How to Review a Digital Strategy

How to Review a Digital Strategy

Recently a company asked me to carry out an independent review of their digital strategy and to suggest possible improvements. Here’s how I approached it. 

A Challenging Question

The company had been into digital innovation for over a year, and they wanted to get an outside-in look at their digital strategy, to see how they were travelling. They had acknowledged the wave of digital change happening all around, assembled a small team of professionals to take charge, and developed a set of plans to achieve their vision.

It’s always tricky to carry out a review of someone else’s work. To me, it’s like being invited to someone’s home for dinner and you tell them how dusty the furniture is. Dinner never ends well. In particular, it feels unfair to the individuals who built the strategy in the first instance to then apply a different set of measures to appraise its worth.  

So how do you size up the quality of a digital strategy? Digital is still pretty novel to much of heavy industry, and very new in Oil and Gas. There are no purpose-built frameworks for carrying out this sort of work. Deadlines and budget constraints impose their own pressures to execute reviews efficiently. 

My approach was to agree with the company a set of objective measures in advance of doing anything. Objectivity helped remove the sting of feedback, and sharpened the work to collect the evidence, avoiding that advisor risk of trying to boil the ocean.

The measures were framed around four questions or themes:

1) how was the digital strategy put together?

2) what was included in the digital strategy?

3) was the digital strategy being actively implemented?

4) was the digital strategy fit for purpose?

A Good Process

I assume that if you want a good strategy, you need to start with a good strategy development process. A poor development process could lead to a disappointing outcome. 

As a new industrial field, digital innovation doesn’t yet have a widely accepted and industry standard process for developing pure digital strategy. In that light, I think it’s probably sensible to start with an existing strategy process and modify it to incorporate digital thinking. Here’s an article on this concept.

My objective measures around process, in the absence of a vigorous and proven method, were aimed at things like scope, timing, participants and data gathering methods. Here were the measures that I applied: 

  • The full organization participates in some fashion. Digital opportunity is appearing everywhere. 
  • The team that develops the strategy are qualified to do so. Don’t ask plumbers to do brain surgery.
  • Any structural biases that could influence the strategy are mitigated. If the team reports to finance, the strategy may have too much of a cost focus.
  • The timing of the development effort occurs when the organisation has capacity and attention. Summer time is a bad time, as is year end. 
  • The participants in the strategy effort are conversant on digital. Not the development team, but the business users. If the business does not know blockchain from augmented reality, they struggle to provide meaningful input into the process. 
  • The way data is gathered is free from bias. Totally open interviews are fun to do, but important things can be overlooked. 

To get the data for the measures, I interviewed the development team, looked over the interview guides that were used, matched the interviews to the org chart, and traced some of the interviews through the analysis to see that the data worked its way into the plan.

Excellent Content

The next focus area was on the content of the plan itself. Executives trusted that the strategy process yielded a thoughtful and competent plan, but how could they be sure? For example, the process to develop the plan might have included the impacts of digital on field operations, but the final plan might have, through some bias, ignored this data and concentrated on those areas of interest to the planners. 

The measures I put in place for assessing the content included the following:

  • The full span of the business and the impacts of digital are reflected in the plan. This ensures that the bias of the developers and participants are kept in check. 
  • The initiatives and investments are aiming at some broad digital vision. Otherwise, just about any digital investment will make sense since digital is impacting all of society. 
  • The digital changes balance short term cash-focused opportunities, as well as long term positioning. Early momentum with some quick wins proves out the faith in digital investments and provides cash for reinvestment.  
  • Benefits from digital are programmed for both commercial and operational areas. Oil and gas companies in particular struggle to introduce technology change into the field, but operations should be fully baked into the plan.
  • The future of work and the impacts of digital on the workforce are considered. Digital has the potential to alter most if not all jobs to one degree or another, leading to a very different future for the workforce, and very different skills. The digital strategy should incorporate actions to help the workforce cope with change.
  • The risks of increasing exposure to digital innovation are mitigated. Cyber is a Board-level concern, hacking and viruses are pervasive, and many digital innovations still treat cyber as an afterthought.
  • The plan is readable, communicates its message and has high utility. A great plan that is poorly expressed struggles with adoption. 

