Published: 16th October 2019
Why techie-author Tony Saldanha believes Modi's Digital India vision is what we need
Author Tony Saldanha has spent years in the field of digitalisation, and knows exactly what causes transformations of such nature to sometimes bite the dirt!
Everyone dreams about the perfect company that adheres to the highest international standards and simultaneously generates sufficient revenue. However, such an establishment would need to be equipped with cutting-edge technology and other advanced components. More often that not, the said company would need to be digitalised, for the digital world offers far more potential and possibilities than one could fathom. Tony Saldanha knows this competitive market like the back of his hand and he lists out the salience of the book he has authored, Why Digital Transformations Fail, as a tribute to it. Excerpts:
What does your recent publication Why Digital Transformations Fail entail, aside from the shortcomings of the digital world?
The book is the first of its kind that takes the complex, buzzword-filled topic of digital transformation and makes it checklist-simple, to have leaders avoid the 70% failure rate of digital transformations. It draws on the latest practices as well as my 27-year career at Procter and Gamble, where I had the privilege of running and transforming a multi-billion dollar operation in every region of the world. The book uses several case studies in every chapter to make the topic engaging. It’s written keeping in mind the leader who’s practical and down-to-earth and chooses clarity over consulting buzzwords.
Your book contains a 'proven five-stage model' that can help readers attain successful digital transformation. What are these modules and how did you arrive at them?
Here’s the challenge vis-a-vis digital transformation — if you ask 100 leaders to define it, you’ll get 100 different interpretations. That’s perfectly understandable since the term ‘digital’ has so many varying connotations and that the IT industry has been hard at work rebranding its offerings as ‘digital transformation’. I’ve therefore introduced a five-stage spectrum to drive clarity. It is based on my own 30+ years of experience and research. Stage One is simple automation. This is where you use technology to automate a given process, say payroll or selling. On the other side of the spectrum is Stage Five, which is where digital culture and agility becomes the living DNA of the organisation’s people. Within this spectrum we have Stage Two, which is called ‘Siloed Digital Transformation’. This is where a particular function/unit or a region in the company starts to independently transform itself. Stage Three is where there’s a corporate-strategy or a mandate to digitise, much like GE did several years ago, but the journey is partial. Stage Four is the level at which the organisation is able to complete a fully technical transformation, but it hasn’t fully finished an ‘organisation culture change’. That happens only at Stage Five. The appeal of this five-stage framework is that it allows leaders to be extremely precise in defining where they are in the journey and to set a clear goal.
Many people assume that digital transformation is the conversion of something that is ‘simple, rudimentary, analogous and old fashioned’ into something that is ‘modern, hi-tech, advanced and sophisticated’. What truly is digital transformation?
To truly define digital transformation, we need to step back and understand that we’re in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This has been called out by the World Economic Forum. Unlike the previous three industrial revolutions, which involved steam, electricity and the Internet as the major technologies driving disruption, this one isn’t about a technology per se. It’s about the effect of a technology on all other technologies including the physical, biological and social. Therefore you see robotics and drones, or genetic medicine or social media trends. All this is ‘digital disruption’. Digital Transformation on the other hand is the rewriting of people, processes and systems so that they upgrade themselves from being successful in the third industrial revolution period to the fourth. This means applying new business models or new smart products and dramatically improving internal business operations, like using AI and robotics in addition to humans to get work done. The user affects every human on earth as we each need to figure out how to renew our skills to thrive in this new and exciting era!
How necessary is digital transformation for an organisation to reach the ‘next level’?
It’s absolutely critical! If the world is undergoing an industrial revolution which affects all physical, biological and social systems, then no company can ignore it and hope to survive the industrial revolution. It affects all sectors and fields, although the extent of impact and timing will differ. So, for instance we’ve already seen digital disruption in the media, entertainment, retail, travel, taxi, manufacturing, telecoms, personal computing and to lesser extents insurance, education and medical sectors. This is projected to keep increasing as the revolution progresses with changes in even normally untouched areas like government and judicial systems to come. Estonia already uses ‘eVoting’. China already uses AI to guide judges in certain courts.
What sort of research did you undertake to write the book?
I talked with a hundred different organisations - Peer companies, consultancies, venture capitalists, technology companies and the like, while also running a major ‘shared services industry-wide digital transformation effort’ while still at Procter and Gamble. This gave me deep practical insight into how successful transformations happen. My goal was always to look at this issue from the Operational Leader’s perspective. Most leaders want to transform. Their issue isn’t the desire; it’s how to do it when you have so little time or resources in your current job. That’s the practical world that I wanted to address.
There are several books and publications available in the market that claim to offer ideal business strategies. What makes your book stand out from the crowd?
Globally, there are a million new books printed each year. However in the business sector, hardly 50 books sell more than 5000 copies. The market is very discerning. I’ve been delighted that this book is off to a brilliant start - it was ranked #1 on Amazon’s list of new releases for ‘Organisational Change’. It’s been on recommended lists by CEO-READS, Book-Pal, CEO Library and many others. Forbes reviewer Michelle Greenwald called it the ‘best business book I’ve ever read’. I think the reason why we’re seeing this reception is three-fold. First, it’s based on real practical experience, not just concepts and therefore it’s highly usable. Second, it uses many case studies and real life examples to make the topic very easy to read. And finally, it’s highly relevant. This is a topic that every leader, whether in public or private sector, is currently struggling with.
What is the current scenario of India’s digitalisation?
For India, this is an opportunity of historic proportions. Keep in mind that India is already the world’s ‘software factory.’ As software becomes the transforming agent of all industries and sectors globally, this already becomes a big opportunity. But that’s only a tiny portion of the benefit. The bigger benefit will come from leapfrogging technologies. Just as Indian went from poor landlines to great cell phones, every industry has the opportunity to skip several stages and go directly into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. PM Modi’s ‘Digital India’ goals are precisely what’s needed to push the country along into this new era. We’ve seen that similar attempts in Singapore, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have been very fruitful. This is our big opportunity.
We do have the issues of caste, religion, and other divisions to work through. Those will all be inhibitors that we must address along the way. I’m optimistic that our people will realise that the things that unite us and the joint opportunities ahead are much more important than the things that divide us.
What are your immediate plans for this year?
To be honest, the overwhelming response to the book has meant that I haven’t had a chance to do much work on what’s next. First things first - my plans are to complete the launch activities around the world. We’re also seeing great traction for language translations in parts of the world like China, Russia and Brazil. I also want to continue to have special plans in education and training for Indian companies and universities. I’m hearing directly from several of them and plan to help as many of them as possible. My target audience includes not just leaders in companies and academia but also the younger generation there. Beyond the short term, we will continue to develop this topic via new material and practical tools for learning and organisation change management - including workshops, workbooks, coaching and personal advising. But I need to work through the global launch first.
What does writing mean to you, on a personal level?
I’ve always enjoyed writing as a creative process. I was the Editor of the college magazines for my engineering and MBA schools. The opportunity to write became smaller as I got into my corporate career, but the desire to write was always there! Writing is a creative, problem-solving process. You set a goal for writing a piece based on a concept, and then use the aforementioned problem-solving skills to fill in the gaps between the bigger concept and its specific execution. I always thought that it would be nice to get back to writing towards the end of my career. The fact that I was able to bring together two passions - writing and digital transformation - was fortuitous. I developed a framework during my career that helped make digital transformations successful and eventually made the ‘mental connection’ that putting it down on paper in an engaging storytelling manner might be useful.