In the Transformation Age, What Should Businesses Prioritize? Digital by Default or Data by Design

A Point/Counterpoint Discussion

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once asserted that, “Change is the only constant in life.” Yet in this new era of exponential evolution, change is no longer constant. It’s the variable and ever-accelerating force that compels leaders to redirect visions, stay the course, or chart new paths forward. With the rapid pace of change in today’s world, businesses must evolve more efficiently than ever to modernize legacy strategies, embrace new technologies, and empower their people to be trailblazers of transformation.   

Is it truly realistic for companies to keep up? What is the secret sauce for capturing innovation and staying cutting-edge while also maintaining the essence and rich heritage of a corporation?

As we explored in our perspective, “The New Rules of Digital Transformation,” success stems from the ability to operationalize a do, adapt, and learn mentality to survive disruption in a digital-first world. On the other side of the coin, “Data as Fuel: Why Your Business Needs Premium” details the importance of data monetization to unlock meaningful insights that inform the direction of the enterprise. Ultimately, this digital renaissance, combined with the mission-critical nature of data, has left many businesses struggling to decide which to prioritize.

In this True North Tech Journal Point-Counterpoint special edition, Ben Grinnell, Managing Director and Global Head of Technology and Digital, and Dwight Specht, Vice President and Technology Lead, debate what the first ingredient of a successful business transformation should be – digital or data?

Is data or digital the foundation of innovation?

Q: Why do you believe a data-first approach can better position IT leaders for transformation?

[Dwight]: Transformation demands a steady diet of data. It’s entirely dependent on actionable insights to drive tangible, sustainable results. At the inception of any change initiative, it’s imperative to design a data management framework for rapid ideation, identification, and prioritization. This lets you source, extract, and analyze data, and then shepherd the insights through an iterative feedback process. In our research, 96 percent of leaders in analytics, report that data helps to advance organizational priorities. Without data (the foundational mechanism for true transformation), your project will parish.

Q: Keeping in mind the imperatives that Dwight mentioned, why do you think businesses should start with digital?

[Ben]: While data is a stepping-stone to transformation (one can’t happen without the other), it’s an insufficient part of the equation. For example, digital giants are diverting from the herd because they’ve mastered the do, adapt, and learn approach. Conversely, companies that were born in the industrial era are lacking sophisticated digital methodologies, so they’re at risk of falling behind their digital-era incumbents. Starting with digital first empowers companies with a more comprehensive plan to ignite transformation, whereas starting with data only delays the inevitability of obsolescence. 

In other words, digital is creating a colossal shift in the way people work, think, and connect. It allows you to learn, improve, and excel based on a vast array of feedback, including the human-centric variety. In that sense, businesses must reimagine people, process, and technology best practices from a digital-first mindset. But be advised, best practices can no longer be preached. They must be learned through experimentation and iteration. Data is often the enabler of that learning, yet it can’t stand on its own. 

Q: Let’s dig into some examples where these scenarios come into play.

[Ben]: The digital journey should be the driving force of data management maturity. To put that theory into practice, when a leading airline recently engaged our team to redesign its investor website, we leveraged digital ways of working to deliver two versions of the site. These sites went live simultaneously, and randomly segmented users to one site or the other. We provided strategic counsel on feedback techniques and data collection and interpretation strategies. For instance, instead of asking users to rate and compare the sites, we used data-driven insights (e.g. how long they spent on the site, where they abandoned, whether they completed something, whether they browsed what we wanted them to see, etc.) to determine which site met our collective needs. As a result, our client no longer had to guess what customer journey was best – they could trust the data to decide.

[Dwight]: Data is truly the foundation of digital innovation. In my experience, nearly every leading oil and gas conglomerate is “non-digital” and data intensive. When one of the world’s leading wind energy producers was struggling to utilize the breadth of data needed for evidence-based decision-making, they engaged our team to construct a data monetization solution capable of consolidating multiple storage and analytics applications, implementing quality assurances, and making real-time adjustments based on evolving business imperatives and market demands. This automated process allowed the global energy leader to refocus its energies on mission-critical initiatives while strengthening the quality and accuracy of insights. Introducing the new tools into the organization empowered it to make trusted decisions at the speed and scale needed to fuel business transformation. 

In a nutshell, if your data management process is immature or non-existent, your digital journey will get lost before it gets off the ground. Conversely, if your business is already on the digital innovation train, yet you’re not boosting your analytics capabilities accordingly, you’ll resemble a car with three tires on four wheels. You’ll make progress, but it will be loud and painful.

Q: What industry trends are driving the need to prioritize digital or data first?

[Dwight]: Many of the home DIY retailers, oil and gas companies, electric utilities, and global manufacturers born of the industrial age already have data assets in place. Their primary objective is to leverage digital transformation to better connect and deliver unparalleled customer experiences. As this digital-first mentality creates an influx in data, they must enhance their analytics systems to withstand the transformative demand.

[Ben]: Digitally native businesses – Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon–are defined by subscriber numbers and time, which can be monetized to ad revenue. It’s not the intimate knowledge of their customers that made them successful, it was knowing they were there. The subscriber time was the primary asset, not the data.

Q: What are some obstacles to implementation?

[Ben]: Dwight will likely disagree, yet a pure focus on data doesn’t solve the problem of iterative delivery and changes in how people work together. While data can enhance decision-making, you must coach people through that transition to ensure lasting success. In that sense, a singular focus on data will impede long-term human connection and adaptation.

[Dwight]: Ben is spot on! With that said, if you decide to change course without decent data capabilities in place, you’ll get mired in management opinion. It prevents you from gathering insights objectively.

Q: Are these ingredients separate or intertwined?

[Ben]: Data maturity must be part and parcel of the overall digital strategy. I’d suggest getting the basics right first. If you aren’t thinking about a digital transformation, focus on moving to an omnichannel customer experience. Then, focus on nurturing an agile, adaptable culture.

[Dwight]: From a data purist perspective, I’d recommend focusing on refining the collection, management, and analytics of customer transaction data. From there, enrich the data with other interaction points to inform business decision-making.   

Digital and Data Must Coincide for Transformation to Survive

When all is said and done, the reality is digital and data are inexorably linked, so IT leaders need both for their business transformation to survive. The technological tides have officially shifted in the wake of transformation, and businesses must be data-driven and digital by default – or risk falling behind. Whether you’re born in the industrial age or a rising star of the digitization decade, change is the common denominator where data and digital align. Both are essential ingredients that ensure an organization is poised to pioneer transformations that last a lifetime.  

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