Why digital transformation is so difficult to achieve

Concept of minimum viable product can really help scale the digital business, and speed and flexibility matter above all else

A Zen master received a professor who wanted to learn about Zen. The master served tea, and poured the visitor’s cup full. And then he kept pouring more. Finally, the professor couldn’t stop himself: “It’s already full—more will not go in!"

The master replied, “Like this cup, you are already full of your opinions and ideas. How can you learn anything new unless you empty your cup?"

We are all trying to learn new things with our cups full. For us at MindWorks Global, our focus on print media was so complete that it took us a good two years to unlearn our existing mindset, and learn the ways of the new digital world.

In theory, this journey of digital transformation shouldn’t have been difficult.

One, we were an innovative company to begin with. MindWorks Global pioneered the idea of editorial outsourcing among newspapers and magazines globally.

We disrupted traditional newsroom operations, hiring editors and design teams in India to edit and design pages for international newspapers. Some of the biggest media firms including ‘Dow Jones’ and ‘The New York Times’ bought into our idea.

Second, we used technology intensively. Newspaper editions for far off countries were put together in just a few hours every evening from our delivery centre in Noida. It was fast, intense, collaborative work, enabled by technology.

Remember, this was before cloud computing existed. We leveraged existing virtual private network technologies to the hilt.

We learnt that the challenge wasn’t as much about innovation or technology, but about unlearning and learning afresh.

1: Digital is, foremost, disruption of the existing business

Often, digital requires killing the existing business.

For one of our biggest and most profitable projects, our work involved creating hundreds of content products monthly, using aggregation and manual editing. We were also the sole provider of this service to the client—we knew we couldn’t be easily replaced.

Imagine our situation when in one of our regular client interactions, we found out that they were exploring options to automate the product creation. We didn’t hesitate—we offered to set up an automation team to do the job for them.

In about six months’ time, this initiative cut our billing by almost 40%. But instead of resisting, we actively participated in the disruption. Why postpone the inevitable?

2: Incubate the digital competency separately from existing operations

It’s nice to say go digital, but how? Digital media competencies were unknown to us. So we got in somebody who knew the space inside out. A friend of ours, Babychen Mathew, was successfully running a content search engine optimization firm. He had set up the digital news operation for one of the largest business dailies.

We decided to build a digital product for ourselves, CarToq.com, to learn the new skills. We learnt about user interface, analytics, social media marketing and many other facets we didn’t even know existed. Apart from the team leader, everybody else came from within our existing team. We figured once they learnt the new skills, they would play a critical role in transferring those skills to the rest of our business.

CarToq.com is now the No. 2 media site dealing with automobiles with over 1.5 million monthly visits. It is the biggest social media brand in auto, with a reach of over 10 million a month on Facebook.

The digital capabilities deployed on CarToq.com are now being extended to other parts of our business. That’s helped us deliver scalable, cost-effective content solutions in newer ways.

Disrupting an existing, even profitable, business and seeding the digital business separately helped us make the digital transformation.

We are now rapidly learning what it takes to scale the digital business; how the concept of minimum viable product can really be made to work for us; and how speed and flexibility matter above all else.

What we have learnt on CarToq.com as we took it to leadership position in the past six months is more than what we learnt in the previous two years.

An alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, Nitin Srivastava is co-founder and CEO of MindWorks Global, a global content marketing firm with clients in the US, Europe and Asia.

An unabridged version of this column can be found at www.foundingfuel.com