Best Practices

This is product management’s role in digital transformation

Published Dec 16, 2020

When you think about industries that are on the cutting edge of digital technology, industrial businesses aren’t necessarily one of the first that come to mind. A recent Harvard Business Review article, though, explained that while industrial firms have lagged behind consumer-facing companies, many have started to play “digital catch-up” or proactively implement new tools, technologies, and processes to enhance the customer experience. Why? Because their customers expect it.

Customers across all industries increasingly expect to be able to engage with businesses digitally, ideally in ways that make their experience more streamlined, enjoyable, or productive. Employees also expect the tools they use at work to be as intuitive as the software they use in their personal lives. COVID has only heightened this, acting as the accelerator that no one planned for, but everyone must adjust for. 

As our preferences lean heavily to digital, companies–especially those that haven’t historically identified as technology companies–must adapt to keep up. More importantly, it’s not just about simply creating a mobile app or online portal and calling it done. Businesses need to leverage technology to better understand customers’ needs and create digital experiences that meet (or better: exceed) those needs, adapting as customer preferences and market conditions evolve over time.

This connection between product professionals and digital transformation is precisely what we sought to explore in our new e-book, “How product leaders fuel digital transformation.” Below, we share some of the biggest takeaways from our research and interviews with eight experts who are paving the way in healthcare, manufacturing, financial services, and more.

Product’s role in digital transformation

Think about the evolution of our customer support preferences. Years ago, many people only wanted to handle their issues with a product or service by speaking to a live human on the phone. Now, we get frustrated when self service options like chatbots and automated customer service fail us, forcing us to call and talk to someone live. 

The people who build and manage the digital tools we’ve come to rely on play an integral role in an organization’s efforts to digitally transform. We can think of product leaders as change agents, utilizing their cross-functional position to help the entire organization navigate new priorities and new measures of success by making digital product decisions that will best serve the customer–now and into the future.

Ami Brenner, VP of product management at a large financial services corporation, explained how her company is thinking about this: “There’s been a big push that we can no longer compare ourselves to other financial services companies. We have to be thinking like a digital company.”

As you work to drive these types of efforts at your own company, consider these four ways that product leaders can help accelerate digital transformation:

 1. Shifting from projects to products

When every business needs to consider itself a digital business, there has to be a change in how they operate. In this case, it’s shifting from the idea of projects to products. As they work to turn existing services into digital products or create new digital offerings from scratch, business owners are becoming product owners, and these initiatives are not one-and-done projects that can be checked off as “complete.”

A product is always evolving, and its success hinges on constant testing, measurement, and iteration by the people who manage it. Even if you don’t have a product title yourself, it’s still important to adopt the mindset that the work we do on technology is never done. 

 2. Instilling cross-functional collaboration

Digital transformation initiatives require buy-in from the entire organization, and product managers are uniquely suited to drive this collaboration, for example by connecting the work and priorities of engineering with teams like marketing, sales, and operations. For an internal product, they often champion rollout and training, serving as a resource for their colleagues in other departments.

When asked what qualities to prioritize in the people responsible for building or managing digital products, Bob Zurek, CTO at patient engagement platform Millennia, highlighted the importance of collaboration skills: “I think one thing that’s very, very important is passion—a passion for what they do, a passion for what they’re building. I think the other thing is great collaboration skills, because they have to interact with a lot of different people across the organization, nevermind the target audience. You have to have good soft skills.” 

 3. Using data to understand journeys, and then taking action

One of the most powerful tools at a product pro’s disposal is product data, including the ability to use these insights to improve customers’ digital experience with your business. When leveraged effectively, information on how users navigate a product can help identify points in their journey where they’re getting stuck, creating an opportunity for teams to take action on this data and help ensure users are finding value.

At Brady Corporation, the knowledge they’ve gained through product analytics has been highly impactful in decision making and ensuring their engineering team is working on the right things. And since their safety software, Link360, is used on an as-needed basis to support customer programs and maintain compliance, they’ve created in-app guides that explain how to perform key actions in the product in order to ensure the digital customer experience is consistent and users stay engaged.

 4. Re-aligning the company’s culture to embrace a digital mindset

Digital transformation is an ongoing process and will often require an element of change management in order for the broader company to embrace these initiatives. The digital product you’re working on can itself be a way to showcase results along the way, making digital transformation a more tangible concept in people’s minds.

As Peter Ikladious, a growth advisor who previously worked at IBM in multiple product management and digital transformation roles, advised: “It’s important to not try to do too much in too long of a time, but instead take bite-size pieces and celebrate successes along the way. Let the company know what you’re building towards, and what you’ve accomplished so far.”

Most importantly, figure out how to explain the work you’re doing in terms of the value it will bring to the rest of the organization. Since you will likely need to convince stakeholders across the company that a particular product initiative is worth pursuing, this means presenting the information in the most relevant way possible for each audience.

For more firsthand insights and advice for leveraging digital products to drive business outcomes like retention, growth, innovation, read our new e-book, “How product leaders fuel digital transformation.”