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It’s safe to say that the era of digital transformation will leave no industry – or even company – untouched. Some industries, media and retail in particular, have already been fundamentally reshaped by digital platforms. But consider the many kinds of companies that can still realize their digital potential. In Indonesia, the $10 billion company Sime Darby, which operates palm oil farms, is investing to create what it calls the “plantation of the future” with ubiquitous sensors, artificial intelligence, and drone-based monitoring. 

Indeed, the relentless advance of digital means it is mission-critical for every industry, and leaders seem to recognize this. In a recent survey Innosight conducted of top executives, more than 70 percent of respondents reported making significant investments in some form of digital innovation, with a particular focus on using digital to improve interactions with customers. Moreover, almost 80 percent of respondents expect to increase their investments in digital over the next five years. 

Yet, our view is that most companies have significant work to do to move from talking about digital to realizing its full transformation potential. Based on our work and research, we believe there are three steps for companies seeking to accelerate digital transformation. First, companies must cultivate the digital intuition of their leadership team. Second, they need to clarify their digital ambition with a specific focus on determining the appropriate balance between three distinct digital areas. Third, they should ensure their digital journey incorporates the lessons from today’s digital pioneers.

Step 1: Build Your Leadership’s Digital Intuition


How do you begin to shift from just thinking and talking about digital to practically and Figure 1strategically moving forward? How familiar are your leaders with digital technologies like cloud computing, Internet of Things, virtual reality, and blockchain? A real challenge for many traditional companies is that leaders being tasked with driving digital transformation  have spent the formative portions of their career in an analog world. They may use email and messaging, shop online, watch streaming content, and know their way around social networks used by their peers and their children, but they haven’t “grown up digital.” It is always hard to make strategic decisions in unfamiliar areas, so before lining up your digital strategy, we recommend increasing the digital fluency of your core leadership team (See Figure 1 for key digital technologies). Bringing in external talent helps, but isn’t sufficient. Consider what three organizations have done to build the digital intuition of their top leaders:

Go to the source. Singtel is Southeast Asia’s leading telecommunications company, with more than 600 million subscribers across several countries. While Singtel’s core business has been digital for decades, in 2011 it started a concerted effort to transform from a traditional telecommunications company to a digital media company. That year, Singtel gathered its top leaders in Beijing, in a country in which Singtel has no notable presence. In the first full day, the team broke into small groups to visit local startups. And over the next few years Singtel held meetings in digital and innovation hotspots around the world. Singtel Group CEO Chua Sock Koong noted that “nothing beats travelling to tech innovation hubs like Israel, Silicon Valley, or Boston to see what big tech companies and small startups are doing.” Today, not only has Singtel shifted its core business from voice to data, it has built up sizable digital businesses in categories such as mobile advertising, big data analytics, and cybersecurity.

Connect with the digital ecosystem. Digital technologies are developing in plain sight in laboratories, universities and entrepreneurial factories in places such as Silicon Valley, Berlin, Shanghai, Singapore, and Sydney. Companies can connect with this ecosystem in a range of ways, such as conducting joint research with universities, investing in startup companies, or creating their own accelerators. These programs need not be budget-busters. Several years ago, life insurance giant MetLife set up a regional innovation laboratory in Singapore. Called LumenLab, the 25-person group is chartered with working on new ideas and strengthening MetLife’s overall innovation capabilities. In 2016, LumenLab began a new initiative called collab. The small team overseeing collab ran a contest for 150 startups, where the winning company would receive a substantial contract with MetLife. The eight finalists had a chance to pitch live to a panel of MetLife executives, including Asia-Pacific President Chris Townsend, with four ultimately winning a contract. Not only did MetLife get a detailed look at dozens of interesting startups, but more than 50 executives had a chance to engage directly with the startups, building their intuition about digital developments in insurance. In 2017 MetLife announced plans to run several additional batches of collab.

Provide experiential leadership development opportunities. DBS is the largest bank in Singapore, with more than USD 300 billion of assets and a historically risk-averse and compliance focused culture. But in 2009, after Piyush Gupta became the company’s CEO, he and his team concluded they needed to jump-start their digital innovation in response to technologies like cryptocurrency, robo-advisors, and peer-to-peer finance platforms.

