Digital Transformation: Embracing The Art Of The Possible

John Graham

The 19th-century German statesman Otto von Bismarck said, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” His term “art of the possible” survives to this day and is applicable to fields other than politics. The idea behind it is to avoid perfectionism in favour of making progress, rather than becoming completely paralyzed and resistant to change.

At SAP’s “Art of the Possible” event in Toronto, the focus was on digital transformation and how businesses can get started with actionable steps that take them beyond both complacency and the often seemingly insurmountable complexity of the modern enterprise. A recently released IDC and SAP Canada research report has given deeper relevance to the event’s name by revealing that only 17% of Canadian businesses have a solid digital plan in place, despite 96% acknowledging that they need one.

That doesn’t seem to make much sense, does it? That’s maybe because the reasons executives are putting their business’s survival at stake, be it knowingly or unknowingly, are many and complicated. For example, many medium-sized businesses may feel they don’t have the skills or necessary resources in-house to keep up with digital innovation, and would rather wait to see how it plays out. Larger businesses could be lacking the agility of a startup to make digital change happen across the organization. Or, with 67% of those surveyed reporting that they don’t see the digital economy having an immediate impact on their business, it could be the perceived lack of a competitive threat or any change in market share that lulls a business into technological stagnation.

Whatever the reason, “art of the possible” in this instance means businesses should begin to think practically about what digital means for them. They should question the key areas in which digital can bring the most tangible benefits or force a positive change in the business – whether it’s in core processes, customers, suppliers, employees, assets – rather than always approaching digital with the purely high-level mentality. Too often, that approach restricts digital adoption to a yes or no answer, and according to IDC, the decision in Canada up to now has overwhelmingly been no.

The aforementioned SAP event in Toronto was refreshing in that it featured guest speakers from companies that emphatically are embracing digital transformation. Let’s start with Under Armour, the sports apparel company set on creating the ultimate customer-first experience for athletes and health and fitness devotees through Internet of Things innovation.

It’s perhaps a sign of this sheer focus on delighting customers—taking the fusion of clothing and digital technology to a whole new place—that analytics and Big Data chief Phil Kim only once made reference to the manufacturer’s conventional product range. He preferred instead to explain how Under Armour has joined the likes of Google, Amazon, and Facebook as one of the major “math house” communities, with 165 million people around the world connected by billions of data points.

This is enabling the company to build data-based, personalized relationships with customers, be it through shirts and shoes connected to the cloud, fitness wristbands, or sleep-monitoring applications. Kim says this data must be used to drive value back to the customer, by figuring out what they want and need and ultimately making sure they are satisfied. He left the audience with the warning that Canadian businesses must embrace digital disruption to avoid being left behind, giving a few examples of where it’s already happened and expressing confidence that it will keep happening.

Perhaps more modest than what Under Armour is doing, but equally as innovative and relevant, is the story from McInnis Cement, the Montreal cement maker. With the young company still in startup phase and harbouring ambitions to become one of Canada’s leading cement companies, it needs to offer great value and service, reliable delivery, and consistent supply. Cement is nothing new, so those are the key factors of differentiation.

To get ahead, the company is using real-time information to monitor all aspects of supply chain and logistics, as well as focusing on running an airtight billing process. The goal is to remain super-lean, pushing systems design and management out to partners and vendors and letting them do the heavy lifting to save time and cut operating costs.

Under Armour and McInnis Cement may have very different versions of their own art of the possible, but both are approaching digital innovation with that mindset. It’s time all businesses do the same.

For more on how to help your business embrace digital innovation, see How To Answer The Question: “What Is Our Digital Strategy?”