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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

True digital transformation requires a customer-first perspective

October 16, 2017 | By Michael Cairns, Managing Director—Digital Prism Advisors @personanondata

Over the past 20 years, the “digital transformation” of the publishing industry has been—for the most part—a slow, incremental process. For too long, the publishing industry was mostly concerned with digital replicas, ebooks, and other superficial “transformation” efforts which, in fact, didn’t so much transform the business as copy legacy models in electronic form.

Suffice it to say that legacy media models are oriented around the process of producing a book, magazine, or newspaper and not necessarily based on the experience and circumstances of the digital consumer. As digital transformation enters a new, more advanced phase, many publishers are recognizing they have an opportunity to provide products that raise the value proposition to customers.

What does it all mean?

The term digital transformation can be defined as a multitude of activities and attitudes that a business could potentially pursue. But what digital transformation really requires is that business owners adopt the customer’s viewpoint and change their business philosophy accordingly – from a process orientation to one that is customer-centric.

Publishers in education, reference and professional segments are beginning to execute operational change which supports this evolving viewpoint. And of course, there are “born digital” media organizations that aren’t wedded to legacy models. However, some of the best examples come from sectors outside media. Amazon.com is frequently cited as a proponent of the customer-centric view and their willingness to continue to rethink their operations from the customer perspective results in initiatives such as ‘one-click’ ordering to their recently announced wireless checkout process. Payment is made automatically via the Amazon app as the customer leaves the store. And we’ve seen what Amazon-owner Jeff Bezos has done in terms of transforming processes at The Washington Post since he acquired it.

Creating an environment where change can occur is no easy thing. Detailed and comprehensive change management activities need to be adopted to help guide an organization through this process. By definition, a legacy business model carries with it deeply entrenched legacy processes that need to be changed, adapted, or discarded in order to forge a new environment for success. Engaging in a formal digital transformation initiative endorsed and supported by the highest level of management is a requirement, and nothing less will suffice if the business is going to succeed.

Where to start

Before this can happen, though, it’s important to understand your starting position. A complete review of the current state of the business is critical to defining your future objectives and targets. Digital transformation is a process that takes place over time, along a spectrum of capability, where the endpoint is a business (or a product line) that has been digitally transformed. Points along that spectrum should be predetermined, well-defined objectives, which also serve as opportunities to reevaluate and reassess whether the business is going in the right direction.

Recently, I was asked to conduct a workshop with an educational publisher that recognized the business imperative of digitally transforming their business. This is not an unsophisticated publisher; they realize they are still too far removed from the consumer experience and must establish new business processes, product development strategies, and distribution/access models to remain competitive over the next 20 years. That’s a tall order for any organization, which is why the digital transformation process needs to be embedded into the organization in a consistent and repeatable manner. So, I took a team of senior executives through a day session to explore how this transformation process could be executed within their organization. An important takeaway from our meeting was the recognition by the group that taking on too much to quickly will doom a transformation project before it has started.

On a project I worked on several years ago, we avoided this trap in three ways. We:

  1.  recognized that our content and editorial workflow needed to become digital-first;
  2. identified three to four workflow products to implement early in the transition; and
  3. implemented a number of quick wins such as metadata improvement, copyright clearance integration and the implementation of process improvements with our distribution partners.

Doing the first brought uniformity and control to the creation and management of content, while the second enabled the team to learn by experience. The third built confidence in our ability to execute. During the first and second year of this project, as progress was made on these initial initiatives, the team gained the time necessary to test their market and product assumptions directly with customers.

As a result, toward the end of the third year, the publisher had established and expanded range of integrated products combining traditional textbook and reference content with assessment, collaboration, and other tools that improved their effectiveness and established a sound foundation for further digital growth. Across a variety of products, they had begun to adopt a customer-centric publishing model with revenue models to match.

Leading long-term change

Generally, the critical components driving the success of the transformation effort will be collaboration, resources, leadership, a clear understanding of business value, creativity, and a deep understanding of customer wants/needs. No one person can affect all these factors. Therefore, a strong statement of intent from senior management, ownership of the process by the senior leadership team for the business unit, measurable performance factors, quick wins and identifiable success stories are critical to creating an environment for transformation success across the business.

Securing executive buy-in to support this transformation effort (led by the CEO reporting to the board) must be a given. The imposition of technology on businesses today is so vital to medium- to long-term business viability that this effort demands the active support of senior management. An effective tool in this process is the establishment of targets and key performance measures tied to the desired improvement in the customer experience. To drive change, these objectives should represent significant “step change” performance improvement. Setting these out clearly helps prevent back-sliding and guards against good-enough results masquerading as real change.

Taking an organization’s senior management through a workshop like this one is the first step in a good first step in driving a true digital transition process. But because digital transformation will ultimately touch every part of the organization in some way, all staff must be included in the process. All employees must understand the importance of the effort to the success of the business, how the process will unfold, its impact on their work and what their contribution will be.

And remember that a digital transformation effort is never over. In a truly customer-centric organization, the business will always be anticipating changing behavior, rapidly adapting, expanding capabilities, and building new and better customer solutions. Increasingly, legacy processes do not allow for that type of flexibility and that’s the imperative for digital transformation.

Michael Cairns has served as CEO and President of several technology and content-centric business supporting global media publishers, retailers, and service providers. He blogs at  personanondata.com and can be reached here.

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