The digital transformation of business was well underway before coronavirus struck — but the pandemic has accelerated the pace of technology adoption across business and wider society. As Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft, recently stated: “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.”
The increasing use of data and technology has been critical to ensure the smooth running of business in the pandemic. Tech has been a lifeline for millions of companies all over the world that dialed in to Zoom calls or collaborated using Microsoft’s Teams in the new era of remote work.
Lockdowns also forced companies to transform their business models with technology, from banks developing digital services to cut costs and branches, to retailers forced to close and embrace ecommerce as coronavirus sparks permanent changes in consumer behavior.
Some leaders have been turning to executive education courses to help them stay ahead of the curve of change. A growing number of business schools are seeking to help executives to pull off a successful digital transformation. While having the right data and technology in place is essential, people are also crucially important to enable digital transformation.
So companies are turning to executive education to not just survive the pandemic, but to become more productive and resilient in the long run. “Those organizations that are further along the curve in their strategic envisioning, providing capabilities at scale, and shaping a fast and agile culture can be expected to make disproportionate gains,” says Michael Barrett, professor of information systems and innovation studies at Cambridge Judge Business School in the UK.
Covid-19 has already cemented the dominance of Big Tech companies, whose share prices have surged in a pandemic that also underlined the social benefits of these platforms in helping to fight disinformation or developing contact tracing apps, for example.
Cambridge Judge runs the open-enrolment Digital Innovation and Transformation executive course. It helps participants to develop the right corporate culture to enable transformation, one which requires agility as well as the tolerance of failure and an understanding of new customer behaviors.
Motivating and engaging employees to be agile and adopt different ways of working can be an enormous challenge, says Barrett. “Leaders not only have to provide proactive direction on the digital journey to promote culture change and drive engagement: they also have to communicate powerful narratives in reimagining their future business.”
Getting started requires both painting a vision of where the company could be, but also setting out the first step on that path, says Nathan Furr, associate professor of strategy at Insead in France and Singapore.
“Successful leaders recognize that digital transformation is fundamentally about two things: seeing all the new opportunities available to a company in a digital world and transforming the core of their operations to serve customers better using digital tools,” he says.
He is directing the Leading Digital Transformation and Innovation course at Insead, among others.
These programs explore the strategic, organizational and innovation processes a company needs to succeed, drawing on CEOs who have led successful digital transformation. They relay that the primary source of failure is resistance to organizational change.
Grappling with an evolving technology landscape
For Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School, digital transformation is not a one-shot deal. “I can think of many companies that have already made significant changes to their digital activities, but because technology keeps evolving, there is often a need for a second or third round of transformation. This is very challenging because fatigue sets in.”
He says the transformation is driven by external factors – customers who are demanding better services, but also new competitors, the likes of Google and Amazon, that often have the power to make life very difficult for incumbents.
There is also a “war for talent”: companies that have taken digital transformation seriously find it much easier to hire the best and the brightest, especially younger employees, Birkinshaw says.
LBS has several courses that could be helpful here, including Exploiting Disruption in a Digital World and Innovating in a Digital World, which provide fresh examples of companies at the forefront of change. The courses also help executives think about putting changes into practice.
Making investments in technology
For Marcos Lima, professor in technology, innovation and digital transformation at SKEMA Business School, the current opportunities to create value anywhere, anytime through digital technology cannot be overlooked.
“The world is full of unmet needs,” he says. “Above all, there are new opportunities to establish alliances over greater distances, through better communication tools that allow collaboration at a distance, overcoming barriers of time and space.”
SKEMA runs the Embracing Digital Transformation course over three days in France. It covers three pillars: understanding the trends and opportunities; managing people and organizations through the change process; and developing the ability to build new, innovative business models.
“Without understanding how it serves the overall strategy and without taking into account the human factor in the transition, digital transformation projects are doomed to fail,” says Lima.
Successful digital transformation is very tricky to achieve because it has so many moving pieces, adds Christopher Tucci, professor of digital strategy and innovation at London’s Imperial College Business School.
In his Digital Transformation: 5 Game-Changing Technologies for Business course, he provides frameworks for how a business can be digitized. Then participants work on a capstone project of their choice, focusing on their own organization to make an implementation plan for their digital transformation.
Tucci says: “We like to call that the table stakes, as in a card game, you have to make these investments in digital transformation just to play the game, otherwise you find yourself not being able to compete.”