One piece of the solution was augmenting traditional in-class leadership training with experiential training modeled on the hackathons that have become popular in Silicon Valley. They brought together 200 leaders in groups of 30 to develop a functioning app. Over 48 hours they would meet customers, develop an initial idea, create a functioning prototype (with some, but not too much, technical assistance), get feedback from customers, and iterate. The group emerged with a deeper understanding of emerging technologies, and an appreciation for the pace of innovation in today’s digital world. Gupta says that the efforts around digital have brought greater receptivity to experimenting and an organization-wide recognition about the importance of digital transformation beyond just putting on “digital lipstick.”

Step 2: Clarify Your Digital Ambition


First-hand experience helps to build leadership intuition for the next step in the journey: defining your digital ambition. We recommend forming a small, cross-functional team, with heavy senior sponsorship, to determine how much to invest and where, and what the organizational implications will be. The team should spend no more than 90 days immersing itself in digital developments in and around your industry, probing into unmet needs of current and prospective customers, suppliers, and partners, and understanding the perspectives of internal stakeholders (See Figure 2 for a list of digital transformation milestones). 

Consider, for example, the experience of one of the largest conglomerates in Southeast Asia. Founded more than 100 years ago, today the company employs more than 50,000 people and has revenues of more than USD 10 billion. The company operates in what seem to be the least digital businesses in the world: cement and building materials, chemicals, and packaging. Yet, in 2016 it made the decision to make digital transformation a strategic priority. The company saw that the rise of e-commerce, digital markets, and additive manufacturing all had implications for the value chain for their businesses.

The small team spent time with more than 100 customers, visiting startups in the country and in neighboring regions, and conducting dozens of internal working sessions. After 90 days, the team had clarity about its digital ambition. Specifically, it had determined how much it planned to invest in digital, expectations for impact, and what organizational changes would maximize its chances of success. Perhaps most critically, the effort led the leadership team to agree that the only unacceptable choice was ignoring digital. It had to act.

Generally, the most critical issue to tackle is defining the scope of your digital ambition. What should be your digital “where to play” choices? More specifically, you should consider the balance between three digital strategic areas: digitizing core operations, driving differentiation by digitizing stakeholder interfaces, and creating disruptive growth via building new digitally enabled business models (See Figure 3). Although companies can choose to focus more on a specific area, it is advisable to ensure investments in the first area are sufficient to lower the costs of running business and staying competitive in the industry. Figure 3


Area 1: Digitize Core Processes
Using digital technologies to optimize the core operations is increasingly a competitive necessity. Digitizing internal processes and systems can both improve efficiency and enhance performance. Companies have a range of options available when they take on core process digitization. It might be backend process automation for industries like banking and insurance or a complete re-engineering of internal processes using available digital technologies.

Consider efforts at Sime Darby to digitize their core processes. One of the company’s core businesses manages more than 600,000 hectares of palm oil plantations across Southeast Asia and would seem impervious to digitization. Yet, as Sime Darby plans to spin the palm oil arm off as a standalone venture, it is simultaneously investing to create what it calls the “plantation of the future.” Advanced genomics will help with seed selection, boosting yields by 15% or more. Ubiquitous sensors, artificial intelligence, and drone-based monitoring will help to optimize the nutrient and moisture level of each palm. Autonomous vehicles, robotics, and exoskeletons on plantation workers will further boost productivity. As data pours into a centralized control room, a manager can oversee multiple plantations remotely. The net result will be greater land utilization, higher productivity, and improved performance on key sustainability metrics.


Area 2: Digitize External Stakeholder Interfaces
Continued advancements of underlying technologies provide additional ways for companies to further digitize the interface with stakeholders. Here stakeholders might be customers, partners or any other external stakeholders of the company. One of the first examples of widespread digital adoption was the creation of mobile sites for companies to interact directly with their customers. In the early 2000s, for example, banks digitized their customer interface first through the Internet and then mobile banking. Airlines followed suit via digital check-in machines. Today, fast food companies are introducing touchscreen kiosks that facilitate order customization while streamlining kitchen operations.

Digitizing the user interface goes beyond improving efficiency and into the heart of transforming the customer experience. Aetna, the third largest insurer in the US, wanted to design a new digital interface for consumers purchasing health insurance. The team deeply thought through the customer journey in buying health insurance. They then focused on steps of the customer journey where Aetna could create unique value for customers. This enabled Aetna to differentiate from the competition through the improved experience and to generate additional revenue by offering key benefits through the interface.

Digital customer interfaces can also extend to the entire interaction that a company has with its customers. For example, Disney has invested over USD 1 billion to digitize and personalize the theme park experience for visitors with its MyMagic+ program. MyMagic+ is a combination of a website, mobile application and wristband that collectively allows visitors to customize their experience at a Disney Park. Overall, this digitization initiative has helped increase serving capacity at the Magic Kingdom in Florida.


