Is transformation mostly realized with new skills?


Digital transformation is the buzzword that simply will not go away. But are we taking its name in vain? It is easy to jump on a bandwagon and start to use terms like transformation without really thinking about whether we are doing so correctly, or whether another word, like “iteration” or “improvement,” would be a more appropriate description of what we are doing.

To transform or to iterate?

A cartoon on a recent article on ZDNet about this very subject showed a very clear difference between iteration – in this case, the cartoon suggested, making a car that little bit better – and transforming: turning the vehicle into a robot à la Transformers. The article suggested that Telstra was a good example of this difference, having had a number of improvement projects over the years, but failing to “transform” until relatively recently.

One of the executives in charge of transformation at Telstra was reported as saying that transformation was all about people, and particularly their skills. Without this focus, change is simply iterative improvement. Telstra had therefore encouraged people to develop a wider range of skills, giving them more opportunities to engage at different levels and in different roles. This makes creating new and more agile teams much easier. This struck a chord with me, as it is central to the transformation that I am currently working on with our EMEA marketing team.

Like many other organisations, we have identified the challenges of attracting customers’ attention in an increasingly noisy and busy world. Even in a world full of noise, expertise should stand out, but we are finding that presentation has become increasingly important. Our marketers now need a wider range of expertise. Where once it would have been enough to be, say, an editor, or an expert in event logistics, you now need a much broader array of skills. For example, you also need to understand the messaging, and know more about how to manage and use digital channels effectively. Specialising remains important, but even specialists need to know more, and understand a broader range to apply the right context.

Building ‘pack resilience’

Our own journey mirrors what we have seen in marketing teams at many organisations, including our customers. What this means in practice is that our marketers  do not have broad enough skill sets. Across the whole marketing team the skills may be there, but not in enough depth to respond at the speed required in today’s world. We are therefore working on a transformation that will increase the “pack resilience,” the ability of the team to respond rapidly and effectively to customer demands.

I have drawn this idea of pack resilience from the concept of “herd immunity.” This is used in medicine, and particularly immunisation, to describe the phenomenon of a group or population being immune to a particular disease even though some individuals remain susceptible. Vaccination of around 85 to 95 percent is usually enough to ensure the disease cannot take hold in the population as a whole. Some members of the group will still be able to catch the disease, but only if they come into contact with it. Herd immunity, however, ensures that the chances of them coming into contact with it are small. It means that individuals who cannot be vaccinated, for whatever reason – age, say, or a compromised immune system – can be protected by the rest of us.

The same concept works in skill development. We cannot all become experts in everything, and some of us are very specialised in particular areas. By each of us broadening our skill sets to the extent that we feel comfortable, however, we can ensure that the team has the necessary skills in sufficient depth to make the organisation more resilient.

This has enabled us to take a new approach to skills development. Instead of insisting that everyone does a standard course, taking time out of work to do so, we are developing a program of voluntary and on-demand short courses in particular skill areas. These modules – each taking no more than 30 minutes to complete – have been prepared by internal experts in those areas. This sharing of expertise ensures that the courses are relevant to the challenges faced by the team, and draws on knowledge and experience gained over time.

Transforming through skills

This small-scale skills-building may sound iterative in scope, but it is nonetheless designed to be transformative over the team as a whole. My recommendation is to focus on building in-depth skills across a much broader range of areas. This will enable a faster, more agile response to customers, in turn transforming customers’ experience with the brand. Data may be driving the business model, but new skills will keep the engine running.


About Author

Patrick Xhonneux

Vice President, EMEA Marketing

Two decades after becoming part of the global software industry, Patrick is still fascinated and passionate about how software solutions improve business effectiveness, foster innovation and enhance everyday life. Today he has the privilege of leading one of the most energetic marketing teams across EMEA as SAS contributes world class analytics to drive success for our customers. As a vocal advocate of the digital economy and how it fundamentally transforms enterprise roles in the 21st century, Patrick is an enthusiastic contributor to the global transformation movement. In May 2014 he accepted a two-year mandate in the Board of AmCham EU, serving as Chair of the Operations Group.

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