The 10 Attributes of Successful Digital Businesses

February 28, 2018
Brian Beaupied

What do successful digital organizations all have in common? Check out the traits of mature and successful businesses that are winning (and growing) in their digital spaces.

Digital Marketing

We're all in the technology business now.

Take former Steelcase CEO and current Ford boss Jim Hackett for example. Speaking to a Detroit business crowd in November, Hackett laid out his vision for the automaker using words like "computing", "data", and "artificial intelligence".

In short, he spoke about Ford using technology to transform how it does business. We’re accustomed to automakers using engineering language, but the adoption of digital terms is quite a shift from the usual fuel efficiency, horsepower, and passenger safety.  

And Hackett isn’t alone. Businesses the world over are reckoning with strategies that embrace emerging technologies into the broader business vision. Those that can do seamlessly are quickly identifying themselves with growth. Those that master digital are being labeled as “digitally mature”.

But many are failing to realize the promise of business advantage that technology affords. The truth is, achieving the vision for digital maturity will require the organization to operate in new and fundamentally different ways. Doing digital marketing does not a digital strategy make, and purchasing technology does not necessarily drive its mature usage to influence the business. Rather, to adapt successfully to an increasingly digital market requires deep examination of many practices that, perhaps surprisingly, do not involve technology at all.

Enhancing customer experiences, identifying operational efficiencies, and driving new business models are the primary drivers for digital initiatives

Maturing digital organizations are customer-centric. Ultimately, organizations that understand the value of responding to consumer expectations and making it easier to engage the brand are the organizations succeeding in their digital spaces. We mentioned Ford earlier, but let’s look at another Michigan-based company, Domino’s, which just overtook Pizza Hut as the world’s largest pizza chain using this approach.

Digital strategy is aligned with a greater corporate strategy

The most effective strategies look at core capabilities and corporate objectives through a digital lens. If the organization’s prerogative is to prioritize online sales, then implementing a new e-commerce platform that makes direct selling easier could make a lot of sense. The definition of key performance indicators (KPIs) is a great method for linking the tactical digital work to the bigger picture business needs. The rudimentary example here might be to identify online sales as a percentage of total sales as the KPI, and track this metric’s progress before and after the implementation. This demonstrates value that aligns directly with a significant business priority.  

Vision and planning are long-term in nature

Teams working toward a more digitized business model understand it's a process, one that often requires fundamental and foundational change. Questions to consider: What capabilities must the business have in five years? Ten years? How is this change managed and sustained? How do you manage and forecast without overcommitting to the distant future and being pulled along by changing consumer habits?  

Leadership has become an agent for change, replacing grassroots efforts

Maturing digital teams often experience a grassroots-style digital revolution involving individual advocates or champions. Without strong executive support and sponsorship of a digital strategy, however, this enthusiasm and momentum is difficult to sustain in the long term. The right executive leaders will have an ambitious vision for the digital business with the willingness to commit the necessary human and financial resources to achieve it. This may lead to the creation of new, digital-centric positions and the hiring of digital-minded executives to better unify the greater business and digital strategies.

Investment in digital initiatives and innovations have increased, forcing difficult trade-offs

Securing a funding model for digital initiatives will likely require doing more with less (or the same). Without significantly increasing operating budgets, supporting a digital strategy may involve making difficult compromises with other departments within the business. Through KPI definition and measuring impact of digital work, though, teams can begin to better substantiate their arguments for budget increases, capital requests, or additional resources.

Corporate culture is deliberate and values risk-taking and experimentation

While a strategy is needed, it's the company's culture and leadership that will ultimately bear the burden of executing on the vision. Mature digital teams foster and promote an intentional culture that gives employees the freedom to fail fast, learn, and iterate. These experimentations, if well-structured, supported, and successful, can become pilot programs that quickly scale across the organization into enterprise successes.

Restructuring promotes collaboration and the creation of cross-functional teams

As business models become more complex, and organizational structures expand to accommodate new, digital-centric positions, organizations must resist the urge to create silos that make enterprise management easier. This comes at innovation's expense. Digital accountability must be baked into each team during this process. In addition to driving digital accountability, teams begin to see the value of more collaborative teams and environments. The creation of cross-functional teams that involve technology and marketing resources can significantly increase production and speed to market of new digital products.

The organization has become a talent magnet

Businesses will either provide employees opportunities to use, improve, or develop digital skills, or risk losing these talented employees and senior leaders. Employees recognize the digitization occurring in the marketplace and understand the importance of keeping current on trends and skills to stay marketable. Providing these opportunities as part of cultivating an intentional, digital-minded culture will aid retention of a company's top tech talent.

Data fuels the organization’s customer obsession and informs decision-making

With teams and platforms now better integrated, businesses begin to look at their data in new ways. As data and measurement becomes increasingly important to demonstrating business value, it can also be used to guide decisions as well as tailor brand and product experiences to individual users. Metrics across channels start to mature, including adoption of platforms specific to visualizing and reporting. The ability to share and apply data in real time to enhance customer experiences and inform decision-making becomes a force multiplier for the organization.

Software and technology initiatives serve to differentiate the brand

Regardless of industry or initiative, all digital projects should serve to differentiate and grow the brand. What growth means, specifically, will vary from business to business. But, as new tools and platforms enter the market, mature teams are proactively vetting business capabilities against existing and new business models. These groups of early adopters, who would rather disrupt than be disrupted, become benchmarks who create the standards and practices for others to follow and iterate on.