Digital Transformation: At The Intersection

Written by Susan Cato on November 22, 2018

What exactly do we mean by digital transformation? It’s clear that transformation represents a break with tradition – but this break in terms of technology could be manifested either in what we do or in how we do it. Digital transformation proper, in my opinion, happens at the intersection between the what, the how, and the technological developments at play.

This means that a transformative digital journey is not just about taking what you already have and putting it online; nor is it simply about creating a new online product. Instead, it involves innovating beyond what your community already has, and beyond what they might think they need, towards creating something new that they might not even have known they wanted (notice that I say community here, rather than just members. This will become clear below). When it comes to the end goal, we should be expanding our focus outside of our own processes to consider evolving consumer behaviors and expectations, and the impact of technology on our communities at large.

Attending to this intersection matters, because to focus only on creating new tools, or on digitizing existing products and processes, is to lose sight of the ultimate value for your community. If we want to offer value to our communities in this emergent digital climate, we need to assess how to grow our initiatives in a way that will anticipate and meet their needs and expectations. The question becomes both who can we work with, and what could we be – and the intersection between the two is a transformative space.

Another important piece of digital transformation is its holistic character. Digital transformation isn’t something you assign to a person in a corner office, nor is it something you can expect to see happen with one discrete change of processes. Since transformation is going to result in a different way of doing as well as a different set of tools, it has to be ingrained in the cultural perspective of the organization as a whole. It is also an ongoing process, which implicates the way you engage with your members going forward.

On this theme of going forward: being prepared for the future demands that we consider the Three R’s: Relevance, Revenue, and Resilience. This first part, relevance, is really significant for digital transformation. Take my organization, the American Society of Plant Biologists, as an example. Just before I arrived, ASPB worked with IDEO on revenue diversification and strategy, resulting in a series of digital offerings that would be able to generate revenue in order that we could remain resilient in the future. On joining the organization, however, I came to realize that while these changes to our offerings were positive, our primary form of income, publishing, was more than just binding us to a single revenue stream – it was failing to contribute to engaging and growing our community.

For the sake of our relevance, it was important to truly understand who our community was and what would be most valuable to them. Looking at our data, we discovered that although we have 4000 paying members, our community with whom we regularly interacted was closer to 40,000. This resulted in our longer term strategy directed towards engaging these individuals, delivering value in new ways, and becoming an inclusive organization through the technological tools we have at our disposal. What we ultimately created was a model that engages the community through programs and collaborations which provide opportunities to co-create content, products and experiences together. These are then offered up to the community. In essence, our digital transformation became intertwined with a community-focused model of capacity building, mobilization and sustainability - less about the technology and more about the approach.

For us, relevance is the most critical component for a resilient organization and for revenue to increase. This new paradigm wherein we partner with our community to increase relevance is a transformation made possible by the broader technological environment within which we all interact. Digital developments that miss this relevance piece are not transformative, and digital transformation demands this intersecting, holistic understanding of our role in order to offer value and meaning to our members’ - and beyond this, our communities’ - lives.