Required Reading: Unraveling The Digital Helix

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Digital transformation often means different things to different organizations, but in their new book, The Digital Helix, authors Michael Gale and Chris Aarons try to boil it down to a science. Associate Editor Oren Smilansky spoke to Gale to learn more about the key elements shared by the 16 percent of firms that have pulled off the feat of going digital.

CRM magazine: What kind of research did you do for this book? 

Michael Gale: We interviewed more than 2,000 executives about what they were doing in digital transformation and how they were doing it. We literally wandered around with 30 organizations for about three years—government organizations and commercial companies—just watching them go through this journey. It was like anthropology meets laboratory science.

Did you find a formula? 

Successful organizations were taking a new approach and often tended to start in customer service, sales, and marketing. We started to trace and match their behavior patterns and actions. 

And what did those companies have in common?

They tend to go slow [in order] to go fast—they spend a lot longer planning, rather than rushing into execution. What these organizations are really good at doing, in every way we looked at it—everything from the way they did social, social service, or new development—is spending a lot of time bringing people into the [fold]. So they’ve got advocacy, not just within their own groups, but across an enormous range of the organization. They don’t assume there’s one strategy for success. They get that alternative strategies are [constantly developing]. There isn’t one solution that works for everybody, or even that works for you. And they really think hard about measurement; they make sure there are new sets of measurement in place, so that they’re not just measuring new things in old ways. 

What success stories will readers be surprised to find in the book? 

Hallmark, to me, is one of the shocking stories. It’s a wonderful example of how to think [digital transformation] through at a unique and almost esoteric level. If you look at Hallmark, you go, “What, they do cards—they can’t be good!” But their understanding of insight, and of very specific behaviors around a digital product or a paper product, is impressive. It’s a super-sensitive Midwestern company—you’d never seen them as leading edge—but they were really smart about what it takes to be successful in a customer-centric, incredibly connected world. 

What impressed you about how Hallmark carried out its transformation?

When you’re in the card business, you crowd-source for card ideas. That’s not new, they’re just very good at it. You load them into various stores, and then you just wait for the numbers to come back from retail—that’s been the classic model. Hallmark looks at this stuff every few hours. They are poring over constant insight. It’s easy to say, “I’m a fairly remote physical business, I’ll wait for my numbers to come back next week.” But they’re not like that. They’re constantly trying to use insights, not key performance indicators, to drive their business. They know that things shift in the digital world all the time. Some of it is noise, some of it is signal, but their ability to look through new noise and new signals is amazing. Most organizations don’t have that sensitivity. 

What key lessons would you like readers to take away from the book?

I think they need to look at three pieces of the book. One is the piece about managing information in new ways. It’s imperative, particularly with CRM. In most peoples’ CRM systems, there are great amounts of information, but large amounts of it are noise, bizarre things that won’t help you, not signal. The second thing is that marketing and communications is a flow. It’s not just one marketing or one communications action—it’s all connected. And the third thing is that customers have portfolios of experiences. In other words, just because I’ve responded to item A doesn’t mean I will respond to B. We’re in an industry that desperately wants to find linear causality. If I do A, B will happen. It doesn’t happen that way, and it’s key to understand that.

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