Why digital transformation is so difficult to achieve

The challenges aren't as much about innovation or technology, but unlearning and learning afresh

Nitin Srivastava

[Image by Gerd Altmann  under Creative Commons

A Zen master received a professor who wanted to learn about Zen. The master served tea, and poured the visitor’s cup full. And then he kept pouring more and more. Finally, the professor couldn’t stop himself. "It's already full--more will not go in!" he burst out.

The master replied, "Like this cup, you are already full of your opinions and ideas. How can you learn anything new unless you empty your cup?"

We are all trying to learn new things with our cups full. For us at MindWorks Global (MWG), we only knew our existing world of print media, and didn't see the coming digital disruption in our business.

Our focus on print media was so complete that it took us a good two years to unlearn our existing mindset, and learn the ways of the new digital world.

This journey of digital transformation was challenging for us. In theory, it shouldn’t have been difficult.

One, we were an innovative company to begin with. MWG pioneered the idea of editorial outsourcing among newspapers and magazines globally.

We disrupted traditional newsroom operations, hiring editors and design teams in India to edit and design pages for international newspapers. Some of the biggest media companies, including Dow Jones, McClatchy and The New York Times bought into our idea.

But being innovative was not enough to catch the digital wave in time.

Second, were we technology challenged? On the contrary, we used technology intensively in our business right from the beginning. Newspaper editions for far off countries were put together in just a few hours every evening from our delivery centre in Noida. It was fast, intense, collaborative work, enabled by technology. Our teams, sitting thousands of miles away, had to work closely, in real-time, with the editorial teams of our clients.

Remember, this was all happening in a time before cloud computing existed, so real-time remote collaboration was very challenging. We leveraged existing VPN technologies to the hilt - setting up virtual tunnels from our India centre deep into the publishing systems of our clients.

So, knowing the technology also did not prepare us better for the new digital world.

We learnt that the challenges for our digital transformation lay elsewhere. It wasn’t as much about innovation or technology but about unlearning and learning afresh.

Here's what we (un)learnt from our experience.

#1: Digital is, foremost, disruption of the existing business

This has become a cliché and yet, I am not sure if we really act on this reality. Often, digital requires killing the existing business. But it is very difficult to walk that path.

We had a tough decision to make. For one of our biggest and most profitable projects, our work involved creating hundreds of content products monthly, using aggregation and manual editing. Not only was it very profitable, we were also the sole provider of this service to the client. The business was important for us, and we knew we couldn’t be easily replaced.

Imagine our situation when in one of our regular client interactions, we found out that they were exploring options to automate the product creation. We didn’t hesitate--we offered to set up an automation team to do the job for them.

In about six months' time, this initiative cut our billing by almost 40 percent. But instead of resisting, we actively participated in the disruption. (Which surprised our client as well!) Why postpone the inevitable?

#2: Incubate the digital competency separately from existing operations

It's nice to say go digital, but how? At least, we didn’t know where to start. Digital media competencies and dynamics were both unknown to us.

So we got in somebody who knew the space inside out. A friend of ours, Babychen Mathew, was successfully running a content search engine optimization (SEO) company. In Indian media, he was one of the earliest guys in the digital media space, having set up the digital news operation for one of the largest business dailies.

Further, we decided to focus all our digital efforts into one project only. In fact, we decided to build a digital product for ourselves, CarToq.com. We would learn the new skills on our own product before we offered solutions to our clients.

We set up a dedicated team; gave ourselves a limited budget; and went about teaching ourselves all aspects of digital media. We learnt about user interface, analytics, social media marketing, SEO and many other facets we didn’t even know existed.

Apart from the team leader, everybody else came from within our existing team. We figured once they learnt the new skills, they would play a critical role when the time came to transfer those skills to the rest of our business.

CarToq.com is now the number two media site in auto with over 1.5 million monthly visits. It is the biggest social media brand in auto, with a reach of over 10 million a month on Facebook.

Moreover, the digital tools and capabilities deployed on CarToq.com are now being embedded and extended into other parts of our business. That’s helped us deliver scalable, cost-effective content solutions in newer ways.

Disrupting an existing, even profitable, business and seeding the digital business separately helped us make the digital transformation successfully.

We are now rapidly learning what it takes to scale the digital business; how the concept of minimum viable product can really be made to work for us; and how speed and flexibility matter above all else.

What we have learnt on CarToq.com as we took it to leadership position in the past six months is more than what we learnt in the previous two years. Scaling the digital business rapidly is a different story altogether.


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About the author

Nitin Srivastava
Nitin Srivastava

Co-Founder and CEO

Mindworks Global

Nitin Srivastava is co-founder and CEO of MindWorks Global (MWG), a global content marketing agency. Eight years ago, Nitin started building a global delivery organization at MWG, with a strong bias for technology-enabled content solutions. MWG went on to deliver real-time, domain-specific content solutions to clients in the US, European and Asian markets, including Fortune 500 companies.

An alumnus of IIT Kanpur, Nitin is currently leading the company's transformation into a data-driven, content marketing company, which specializes in solutions for technology/IT, auto, finance and lifestyle verticals.

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