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How to unlock the magic in a digital transformation

Written by: Chris Moye, CROSSMARK CEO

“Change has never happened this fast before, and it will never be this slow again,” is frequently quoted…and for good reason. It captures the reality that change is no longer something exceptional. It is the norm. You can see evidence of this everywhere as the business world either embraces digitalization or is disrupted by it.

Most of us have not seen this pervasive level of change—where the games are switching from checkers to chess right before our eyes—because this magnitude happens only every generation or so, typically powered by a game-changing technology.

While change in the business world is constant and successful companies proactively accept the need to digitally transform, the sad fact is that most transformations fail—70% to 80% by some studies.

In sum, the need for change is high, matched only by the failure rate of change efforts. Tough times indeed for those charged with leading companies.

I came to CROSSMARK having spent most of my career involved in organizational transformations, earning a “hard knocks PhD” in change management across companies of many sizes and types: General Motors, Nabisco, Campbell’s, Avon plus a host of smaller PE-owned companies, in addition to some top-tier professional services organizations such as Alvarez & Marsal, McKinsey and IBM.

When it comes to change, the primary insight is not what needs to be done—but instead how. The potential for a sales and marketing agency to leverage big data and advanced analytics tools has been clear for years. At CROSSMARK, we recently built & launched our new state-of-the-art data & analytics platform—Accelerator—to untap that potential and make sense of big data. And we did so by leveraging both “creative” and “structured” elements to create a comprehensive methodology.

Fundamental enablers that we leveraged to deliver our successful digital transformation include: 1) Alignment around “North Star” business drivers, 2) Initial visualization and design, 3) “Test and Learn” business process implementation and Technology integration. Additionally, guidance and coordination through a “Strategic Initiative Office”, as well as a consistent, pragmatic focus on change management and training is critical—yet is often given the short shrift.

Be forewarned…this is easier said than done. Getting all these elements to come together is hard. The magic is in the how, not the what.

Phase 1: Aligning Senior Leaders
The first step in any transformation is to take a clear-eyed look at the current approach and imagine a better way to provide value. We identified a challenge and opportunity in the way businesses leverage big data-enabled tools—both in interpreting and delivering data. We knew there had to be a better way. With a mission in mind, we needed to ask: what objectives do we want to guide CROSSMARK toward? These objectives would become our “North Stars.” And the best way to answer the question was to involve a large group of senior leaders and really engage in “what could be,” because one of the biggest causes of transformation failure is when management doesn’t buy into the vision. A vision imagined solely by the CEO or even a small task force will never have the resilience, or the broader support needed to survive the potholes you will inevitably encounter.

What our leaders came up with was a very exciting and innovative vision to overcome the chronic challenges of a large sales and marketing agency. It would start with an organization that would be more analytically driven to take greater advantage of the immense amounts of available data. We would operationalize that data with an advanced analytics platform—which would become the CROSSMARK Accelerator—leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to be more predictive and quickly integrate new data sources.

As straightforward as this seems, it took several months to gain alignment on these “North Star” objectives.

Phase 2: Design
This new vision had large implications for most of our business processes. Which brings us to the second element of digital transformation: translating the vision into business process designs.

How much of the grunt work of gathering data could we eliminate and how would we best add value by repurposing the new capacity? Who would have access to all the analytics power and what would that mean for the organization structure? What did it mean to house both brick and mortar stores and eCommerce management in the same team? We put a cross section of business leaders on these questions and many other design challenges.

The key was to not simply tweak existing processes but instead to imagine the best outcome and work back toward the business process and technology solutions we would need to achieve that vision. If Phase 1 was about choosing an “aspiration,” Phase 2 was mapping out our path to get there in a realistic way that new business processes could deliver.

Phase 3: Implementation
Changing business processes is notoriously difficult. In a digital transformation, unlike other business improvement efforts, the front line MUST be involved. This is because of the myriad complexities and tradeoffs that the front-line deals with is typically not fully understood by others. Therefore, the front-line focus becomes the key unlock, and at the same time, the inherent difficulty in moving forward. While Phase 1 brought together most senior leaders and Phase 2 involved an expanded set of business managers—Phase 3 was a full house.