To size up the content, I walked through the plan several times to understand its intent and focus, looked for its North Star or ultimate destination state, and checked its connection to the business strategy. In particular, I was attentive to the impacts of digital on the IT organization, for many companies attempt to spin up fast-paced digital initiatives using Agile methods, only to discover that IT is forced to deploy using traditional waterfall techniques.  

Fast Execution

The next dimension is on the execution of the plan. There’s little point in investing a lot of energy in developing a digital roadmap or transformation program, gaining organizational support and hiring staff, only to find out that the plan is not being followed. 

Measures here were on items like organisation, structure and results.

  • The organization of the resources to enable digital delivery are in place and in an effective structure. Many companies establish digital delivery as a distinct organisation, which can create barriers to implementation. Keeping commercial IT and operational technology in separate silos also inhibits breakthrough solutions. 
  • The governance over the digital strategy includes senior leadership involvement, strong business ownership and frequent check-ins to assess progress. Digital is changing very quickly and investments in digital need to be revisited regularly to make sure they continue to be calibrated to the target. 
  • The methods used to deliver on the digital strategy reflect Agile approaches. Unlike traditional waterfall methods that delay benefits from technology investments until a full scope roll out, digital benefits accrue in a series of small stages. IT professionals need training and coaching on Agile as part of the digital strategy.  
  • The execution of deliverables is purposeful. There should be clear and meaningful results that are achieved quickly if digital is being done right. 

In this stage of the review, I spoke with the leaders of digital program delivery, who would have best view of how the company was tracking on delivery. A simple measure I used was to categorise actual projects into two buckets—digital and not digital—to see which bucket was more full. 

I was particularly interested in how foundational capabilities were being put in place, specifically cloud computing. Without cloud adoption, most other digital investments will be delayed. 

Fit for Purpose

The final dimension of the review was to assess if the digital plan would indeed help the company both future proof itself from unexpected disruption and position the company to be disruptive in its sector. A high quality digital strategy pushes the boundaries of modern business solutions. The underlying logic that if an incumbent is not looking to disrupt, some start up is.

Here are the measures I used to gauge fit for purpose. 

  • An active market surveillance and scanning function is surfacing a steady stream of innovations that have disruptive potential. The scanning function does not merely watch what the peer group is doing—that didn’t work for retailers, the media sector, hotels, taxis, tourism, entertainment, you name it. It looks to adjacent sectors and similar industries.  
  • Pools of funds for experimentation permit managers to run proofs of concepts and trials of different digital solutions to see which ones work. These experiments aim to improve the existing business as well as disrupt the status quo for the market. Both purposes receive attention. 
  • Specific attention is being paid to business model change. Digital innovation can unlock quite dramatic inside-the-fence process improvements, but business model changes are the most disruptive and of which Boards are the most concerned.  
  • The digital strategy includes engagement with the collective of companies working in digital, in addition to the incumbent suppliers. Digital innovation relies on an eco system of educators, financiers, start ups, research houses, incubators, accelerators, rain forests, and other social mechanisms that increase the potential for digital success. 

 

To complete the review, I reviewed the specific digital portfolio and spoke with the digital leadership about their attempts to disrupt their own business, and to promote the ecosystem to suggest ways to disrupt their operations.

Having an outside-in review of your digital strategy is a bit tricky, but a worthwhile exercise to give some confidence that you’re on the right track. 

3 Comments
  • BOB MORRELL
    Posted at 11:11h, 20 August Reply

    What a beautifully concise digital modelling tool. I especially liked the point ‘digital benefits accrue in a series of small stages’. Every startup would do well to acknowledge their role in the scheme of things as a small stage. Vitally important we look at how small stages fit into the broader corporate digital plan. Your article gives a viable roadmap on the path corporate planners should go towards their digital end game. Small stages can play a key role when you know where everyone is heading.

    Thank you for this. (you sent your article out at 5 AM? …)

    • Geoffrey Cann
      Posted at 21:28h, 25 August Reply

      hey Bob – thanks for the comment. You got me—my articles are usually finalised on Saturday or Sunday, and I schedule them to be released in time for the commute to work on Monday.

  • Karl Street
    Posted at 01:16h, 16 September Reply

    I would be interested to know more information about the small incremental quick wins examples as they are often as you state critical to gain momentum and confidence in any IR4.0 strategy.

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