. Without a clear definition of why you are pursuing digital transformation, the initial energy will quickly dissipate as your team confronts the inevitable challenges along the way. 

Second, a well-defined digital vision helps mobilise your people toward a common overarching goal. Many companies pursue digital transformation in a piecemeal fashion with different departments pursuing different initiatives. Creating both conflict and confusion. A clearly defined and well communicated digital vision helps overcome this tendency by aligning your team behind a shared mission.

Third, a digital vision helps you and your team prioritise and focus on the digital initiatives that matter to your business. This focus ensures you avoid getting distracted by new digital solutions that deliver few benefits. While also helping you persist with complex but business-critical digital initiatives when they come up against challenges in implementation.

Four elements can help build a transformative digital vision

To develop a transformative digital vision that will catalyse your organisation through 2021 and beyond leaders should be guided by four key principles. 

Look at digital through a business lens

First, when building a digital vision leaders should ensure they are looking at digital through a business lens - rather than a technology or functional lens. Through adopting a business lens leaders can focus on how digital will shape their future strategy - rather than jumping to narrow discussions about what is the right technology stack or which departments are in greatest need of digitalisation. The business lens keeps you focused on big picture issues such as how digital will alter your industry's structure, transform your value chain, change customer behaviour, and redefine the way you organise. 

Connect the DOTS

The second principle for leaders formulating a digital vision is to connect the dots among the opportunities and threats digital presents. This requires leaders to look outwards rather than inwards and see how competitors, customers and more advanced industries are using digital technologies. From this external scan leaders can spot emerging digital trends and better understand how they might create competitive advantage for their firm or, how they might enable disruptive new business models that could threaten their long-term survival. 

Although discerning the importance of technology trends can be a challenge, tools like the Gartner Hype Cycle help leaders understand the maturity of emerging technologies and when they might be practically applied to achieve specific business goals. Similarly, the threat posed by new digital start-ups can seem fleeting to established players as new entrants initially flare and fizzle out. However, as the flow of funding reaches a critical mass in a sector, new players are able scale at incredible speed leaving industry incumbent far behind. Therefore leaders need to keep close tabs on where early stage investment is happening in their industry and how fast it is growing.



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Make data the foundation

The third principal to guide leaders in developing their digital vision is to make data the foundation of their business. In the digital economy data is the critical blood supply that oxygenates every part of the business. By establishing the importance of your data to your organisation's digital transformation, incumbents can better equip themselves to fight new digital native companies that are data-driven from day one. Whether you want to leverage customer data with machine learning or, apply artificial intelligence to optimise manufacturing processes, every business needs to consider how they will capture, analyse, and share data in their digital vision. 

Dream big Dream bold

Fourth, but perhaps most importantly, leaders need to dream big and bold when it comes to digital. In a post-COVID world where digital is the default way of doing business, an incremental approach won't cut it anymore. In fact, the current decade will likely see a multifold acceleration in digital technologies as advances in key technologies like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, additive manufacturing, robotics, and genomics begin to converge. Therefore leaders must set ambitious and transformative goals that stretch their organisations and force the business to reimagine every aspect of activities in the light of digital. Further, in formulating this vision leaders must demonstrate a willingness to embrace risk and build a culture of digital experimentation.


About the Authors

Deepak Sharma is director of strategy and Gehan Wanduragala is principal at Kanvic Consulting.

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