Playing the long game in digital transformation

by Jim Berne 22 October 2019

My colleague Marcin and I have co-written this article; it’s all about telling our story of aligning around shared goals and the importance of collaborating to achieve these goals. You’ll see this theme coming through in future articles – whether from ourselves or other Ricoh Australia executives.

Any large-scale organisational change takes time – yet leaders have less and less of a runway to achieve lift-off with digital transformation initiatives. CIO tenures are decreasing in Australia, even as they increase globally. Our conversations with customers suggest most executives are expected to deliver on digital transformation objectives within a two-year cycle – which, in turn, emphasises short-term returns and visible achievements instead of long-term growth.

If we insist on achieving “popcorn” ROI from digital transformation – fast and loud, but rarely substantial – we risk compromising the willingness of employees to support other transformative initiatives in the future. But in a market where leaders are constantly moving and market conditions changing, playing the long game in digital transformation – establishing a consistent, trustworthy experience of the business for customers and employees alike – does not come easy. It demands, most of all, a clear why for digital transformation that transcends the tenure of individual leaders and employees alike.

Long-term doesn’t mean “long-time”

Every long-term framework for digital transformation requires a strong corporate purpose at its core. That purpose should, in some way, directly address what customers want, need, and expect from the business – questions best answered by a cross-section of leaders with different skills, responsibilities, and areas of expertise. It is worth noting that although 82% of such leaders themselves acknowledge that innovation must start at a senior management level to succeed, only 20% of technology leadership teams are considered very effective by their people at defining their vision for technology. The more cross-business input and understanding of the customer leaders can consider when setting digital transformation’s purpose, the more sustainable it will be.

A long-term view accomplishes several things. For one, it encourages employees to build deeper, more durable relationships with customers and each other – rather than pursuing more transactional advantages at the cost of those relationships. It also helps test strategic investments and decisions which may at times seem counterintuitive, or costly in the short term, yet they must be made to advance. In Ricoh’s case, focusing on improving workplaces has acted as a powerful lens to guide how we define what we offer customers – not as products, but as solutions to specific frictions or challenges that their people consistently encounter.

However, a long-term approach to digital transformation does not mean change takes a long time – far from it. Achieving digital transformation’s purpose may not require large leaps forward in investment or initiative, but it does prompt smaller “step-changes” in technology or service that can gradually establish trust in both the expertise and character of the individuals who make up the organisation. Individual employees who accept and value the long-term purpose behind digital transformation will, perhaps ironically, be more engaged to make immediate contributions to its realisation. The technology of digital transformation simply serves those repeated, ongoing actions, rather than directing them.

Passing on the purpose

For digital transformation to achieve its long-term purpose, it needs to jump the “generational gap” created when leaders and employees inevitably leave the company. That can only happen if leaders actively mentor the next generation from Day 1 of digital transformation. Technology, while powerful, does not guarantee that customers will consistently experience the same values and level of care as they interact with the business over time. Common values, cultivated amongst managers and their teams, stand a much better chance of doing so.

Achieving Ricoh’s purpose for digital transformation – more productive, more human workplaces that integrate work and life – will take a lot longer than a year or two. It will involve much closer relationships between different teams than we have had before, like a recent agreement for our Technology and Innovation team to “out-source” its network infrastructure to our IT Services team for much more consistent and sustainable quality of service.

In fact, it’s hard to say whether we can ever truly “accomplish” our purpose. It represents less of an end-state than something we constantly and consistently deliver on for our customers as they themselves grow and evolve. While new technology can be introduced quickly, playing the long game in digital transformation acknowledges that there is no real “end” to change. It also acknowledges that businesses succeed off the back of the relationships their people build, like those between Technology & Innovation and IT Services which we have spent months fostering. The best of those relationships – like those between Ricoh and many of our customers – often evolve quickly yet last for decades or even lifetimes.