Area 3: Disrupt with Digital Business Models
Broadly speaking, there are two different types of digital business models that enable companies to create new growth businesses: Producers and Platforms.

As the name suggests, Producers create and offer new products or services to customers using digital technologies. Much like a manufacturer of goods in factories, Producers serve their offering directly to consumers rather than facilitating an exchange between different parties. Platforms, on the other hand, facilitate the value exchange of physical or virtual goods between external producers and consumers using digital technologies. Think of companies such as Facebook, Uber, and Airbnb that have fundamentally reshaped many industries like media, transport and hotels respectively, by leveraging capacity and capabilities from outside of their own organizations (See Figure 4).  Figure 4

It is important to note that digital business models operate on a spectrum. They can be purely Producer, purely Platform or somewhere in between. Depending on the market circumstances and potential benefits to customers, incumbents must decide whether to create a new digital business as a Producer or Platform. Due to the complexities of orchestrating multiple players in the ecosystem, several companies start off as a Producer. Many companies then move to a Platform model after experiencing an increase in transaction volumes or pinpointing ways to capture more value externally. An example of a Producer moving towards a Platform would be GE Digital’s Predix IoT solution, which started with GE’s own applications and then moved on to accommodate partner applications.

In industries where platforms have not yet emerged, market-leading incumbents can co-opt competition and build platforms that provide new sources of value.

Step 3: Advance Your Digital Journey


With digital intuition and digital ambition defined, the next step is to advance along your digital journey, making the requisite investments to turn ambition into reality. The journey promises to be complex and challenging. Fortunately, you can draw four critical lessons from the pioneers that have come before you such as Facebook, Uber, and AirBnb:

Make it an imperative. Digital transformation needs the focus and support of the entire executive team. GE and Amazon, for example, would not be where they are without the constant involvement of CEOs Jeff Immelt (who retired from his position as CEO of GE in mid-2017) and Jeff Bezos. 

At the Southeast Asian industrial conglomerate we discussed above, the leadership team set clear and ambitious revenue targets for new digital businesses for each business unit to hit by 2020. The company formed special-purpose teams to develop new digital business models. The teams report directly to the Digital Council, a newly formed group of senior leaders that reviews project progress, releases funding, opens organizational doors and helps to collectively address difficult challenges.
Your greatest enemy lies within. The main challenges related to digital transformation are not technological, but rather organizational and business model dependent. Specifically, strategy and resource-allocation systems are honed to execute today’s model with increasing precision, versus inventing new ones.

For example, Singtel set up a vehicle called Singtel Innov8 to invest in startups, established a special purpose digital group to drive its new business models, and, in 2013, publicly committed to spend SGD 2 billion (about USD 1.6 billion) pursuing strategic acquisitions in the digital space. Singtel has also rethought how it tracks and rewards performance in some of its new digital businesses, and its leaders have committed to evaluate emerging opportunities in new ways.

Business models trump technology. Don’t get too distracted by the shiny technologies that drive digital transformation, as virtual reality, the distributed ledger, and others are advancing at a head-spinning rate. Indeed, the smartphone that sits in your pocket is millions of times faster than systems that allowed NASA to land a man on the moon in 1969.

But while becoming familiar with these technologies is an absolute imperative, history shows us repeatedly that disruption isn’t a technological phenomenon. Rather, disruption comes when a company finds a way to deliver against an important, unsatisfied customer job to be done by pairing an enabling technology (often that simplifies a complex problem or economizes an expensive proposition) with a business model that allows it to create, capture, and deliver value in distinct, and difficult to mimic ways.

It is a journey. Digital transformation doesn’t happen overnight. It took four years after commercial introduction for streaming video to constitute more than half of Netflix’s revenues. GE announced its intent to become more digitally oriented in 2011. It took five years and substantial investment for software to constitute even five percent of the overall company’ revenues. Driving digital transformation isn’t a project. It is a journey, with twists and turns, false starts and failures. Like any journey, it requires patience, discipline, and constant attention.



About the Authors



Pontus Siren is a partner and leads the digital practice at Innosight.





Utsav Bhatt is a Senior Associate at Innosight.





Asher DevangAsher Devang is a Senior Associate at Innosight.





Annabel TioAnnabel Tio is a Senior Associate at Innosight