What Are the Qualities That Make a Digital Forerunner?

In today’s digital economy, even the most traditional businesses are finding ways to leverage the power of new technologies to gain a competitive edge, whether that’s by overhauling legacy back-office processes, boosting supply chains, or reimagining service offerings. But only some companies can truly be thought of as digital forerunners—that is, companies that set the pace of digital transformation by combining the scale advantages of incumbents with the flexibility and speed of born-digital startups. And while each of these companies has taken its own unique approach to digital transformation (we’ve seen, after all, that digitization is far from a one-size-fits-all scenario) a recent article from global management consultant Bain & Company highlights five of the most important characteristics that digital forerunners tend to share.

A disruptive vision

tech companyOne of the biggest divides in the digital economy is the one between the disruptors and the disrupted. Many companies are able, at least in some measure, to keep pace with the wave of digital disruption once it has swept over their industry, but only some have the vision needed to lead, rather than follow, that disruption. These forerunners make the digital imperative a top C-suite priority rather than relegating it to IT or another siloed department, and they work to define both a clear target for their digital strategy and a direct and actionable process for reaching that target. In other words, they view digitization as a holistic undertaking. As digital solutions are choreographed and coordinated across the value chain, the entire organization is empowered to experiment and innovate, and products and services are improved in a continuous cycle of iterations and feedback. Key to all these efforts is an appetite for risk; digital forerunners aren’t afraid of failure, because failure is what tells them where they need to do better.

A commitment to understanding customers

In order to deliver an exceptional customer experience, companies first must understand what their customers really want, why they want it, and how their wants change over time. Digital forerunners know that the key to these questions lies not in customer data alone (after all, most businesses today have more data than they know what to do with) but in how that data is analyzed to provide dynamic customer insights. Big data and advanced analytics are what make these insights possible, and digital forerunners are harnessing these tools not to only deepen their understanding of their customers’ needs, but to anticipate what they will want next and to offer a real-time, personalized experience. In addition, digital forerunners make strategic use of insights that come directly from customers themselves; by creating opportunities for one-to-one dialogue between brand and customer, companies recognize the importance of each individual customer in the value creation process, and leverage direct and contextual feedback to deliver a more satisfying product or service.

An integrated customer experience

customer support experienceA seamless, omni-channel experience is something that every customer wants and that digital forerunners deliver. Digital forerunners know that customers today expect to be able to easily navigate a fluid ecosystem that minimizes friction at every touchpoint. Customers certainly care about the product or service itself, but they also put value on other, less tangible things, such as whether they can get the product right now, how it will integrate with products they already own, and whether they can be sure that the product featured on the website is the same one they’ll find in the store. Digital forerunners understand these values, and they work to create an integrated strategy that blends physical and digital assets and touchpoints to deliver the most convenient, differentiated, and personalized customer experience possible.

Speed and innovation

No matter how well established an incumbent it might be, a digital forerunner thinks like a startup when it comes to innovation. Digital forerunners foster a collaborative culture of experimentation that operates along a swift cycle of test-learn-test. Rapid prototyping and small-scale trials help these companies learn quickly and iterate progressively toward the best solution. Failure is embraced, and calculated risk-taking is rewarded.

Cross-boundary capabilities

The traditional organizational silos that were once a hallmark of well-run companies have no place in the world of a digital forerunner. Using digital technology to boost customer responsiveness and increase the pace of innovation requires collaboration across all areas of a business. Consequently, a common practice among digital forerunners is to break down silos, restructure roles, and reimagine communication and interaction between different teams. Most digital forerunners facilitate this process by empowering a senior leader to “direct traffic,” or ensure that organizational realignment proceeds smoothly, and to minimize confusion about authority or accountability. Having an overseer in this role also allows digital forerunners to quickly identify and fill any clear capability gaps that might arise as long-standing roles are shuffled.