Challenges of digital innovation for large corporates

Although Dilbert published the above strip in 2009 my experience shows this problem remains today, when large corporates look to embrace digital innovation. There is a real disconnect between the speed of advancement in the digital industry and the ability for large corporates to react to it which leads to inefficiencies and lost opportunities across the board.

I love the digital industry, I see it as a massive race. If it were an actual race it would probably look more like a speedy fun run than a 100 metre sprint vs Usain Bolt … thank god, as otherwise the rest of us have no chance!

But, as with a fun run, there are others around you also running, also heading in the same direction and helping to inspire you and pull you along when you drop back (and vice versa of course). But at it’s very core it’s still a race, things move forward quickly and if you aren’t running at all, then you quickly get left behind (perhaps as you the reader may have just been with this analogy?).

It is this issue I want to explore a little with this post, as it’s something I am experiencing in a new role these days in a large corporation.

A little background

Halfway through last year I started discussing moving in-house for a large FMCG company. The brief was to help a particular department within the company take a more digital and strategic approach to their communications. They have a diverse set of challenges, both from a logistics point of view (they are a global business) and also a regulatory standpoint which can differ significantly across different markets. This in turn has led to large volumes of communications going out in multiple languages and across regions. To date these have been predominantly print based and they wish to change this and wanted help with understanding how. It’s a great brief and good challenge and I jumped at the opportunity. I have been working for them for a while and this was a chance to take a more central role, albeit in a smaller department but it’s still a big enough challenge to get going.

Following my conversation back in July, I have been working with the team (first remotely and now in-house) to drive forward digital adoption. From that I have encountered the following clear issues which I have outlined below, with suggestions as to how I think they could improve it going forward. However, before I delve right into it I would say one thing. This is a great company, they have real drive and ambition to lead the way within their sector and they have the resources to back up a course action once it’s decided upon. The challenges they face, as I perceive them, are not insurmountable or particularly unique to them. They are challenges that all large corporations will face and with some thought and willing to take action they can be overcome

Issue 1 – Legacy Systems

This is the number one problem that comes up with almost every project. In place there are systems which are there to encourage digital communications, currently it’s SharePoint 2010 being used as the main platform for the intranet, extranet and various portals, as well as the corporate social media platform as well. This is killing me! I get it, I know why you need a structure and simple CMS for internal comms teams to use. SharePoint is probably the best on the market for that matter, it’s robust, well adopted and relatively simple to use for web publishers.  It also has the significant added bonus of all the power of Microsoft support behind it so as a corporation you can be fairly confident that there’s little chance it will be dropped and you’ll be left “high and dry”.

But there is one issue … out of the box, SharePoint sucks!

It needs a lot of configuration to get it to a sufficiently usable state for a digital marketer and even then it’s still a massive compromise. Then once you have it working ok, you’re then stuck with it and it becomes a major consideration for every project. Demanding concessions and work arounds for almost every project because “SharePoint can’t do that”. When you get a Project Owner looking to be really innovative and push some boundaries, the SharePoint constraints almost always reign them back in.*

*I speak, of course from my own experience on all of this.

Taking into account this issue my move almost every time is to push for external hosting on solutions to give us the flexibility to get round this SharePoint constraint. Although an ok solution, it brings with it all manner of security issues and considerations which quite rightly are in place. In my humble opinion a server dedicated to offering the option for non-SharePoint solutions but sitting within the corporate firewall would be a great solution here. Enabling Project Owners to choose the best solution for their projects without the need for constant compromise and watering down the eventual product.

Legacy systems have a place in corporates, no doubt about it. But there needs to be flexibility built around this as well. Technology should always support the communications, not limit them.

Issue 2 – Extended Approval Processes

Admittedly, this one is a pretty difficult one. Approval processes are necessary and a centralised IT approval process makes complete sense to try to unify the solutions rolled out. Otherwise in a business this size you can quickly end up with each team working independently and creating an extended and disparate set of solutions for the communications. This will cause havoc for everyone when it comes to support, upgrades, cross functional and cross departmental cooperation and almost everything else. But the issue is, when you force everyone into a decision funnel, if that funnel is a protracted one that halts innovation within the communications.

Project Owners are forced to continue with sub-optimal solutions for too long, leading to inefficiencies for the business.

Inefficiencies can be both work related as key information pieces are not effectively communicated, or financially related as money is spent on accommodating the issue rather than solving it.

How is this solved? I’d be keen to see if any of you out there have ideas. For me I think the change in mindset is needed in how to assess new requests. I’ll give you an example that I am working on right now. I am looking for an enterprise level email solution to aid in the constant flow of of communications going out and deliver increased measurability for the team (and it’s also a move to reduce print comms and stacks of paper on people’s desks). As it turns out, a few other departments also are looking into this and so we have hit a wall right now for an extended requirements gathering process to be completed before suppliers are then assessed and a final solution is put in place.  This is a necessary process for sure, but in the meantime I think each department could try the solutions they’ve found as small test cases. This could then feed into the assessment process to decide on which one is the final solution to go for – there is nothing quite like a real field test to help prove value or other.

For the end user this makes no difference, they still get an email with the information they require and it’s more convenient than stacks of paper. For the rest of us we get real insight to how these solutions work prior to selecting one final one  for implementation, as well as actually moving the communications forward and attaining some of our keys goals (or not as the case may be, in which case we can cancel the idea before it’s too late). This is a clear need for a mindset shift to an experimental one, and it’s one I feel could add real value to the company.

Issue 3 –  Missing key sponsor from Senior Management

The last point I’d say I’ve encountered so far is one that is often overlooked but is central to everything. Without the right buy-in at the top, the task of driving forward the digital agenda can fast unravel.

It needs to be spearheaded by someone who has the right level of authority and buy-in to align all of those underneath them who are in charge of actually delivering the project.

Right now I am encountering this on a major communications project centred around a corporate report. There has been a real interest this year in exploiting the digital platform to extend and enhance conversations around the main printed communication piece. However, as we move closer to the “hard-work” of actually delivering the report, the digital aspects are beginning to become watered down or cancelled altogether. I see a major reason for this is due to Senior Management members of the project team are not spearheading the digital agenda and are allowing it to fade. Rightly or wrongly? Well on a business level it’s certainly not my place to call that, but with the mandate of “make us more digital” on my desk I see this becoming a lost opportunity. For others embarking on similar tasks, I would strongly advise getting Senior Management buy-in on your projects and then constantly reminding them of this.

So there you have it…

It’s still very early days and there is a fantastic challenge right here in front of me. There is real willing in the department to explore opportunities and I love being at the centre of that, it seems my biggest challenge is going to be making sure that ambition is then actually translated into action when it comes to the crunch.

I will leave you with a quote I came across last night which I felt was an apt way to sum up everything above:

“When new technologies impose themselves on societies long habituated to older technologies, anxieties of all kinds result.” - Marshall McLuhan

Thanks for reading, would love to hear your thoughts and experiences as well below in the comments.

Ed