For this phase, we engaged work groups across our business and technology arms such as Sales, Insights, IT, and the entire senior leadership team. These work groups were structured initially by the Strategic Initiative Office, but the membership and plans were always subject to change. Implementation is about translating design ideas into practical applications that perform. Again, easier said than done.

The nuances and judgments involved in orchestrating “transformative results” are the determinant of success. How is the information visualized? What additional training is needed to ensure everyone is prepared to take advantage of the powerful technology? Sometimes the right aperture is high level, sometimes it is micro. Sometimes you push through resistance, other times pivots are needed.

All in, we had hundreds of people creating this new way of working and completing a total of about 1800 critical path tasks. Why? Because it was important that the associates who would be using the platform be involved in its creation. This is critical because they were, in fact, designing a new way of working for themselves that leveraged new technology. Therefore, we asked the front line to define the functions, look, and feel of the entire Accelerator platform.

Some parts are done sequentially, one-step-at-a-time while others start with the end in mind. How will the data platform be designed? It depends on what you plan to use it for. This illustrates the somewhat circular nature of this phase. In order to get to a solution that is both practical and can drive business value, you need an iterative dialog that narrows solutions to the right level of detail. Otherwise, you may end up trying to ingest too much initially…and the effort will fail under its own weight.

For several reasons this could be considered the hardest part of the process. First, there are literally hundreds of individual tasks overseen by dedicated project managers with the work completed by line managers who already have full-time jobs. Second, you will inevitably run into dead ends and losing bets, so determination and agility to shift directions quickly is important.

A third reason is that implementation is where the change begins to become real for a large portion of the company. Humans naturally resist change. We form habits and prefer the familiar—which makes changing behaviors so frustrating.

But building the tool was an incomplete solution. We knew we’d have to follow a strategy to effectively put it into action. Enter the CROSSMARK Way. This focused approach encompassed our training, tools, and ways of working—all designed to deliver consistent results and put Accelerator’s power in the hands of each sales associate, instead of a centralizing analysis in a remote insights function.

Underpinning it all: Change Management
Tools are only as good as the people who use them. Which is why we invested heavily in formal Accelerator training and implemented an extensive “bootcamp” so employees would feel confident in the platform and their new skills.

A main cause of transformation deterioration is failing to fully engage the organization in defining the journey. Where are we headed, together? What are the “stops” needed to arrive there successfully? Along the way, we executed a persistent communications plan to remind everyone of the destination and what it would mean to them personally. And to ensure that our new ways of working were “sticky,” we integrated the CROSSMARK Way into our performance management system.

At time of “go live”, Accelerator was no longer an idea or a set of specifications. It had become an integral part of how CROSSMARK thinks and works. Today our Accelerator platform, designed from scratch for the way a sales agency works, is fully operational. The time-consuming tasks of a sales agency are now handled faster with less effort—freeing up our skilled professionals to add more value. We’ve also put machine learning modules to work, yielding better predictive planning and forecasting power. Our people can make better choices and ultimately drive stronger growth and higher profitability for brands.

So now that our advanced analytics platform is live and has been fully integrated into CROSSMARK, you might ask…where do we go from here?

We started this conversation acknowledging that change is the norm and to succeed we need to keep looking ahead. Even before Accelerator was launched, we began thinking about what comes next. Using our model of a centralized, all-in-one analytics platform that’s available to the entire organization, we are currently working the next phase of Accelerator’s capabilities—including eCommerce, Order to Cash, and more.

The door for Accelerator has just opened, and with it, CROSSMARK has developed an even more powerful capability – the ability for its people to leverage Big Data Technology to redefine the way work gets done. And CROSSMARK now has a one-of-a-kind tool powered by artificial intelligence that we use to deliver on our brand promise: Smarter Way to Faster Growth.