The 10 commandments for communicating digital transformation

By Egbert Deekeling

Digital transformation is the new buzzword in all business circles. Many sectors are affected, with corporate groups and companies defining their transformation processes and projects. Even in those sectors that are not obviously directly affected, companies are taking precautionary steps in order to be able to counteract future problems in good time. Over the past two to three years, digitisation was determined for the most part by project managers, ably assisted by management consultants and HR experts. Their concept of 'agile' organisation has since established itself as part of the transformation repertoire. During this time, there was neither sight nor sound of corporate communications. Here, digital transformation was synonymous with the digitisation of communication. End of story.

But this is all changing. We are now witnessing a higher level of interest and participation. Corporate communications is discovering and defining its role in managing and conveying digital transformation. Based on our experience over the past two years, here are a number of recommendations regarding the form this should take.

Digital transformation is all about the strategic renewal and the future of the company. This being the case, CEOs need to have a high internal and external profile as initiators and driving forces. They are at the helm of the overall process – and this is what needs to be conveyed and perceived. It is not something that can be delegated, not even to CDOs or CIOs. CEOs must lead the way. They themselves personify the new era. Anything else merely erodes their leadership authority.

Digital transformation is a project for which all forces must be mobilised in order for it to succeed. This calls for close interaction with both the supervisory board and the works council. They must believe in the new approach and share the management’s understanding of the tasks that lie ahead. Therefore, both groups should be incorporated in the process as early as possible. After all, it is important to demonstrate a unity of purpose to the capital markets and the general public and to ensure that all employees are on board. This generates support from both within and outside the company.

Capital market thinking is short-term – capital markets want to see success and to see it fast. They expect change processes to be limited in scope and to be implemented without any major risks. However, digital transformation is a medium- to long-term process that often entails investment risks and un-predefined results. In other words, it is everything that the capital markets aim to avoid. This is why regular dialogue is required with the capital markets about the aims of the renewal process, the potential it harbours and the progress that it is making. After all, it cannot succeed without the goodwill and patience of shareholders and investors.

Optimisation, increased efficiency, reduced costs – these are the keywords that have shaped most change processes in the last decade as well as managers’ and employees’ experience of them. These terms often carry negative associations like the fear of losing one’s job. This is a learnt behaviour and affects how digital transformation is perceived, particularly since it has a high potential for efficiency and, as a consequence, a high potential for creating anxiety about job security. However, it is important to counter this resolutely. Digital transformation is, after all, much more: it creates new space for innovation, growth and the future. This is what it is primarily about, and this is what must be conveyed in order to help those involved to identify with the concept and to usher in a new era.

In order to be successful in the digital world, companies need to be fast, agile and innovative. This calls into question long-established management and collaboration routines. Thinking in terms of areas, hierarchies and control mechanisms finds itself confronted with trial and error, project work and participation. This also calls for a new understanding of management roles. Rather than being based on issuing instructions, controlling activities and using knowledge to lord over staff, the new management pattern for the digital world is characterised above all by inspiring, guiding and enabling employees. To achieve this, communication must generate attention and set the scene for the new 'digital' style of management. This creates role models among managers and gives the renewal process further momentum.

Digitisation is closely connected with the values of start-ups and Generation Y. They represent the new identity of the digital age. However, it would be a mistake for a company to jettison the entire corporate culture it has built up over the years to make way for its digitisation plans. After all, large companies and corporate groups are not start-ups: they have different structures and operate differently. A company’s corporate culture should therefore be exposed carefully to the new 'digital' value system with a view to striking a balance between the two. To do so, it needs space for new ideas, interaction and learning.

The brand is the central symbol of any company: it shows what the company stands for and where it wants to go. Accordingly, the digital transformation must also be reflected in brand management activities. This does not automatically call for a new logo or a new corporate design. Rather, it is a question of boosting the relevance of the brand in the digital world, opening up to new (young) target groups and developing new, unconventional branding formats – for example in employer branding. By 'renewing' the corporate brand in this way, the transformation of the company will become tangible for external and internal target groups.

Corporate communications has become more complex and more demanding: the involvement of multiple stakeholders, a wide range of formats and intensive content management characterise its sphere of activities. Digitisation helps to perform these tasks more quickly, more efficiently and more in line with the needs of the relevant target groups. However, digitisation is not the same thing as communicating digital transformation. The latter is about more: it is about accompanying the cognitive and cultural processes associated with digitisation. And this is only possible through formats involving personal communication and through face-to-face communication. It cannot be achieved using digitally supported content and channel management alone.

Innovation departments have been working for years with new creative methods such as design thinking, BarCamps and Business Model Canvas. What sets such models apart is that they focus on experimental procedures, trial and error, creativity – and on consciously abandoning familiar ground. However, what has so far been the method repertoire of innovation management must now also become a key tool for communication. A willingness to embrace new ideas will now be the basic requirement for the company as a whole. Methods such as design thinking are suitable communication formats for getting managers and employees to open up to new ideas and for developing a vision of the future together with them.

The success of digital transformation depends on the attitude of all stakeholder groups within and outside the company. Because of this, company communicators have a central role. In their function as advisors in strategic stakeholder management, they must provide active support to top management and those in charge of digital innovation projects. Communicators must see themselves as dramatic advisors in the digital transformation process – preparing content, involving external and internal stakeholders and creating the right platform for top management. Only with this self-image will they do justice to the all-important role that communication has in the digital transformation process.