Managers often lose sight of the essentials because digital business is changing so quickly, and because the responsibility for digital transformation is now often handled by different executives with little experience.

Why do managers so often lose sight of the basics with respect to digital business?

One reason: It’s easy to forget the essentials in an area that changes so quickly and that is so focused on the latest and greatest. Computing power, storage capacity, and networking speeds double every 9 to 18 months, creating new tools and platforms for doing business. The ride-sharing platform, Uber, and the enterprise social media platform, Slack, are both only eight years old, yet they both have had a significant impact on how work gets done. As recently as 2012, companies were asking whether Facebook could successfully transition to mobile environments. Today, nearly 80% of overall platform use — and more to the point, 70% of Facebook revenues — comes from mobile platforms, and many companies are now adopting the mantra “mobile first” when it comes to digital business.

Second, managers forget the fundamentals because the responsibility for digital business is often moving elsewhere in the organization. Responsibilities that were once the purview of the chief information officer or the chief digital officer are increasingly coming under the auspices of the chief marketing officer or the chief human relations officer. These executives are often new to the world of digital business, having little experience managing in a digital environment. So while some with years of experience may take these things for granted, many of the new executives currently leading digital initiatives may not.

What fundamentals are digital leaders most at risk of missing? Although by no means an extensive list, there are three particular business basics that I often see managers forget:

When it comes to digital transformation, don’t forget the business case. Often, managers become so focused on the technological aspects of digital business that they forget about why they are engaged in these efforts to begin with — to improve the way their company does business. Digital transformation is only about technology in part; it is also, and more importantly, about using new technology to enable novel or more effective business strategies. Managers often believe that they need to be in mobile, analytics, AI, or other emerging technologies without being able to clearly articulate why they need to invest in these technologies — or what business purpose they could serve.

It bears repeating: When beginning a digital business initiative, be sure you know why you are beginning it and what your business goals are.

Top management support is key for success. Managers who aren’t directly involved in technology functions often assume that they are not “digital” managers. But as companies begin to engage more heavily in digital business, all managers must become digital managers. Whether directly involved in implementing the technology or not, managers must understand the business case for digital initiatives and what other aspects of the organization need to be aligned to accomplish those goals. When executives simply delegate responsibility for digital business to the technologists, it is a recipe for near-certain failure. Not only does top management involvement in and direct support for digital business initiatives signal to the company that these initiatives are important, it can allow the other aspects of the organization to become aligned with these goals.

For the many top managers who don’t believe they have the technological knowledge to effectively lead or support digital initiatives, it’s important to realize that it’s much easier to teach executives what they need to know about digital business than it is to equip technologists with the managerial experience and strategic insight they would need to lead digital business efforts effectively.

Enable and empower your employees to succeed. Even with strong top management support, digital business initiatives cannot be successful simply because they have a mandate from the top. If you just expect employees to engage in new digital business processes because your company adopts a new digital platform, you’re in for disappointment, because they won’t. Employees typically don’t have the time or the know-how to figure out new ways to work on the fly and in the context of their existing job responsibilities. Managers must give employees opportunities to succeed in digital initiatives.

These opportunities can come in a number of forms. First, employees should be provided with adequate training to learn to engage the technology and digital processes effectively. Training need not take the form of traditional classes; it may simply mean ensuring that adequate resources are available online to help them learn (and ensuring that employees are aware of them). Alternatively, it may mean that employees are moved within the organization more frequently so that they can learn other ways of doing things from coworkers.

Second, employees must be given time and space to adapt. Employees are very good at sticking with established ways of doing things, because they are safe and familiar. New ways of working requires spare time and cognitive resources to learn the new system.

About the Author

Gerald C. (Jerry) Kane is an associate professor of information systems at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College and the MIT Sloan Management Review guest editor for the Digital Business Initiative. He can be reached at and on Twitter at @profkane. Topics: Leadership, Digital


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