Why pirates wear eye patches, and the lessons for digital transformation

Recently my four year old asked me and my wife one of her usual “adults can’t see it coming” questions: ‘Why do pirates wear eye patches?’

Hmmm… Things we take for granted as being ever thus, but have never thought about the reason why. Apparently my response of ‘Well, because wearing two eye patches would be impractical’ didn’t cut the mustard. Luckily for me, my wife knew the answer. Turns out it’s not as I thought – generic shorthand that tells us – “there be a pirate, arrr”. They really did wear eye patches. Not because they had lost an eye, but for an altogether more strategic reason.

Pirates had a penchant for taking over ships. They would board a vessel and engage in an altercation to commandeer the vessel with some men tackling above deck and others being sent below. There they faced a tactical problem – the areas below deck were dark and poorly lit. Recent studies show that the eye can take up to four minutes to adjust from bright light to the dark, which is plenty of time for would-be defenders, already accustomed to the dark, to gain an unassailable advantage over their attacker. So they found a strategic solution – pirates wore eye patches. This meant one eye was ready for the dark. When they went below deck, they switched the eye patch to the other eye, so the eye now scouring for danger was already accustomed to the dark, instantly adapting to its environment.

So how does that lesson apply to businesses today?

We are living in the period of fastest technological change ever experienced, in every area of life. Business models are being disrupted by new ideas which were not on the horizon 18 months ago, and businesses have to be agile in order to adapt and survive. Those of us who haven’t got one eye prepared for the future will be attacked by something we don’t see coming and that threat will be technologically driven.

Plenty of big beasts have failed to adapt to life below deck – Blockbuster, HMV, Nokia, Kodak – have either lost huge market share, or are no longer around because they didn’t adapt to the new digital landscape. Others have thrived, embraced it and become the new benchmark – Amazon, Ryanair, National Rail Enquiries – all used digital to disrupt either their own traditional business models, or change the game as a new entrant. The UK government are embracing it and putting the needs of the citizen before the needs of government, with the formation of the Government Digital Service and recruiting top talent like Mike Bracken to shape the digital agenda.

One of the biggest changes is the way your customers consume content and data. They want it on their terms, not yours. They want it when they want it, not when you want them to have it, and they want it to be personal to them, not generic. New technology is constantly disrupting traditional channel planning techniques and information distribution methods.

“The web attacks traditional ways of doing things and elites, and this is very uncomfortable for traditional businesses to deal with.”– Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO, WPP Group

The bigger you are, the harder it is to adapt, but it’s not impossible. The physical is becoming virtual and a balance needs to be achieved.

The key questions

So here are the key questions you need to ask, and ask now, to ensure that your business is aware of the opportunities and threats in the digital age:

  • Has your organisation got a clear digital vision?
  • Who are the market leaders in your industry, and how does their use of technology compare to yours?
  • Can your audience consume information on any device, optimised for that device, at any time?
  • How well do you know your audience – are your knowledge systems connected and providing an integrated view?
  • Is the content you produce for your customers specific or generic?
  • Do you present information in a customer focused way? Or is it internally focused?
  • Can you access data in real time to make decisions?
  • Are your data sets connected giving you a real time view of everything, or do you have snapshots of data, segmented and isolated?

The real benefits

There are real benefits to digital engagement, (aside from self-preservation!). According to Altimeter Group Digital Transformation Survey 2014, the top benefits of digital transformation:

  • Lift in customer engagement (75%)
  • Improved customer satisfaction (63%)
  • Higher digital traffic (53%)
  • Increased lead gen/sales (49%)

Who doesn’t want that?! So what now? You have looked at your organisation, identified the need to adopt new strategies for using content, data and embracing technology. You can see the benefits.

How do you then implement?

To me, it’s no different to any other change management strategy that has been successfully implemented by companies for longer than the digital revolution. Don’t let the tech spook you – approach it in the same way as any other change:

  • Create a vision around which the organisation can rally, about what the future desired state would be – what’s the change going to be, why’s the change necessary
  • Get feedback on the process, but have clear owners responsible for progress
  • Regularly update on performance
  • Generate short term wins – tackle the issues which give you the greatest reward in the shortest time and prioritise your change items

“In the digital world, he who hesitates is abandoned.” Howard Stringer, President and CEO of Sony Corporation

There are real reasons why every company needs to change. Threats lurk in the dark below deck. Technology is changing fast, the market place is changing, and customers are changing. So we’ve got to change too.

Abandoned is bad enough, but if we have learned anything from pirates, it’s that if we can’t adapt quickly, we’re dead. We need a digital vision before we lose the battle in the darkness.

Ferguc BailieBlog author: Fergus Bailie, CDS Chief Executive

Fergus continues to lead his company, CDS, through its own digital transformation and together with his team of specialists advises clients on taking the next steps in their own journey to a ‘digital first’ approach.

Child playing pirate picture (cropped) by Oakley Originals. Some rights reserved.

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