Digital transformation: Buried treasure or just more hype?

By Nicolas Zimmerman

Editor-in-chief

SAMA

It’s widely accepted that the introduction of new technologies like blockchain, Internet of Things, augmented reality and others  is changing business faster and like never before, creating uncertainty for customers and suppliers alike. But if you’re unnerved by this state of uncertainty, good news from the front lines: Your customers are looking for help navigating the complexity of digital transformation, and if your company can provide answers, you’re going to be sitting pretty.

At a recent SAMA Executive Symposium, Anton Chilton, the global head of field operations for manufacturing software company (and symposium co-host) QAD, offered a comprehensive take on his company’s approach to dealing with the changes wrought by new digital technologies. (QAD makes ERP software for manufacturers.)

He outlined three of the biggest high-level challenges facing his customers:

  • Industry disruption. For evidence of how quickly industries can transform, look no further than the automotive world, once thought to be immune to disruptors due to its astronomical barriers to entry. Not only has Tesla advanced to become a major player in just a few short years, but Dyson (yes, that Dyson) is working on an electric vehicle.
  • Smart manufacturing. Technology isn’t just changing the businesses themselves but also how customers conduct business — from how they interact with their supply chain to how they optimize their shop floor.
  • Geopolitical turmoil. From trade war to Brexit, the world is seething with change and uncertainty. If you’re a global manufacturer, how do you decide where to invest?

What does this mean for you, as a strategic supplier? Chilton suggests that adaptability will become (if it hasn’t already) the new competitive business advantage. He suggests four key traits to maintain your organization’s agility.

  • Ability to read and act on signals. The time to react to changes is growing shorter and shorter, so you have to be highly focused on the external world. Look at what’s happening in the world around you — with your customers, with their customers, with their supply base and with your competitors — and be prepared to act on those signals.
  • Ability to experiment. Much of the potential business value from digital transformation is, as yet, in the realm of the imaginary. The use cases may not exist yet. But you don’t want to make a big bet on something that *might* work. The ability to experiment, and the willingness to “fail fast,” is critical.
  • Ability to manage complex systems. Because of the interconnectedness of everything, you will increasingly have to excel at knitting together multiple systems, from multiple parties. Only the most nimble suppliers will be able to pull this off successfully.
  • Ability to mobilize. With the pace of change accelerating, none of the first three traits will “play” if you don’t have the ability to translate strategic thinking into action and deliverables.

For QAD, this has created a host of new business model imperatives. As Chilton says, these things have always been true, but they’re “even more true now.”

  • Results-oriented. It’s easy to get excited by new technologies, but you can’t forget that they have to lead to good business outcomes. Don’t be seduced by tech for tech’s sake.
  • Rapid response to change. If new technologies are transforming your customers’ businesses (and they most certainly are), you can’t take five years to roll out a new project. 
  • Risk & change management. So many big capital projects run over budget, run late or fail to deliver the promised business benefits — sometimes all three. More and more, customers will be looking to their strategic suppliers to help them both manage risk and manage change.

Research reveals that the only way to grow business with existing customers is to bring them new ideas and fresh perspectives. That is the SAM’s raison d’etre. Good SAMs are experts at taking their company’s existing capabilities and leveraging them to solve their customers’ problems. But increasingly, customers are looking for new ideas and fresh perspectives on digital technologies whose business impact may be an open question. Suddenly, a SAM can find himself in uncharted territory.

So how does QAD attempt to navigate this untrodden territory? Chilton’s team puts emerging technologies in one of four buckets, based on how close they are to having real-world impact: (1) research/monitor, (2) educate/evaluate, (3) innovate or (4) productize. Chilton likens the framework to a “virtual time machine,” which helps QAD keep tabs on emerging technologies while staying focused on the ones most likely to yield dividends.

Of course, it’s still up to the SAMs to have probing questions with their strategic customers to tease out which emerging digital technologies could be leveraged to solve a customer’s business problems.

“It’s a difficult conversation to have,” Chilton admits. “You don’t want to give the impression you’re out there just fishing. You don’t want to seem clueless.”

This new paradigm makes it more critical than ever to find and develop SAMs with the right blend of traits to have productive, probing conversations with customers around future challenges.

What follows are the traits Chilton prioritizes when adding new talent to his strategic accounts team. For the most part, these attributes have always been important to SAM, but they’re doubly so now as interactions shift from the known to the unknown.

  1. Curiosity. If SAMs are not naturally interested in how their customers are using new technologies, they aren’t going to be able to harvest insights on QAD’s behalf. More than ever, they also need to be curious about the technologies themselves. What is it, how does it work, what are some examples of how it could be used? These insights can help QAD build a roadmap.
  2. Key observation skills. Who at the customer is using these new technologies? Whose job could potentially be changed or improved with the use of new digital technologies? What kind of things are they being used for?
  3. Networking. There are an increasing number of key decision makers at our customers. In the past, QAD always worked with the IT group, but that’s changing and expanding. Especially with big digital transformation projects, many more people need to be involved than in the past, so SAMs have to seek out and cultivate relationships with the customer stakeholders who may be impacted by new digital technologies.
  4. Collaboration. This means both internally and at customers. No one is going to own any “digital transformation space,” so there will inevitably be third-party providers bringing solutions you will have to introduce and integrate at the customer. Collaboration will be become even more important than it already is.
  5. Courage. It’s hard to sit in front of a senior customer and navigate a successful conversation in areas in which you’re not an expert. And with so many emerging technologies out there, this will be an inevitable condition of many customer conversations. Self-confidence will be absolutely critical.
  6. Coaching. You grow existing accounts with fresh ideas and by convincing the customer you’re the only company that can solve a given problem. Coaching the customer (as well as internal stakeholders) will only grow in importance.

Chilton ended on a note of fierce optimism. While digital transformation may be disrupting industries, including yours, the fact is that no one has the answers. Your customers know this, and they’re looking for help from their suppliers. If you can empower your SAMs to help customers navigate this uncertain time and start developing answers, your company will be primed to take advantage of the uncertainty created by digital transformation.

Wish you could have seen Chilton speak in person? SAMA’s executive symposium series is open to all SAMA Corporate Member companies. Want to become a member? Contact Chris Jensen, SAMA’s Director of Membership & Strategic Accounts, at jensen@strategicaccounts.org or +1 312-251-3131, ext. 10.

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