02/06/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 02/06/2017 06:34 SAST

True Digital Transformation -- And Its Benefits -- Will Only Be Attained When Everyone Panics

We are “fundamentally” changing how we do things and technologically enabling our enterprises – the real question is, to what end?

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The last few years have marked significant economic milestones for South Africa. Often lauded by the media using dramatic headlines, these milestones are key signals that should not be ignored. It all started with "Nigeria Surpasses South Africa as Africa's biggest Economy" then, more recently "South African Economy Downgraded to Junk" and now, hot off the press, according to PWC's latest Digital IQ Report 2017 - "Executive Leadership In South Africa are falling behind their global and African peers".

I was at the World Economic Forum and as such was privileged to sit on a panel with Stafford Massie, Natalie Baatjies, Anne Shongwe and Evans Munyuki. The objective of the panel was twofold – firstly, to explore the findings of the Digital IQ Report 2017. Second, to provide some running commentary on the state of digital in the context our respective industries.

I personally found that there were a number of shocking statistics relating to executive understanding in this volatile context that we live and operate in. In the few days that followed, I reflected on some key things to consider for South African value creators and on what is required to move the country and economy forward.

The Allure Of "Technology" Is Also its Biggest Weakness

I found it surprising that 73 percent of CEO's are already investing in the Internet Of Things and 54 percent in Artificial Intelligence. These are extremely advanced technologies that cannot simply be explored without some fundamental appreciation of data and ultimate connectivity. These are extreme manifestations of when you have a world of data and everything is connected – then what? For CEO's that are still identifying opportunities to digitise enterprise (80 percent), how is it possible that 73 percent are confidently investing in Internet Of Things? This is hugely concerning because a number of organisations have not even mastered social media, data integration and a central view of their customers. I think we all need to take a step back, slow down and learn to walk before we fly.

Future Growth Cannot Come From Strengths Of The Past

So here we are, digitising our systems, processes, relationships – everything. We are "fundamentally" changing how we do things and technologically enabling our enterprises – the real question is, to what end? Making a great website and throwing together some amazing tweets as a campaign does not change the fact that in my internet banking profile, in 2017, I can't actually see the balance on my home loan. You have failed to give me a centralised very of my products and that begs the question, do you have a single view of your customer? According to the research, 52 percent of companies rated their digital IQ as "strong" – which I must say, is ridiculous. I'm sure that maxi-taxi would have rated themselves as "strong" too until Uber entered the building. It's fair to say that most companies still have not understood that the context has shifted fundamentally to digital because 80 percent of them are still identifying opportunities to digitise enterprise.

Past Strengths Are Likely To Be Future Weaknesses

The South African banking system is a sterling example of strong regulation, global competitiveness and balanced growth. It has been built slowly and in a considered fashion over the last 100 years. Banking at its core has astoundingly similar people – Chartered Accountants. CA's have also permeated other industries and hold most senior executive leadership positions in JSE listed companies. I can guarantee you that in a room full of CA's, there is likely a chronic absence of diversity in thought and approach.

This is one of the key reasons, why CEO's and CIO's are falling behind technology innovation. You are required to lead differently and think differently to survive. However, with 68 percent of current CEO's being the "champions" for digital It's no wonder the vision and strategic direction for their business isn't inspiring. I love CA's, my best friend is a CA (see what I did there), but the sad truth is that Chartered Accountants championing digital is the same as pigs championing pork.

Act like a human, think like a brand

At the core of most of my public keynotes, I speak about the intersection of humanity and technology, with the human experience being central to creating future value. The PWC research articulated that human experience leads to superior strategy - #ActLikeAhumanThinkLikeAbrand.

In my opinion, despite its unquestionable success, Ubers' Achilles heal is a "non-people-centric" culture. One could argue that they are user-centric – which I agree with, but there is a difference in spirit if you categorise your customers are users as opposed to people. Categorisation of customers alone is not enough, but in most of their markets, they have come under fire for poor labour relations practice to the point that it often appears as though they have no interest in the labour (human) issues in the markets they operate.

The research found that only 10 percent of CEO's believe technology will give them an opportunity to have better consumer (human) experiences, however, 57 percent believe technology will grow revenue. Now, typically I'm a romantic guy, and that is really NOT romantic. These CEO'S will ignore the very consumer that will grow their revenue in the hopes to grow their revenue. #WhereIsTheLove?

Nothing to lose – everything to gain

The widening gap in economic performance and now executive digital leadership is cause for concern. But on a very practical level, most African countries are coming from a place of sheer necessity and thus HAVE to make it work. Their reality is that any marginal improvement on the status quo is better than the existing. The success of Nollywood is about cheap, badly edited films. They aren't great to watch, but they are OUR films and OUR stories and they provide a much-needed suspension of reality in short manageable nuggets. For corporate enterprises, one of the bigger barriers to growth is the outdated technology, which ordinarily would make the adoption of new technology easier.

The attitude in many cases needs to be "burn the boats" – we are all in or we are losing. Unfortunately, South African juggernaut corporates have far too low-risk appetites for this brand of maverick leadership. This is further compounded by the fact that risk and innovation aren't core cultural pillars in most South African businesses. 32 percent of CEO's define digital as "technology and innovation related activities" – which is essential, that strange department with the guys in tattoo's and Mohawks who have permission to use Apple technology.

Last, but not least, only 6 percent of the CEO's in the report define digital as an ethos that goes beyond technology alone. It is my belief that South African leadership will continue on this trajectory until a sufficient state of panic shifts the rudder and then the core of these organisations has to change for them to unlock real future value.