desk setup with rotary phone and typewriter
PHOTO: Klaas

Given the number of challenges we've seen when in comes to implementing and completing a digital transformation strategy, it's hardly surprising that recent research from Protiviti showed that globally, C-Suite executives are concerned about their organization’s ability to transform operations and infrastructure to compete with companies that are born digital.

Digital Business Concerns

The 2019 Executive Perspectives on Top Risk survey, conducted by Protiviti in collaboration with North Carolina State University Poole College of Management's Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) Initiative, assessed the concerns of 825 board members and executives globally across a variety of industries.

This year's results show a significant increase in digital readiness concerns, jumping from the number 10 position in 2018 to number 1 in 2019 demonstrating that digital agility and scalability are top-of-mind for businesses

Related to this — notably the risk of succession challenges and the ability to attract and retain talent — moved to No. 2, triggered by a tightening labor market and an increasing need for specialized digital knowledge and subject-matter expertise. There are many other themes that have caused considerable concern, among them:

  1. Existing operations meeting performance expectations, competing against "born digital" firms.
  2. Succession challenges and ability to attract and retain top talent.
  3. Regulatory changes and regulatory scrutiny.
  4. Cyberthreats.
  5. Resistance to change operations.

The survey was conducted in the fall of 2018, and respondents represent organizations across the globe in the public and private sectors and underlies fears by traditional enterprises that they cannot compete with organizations born in the digital age and staffed by digital natives. “It’s not surprising to me that ‘digital readiness’ is the number 1 concern for CEOs in 2019. Many enterprises are still holding on to a hardware-first approach to business, whether that means having a corded phone at every desk or a server room in every office, and they’re feeling the pain when it comes to attracting millennial talent,” Dialpad CEO Craig Walker said.  

“This new generation of digital-natives has repeatedly proven that they value flexible, mobile and seamless work tools and environments. They don't want to be tied to a desk or a particular device to get work done, and this is where cloud-first businesses have the advantage.”

Related Article: 7 Ways Artificial Intelligence is Reinventing Human Resources

Traditional Can Be More Fulfilling for Employees and Competitive

Matthias Alleckna, an energy industry analyst at, an energy rate comparison website, said traditional enterprises can offer a more fulfilling place to work. When it comes to talent, traditional companies provide an opportunity for digital talent to both present and apply their knowledge. Such professionals would have a chance, for example, to help build digital workplaces from scratch. From small suggestions, such as specific apps or automated reports to more complicated things, there are many ways you can use your digital talent to increase a company's profit.

It's quite surprising to think of businesses not being digital in this era of Industrial 4.0, he said, but it does provide opportunities. “I've noticed that some companies are still almost entirely non-digital and they somehow work. Yet, you can see that they use some digital-born tools, from delivery apps to Google My Business locations. Even though digital means are not part of their businesses, business owners know that they can make their company more visible once they let people know about it online,” he said.

However, traditional enterprise can still compete, said Reuben Yonatan, founder and CEO of Get VoIP, a small digital company whose business is built on providing virtual services. He is still competing with traditional, brick-and-mortar employers every time he looks to hire new talents. “While it's true that cutting-edge sectors such as blockchain and AI are going to continue to attract top developer talent, both because of budget size and passion, there are many candidates who aren't interested in working in those particular fields (both developers and other professionals),” he said.

He advises leaders of traditional enterprises to start looking at some of the perks being offered there. “I'm not saying you need to set up ping pong tables and put out candy jars all around the office, or offer unlimited vacation. But, you should consider that job seekers today are looking to work at a company that fulfills them,” he added. They want an employer who respects work-life balance. They need to know that there is opportunity for advancement and for the employer to understand that if their needs aren't going to be met they will look elsewhere.

Essentially, to keep up with leaner, more responsive digital companies, traditional companies will need to shift their company culture, but is that really such a bad thing? If it results in sourcing higher quality talent, and a more satisfied and productive workforce, then maybe executive and HR teams would do well to begin planning a pivot in personnel recruitment.

Related Article: How to Build a Sustainable Agile Culture

Succeeding Without Digital

That said, traditional enterprises can stay the course while not going 100 percent digital — but clearly still using some digital technology like email or communication tools and apps — and still succeed, according to Sachin Sinha, senior vice president of global delivery at Orion Business Innovation. He has four recommendations for traditional enterprises in a digital world:

1. Business Outcomes

Focus on business outcomes. Many born-digital competitors are good with technology but lack insight into the fundamentals and dynamics of the industry. They tout inputs, often at the expense of outcomes. Many have little experience managing complex processes or skills in change management. Don’t be intimidated by a competitor flashing shiny new objects. Double down on your experience, insights, track record and other strengths.

2. Manage Core First

Attack the core by taking on the systems that will have the greatest business impact first. Run them in parallel until the digital transformation is complete. Don’t start with peripheral systems. Start with the systems that drive the business which can be dramatically accelerated by automation and digital transformation. Then prioritize transformation of other systems and widely socialize the plan and the rationale.

3. Find Talent

Find staff with digital knowledge and experience. Be sure to mix digital natives, who will know the technology and be gung-ho, with digital immigrants who have lived through the transformation process, know the business, made their own personal transformation and remember the business fundamentals from the past.

4. Find an Experience Partner

Find a partner with experience in your industry and is at your level of sophistication with demonstrated change management and process engineering skills. Expect them to bring best practices, tool kits, code and a bag of tricks to work around problems, migrate data and expedite the process. Be sure the partner’s team members have transformational experience. Approach it as you would when, say, choosing a surgeon, pick a partner who is technology agnostic and has done multiple, recent digital transformations.

5. Communicate and Educate

Digital transformation, especially if you’re playing catch-up, breeds anxiety. Develop a clear plan and roadmap, teach your people which tech choices you made and why. Plan for one-on-one training and recapitulate your plans, often. Set expectations that things will be in-motion, in-progress and that the implementation schedule could slip.