Even if you’ve never used Uber to order a cab through your smartphone or booked accommodations using AirBNB, you’ve probably started hearing various companies being described as “the Uber of” a certain sector. This has become shorthand for describing how digital technology can let startups disrupt older, established companies, ultimately taking away customers and in some cases making them obsolete.

So what happens when someone starts talking about “the Uber of” your particular kind of company?

Canadian small and medium-sized businesses may feel particularly at risk from digital disruption because they are already struggling to compete against larger competitors, and also because adopting digital technologies might seem even more disruptive to the way they work internally as it does to the way they work externally.

If it’s any consolation, enterprise-sized companies feel much the same way. In fact, according to the Technology Vision 2016 report it released earlier this month, consulting firm Accenture said 86 per cent of the more than 3,000 executives it surveyed believe technological change will take place at an unprecedented rate over the next three years.

“Many companies, already reeling from the impact of technology and the changes they need to make in response, find themselves temporarily overwhelmed – some even paralyzed as they absorb the magnitude of the tasks ahead,” the report says. “But once they’ve paused for breath, they’ll need to start changing their products, their business models, and all of the processes that support them . . . the business is digital, so the organization, its people and its culture must now become digital too.”

That may sound like a lot for the average small or medium-sized Canadian business to take on. Instead, think about breaking it down into three key pieces that can be worked on in phases:

The Digital Organization

To some extent, digital transformation should begin much like other sea of changes in the business world. A recent post on ZDNet outlined a four-step approach that SMBs could easily make their own.

  • Step one: Focus on steady-state management: Don’t use digital technologies that make core areas of your business unstable, but look for areas where there is future growth. This could include a move towards e-commerce if you haven’t started already, for example, or even using digital technologies to better track and analyze the way your marketing activities are conducted.
  • Step two: Employ incremental improvements of existing products and services: Digital transformation doesn’t have to be revolutionary but evolutionary. Think about ways social media channels could be used to gather customer feedback or support about products and services, for instance. What kind of service do you offer via your web site today that could be better served by a mobile app instead?
  • Step three: Look for significant improvements in those existing products or services: One of the big benefits of digital interactions is the increased ability to measure what customers do. Are they spending more time with your products and services? Is the path to purchase any shorter? Think about these metrics even before the second step for an increased likelihood of success.
  • Step four: You have achieved significant benefits and developed entirely new products and services: This is your “Uber moment,” when you’re not only ready to embrace digital changes but can identify opportunities to use it in ways that address unmet customer needs.

Preparing Your People For Digital Transformation

Not everyone is a technophile, so how do you motivate employees to be excited about using digital tools? The answer, as an article on eConsultancy suggests, is to tap into the most common trait of successful SMBs. This is a tendency to be obsessed with what customers want, and using that as a basis for setting priorities.

Use the following checklist to help employees get up to speed quickly on digital opportunities:

  1. Where are customers searching for information? Yes, they’re still putting queries into Google, but they’re also browsing through online stores, asking recommendations from friends and family on social media or searching on their mobile phone instead of a desktop. Think about how this changes the way they decide to make a purchase.
  2. How can we listen in? Some online communities offer a level playing field for companies and customers to discuss issues together. In other cases, it might be easier to start conversations and offer opportunities for feedback. This could be through blogging or other content marketing activities that avoid hard selling in favour of educating and collaborating with customers.
  3. Design from digital and then backward: If history is any guide, people tend to move from manual or analogue behaviours to digital. This is true of shopping (which migrated from brick and mortar stores to online stores), communications (snail mail to e-mail) and much more. Now look at the way your customers interact with you today. How might that look different as digital processes mature? Start there as you design your next product, service or distribution channel rather than wait for someone else to beat you to it.

Digital Culture

A story on CIOReview sums it up well for any firm, whether it’s big enough to have a CIO or not.

“Leaders must learn to let go, embrace change, accept small failures and emphasize learning,” it said. “Successful leadership in digital business requires leaders to . . . protect and defend the vulnerable disruptors driving positive change from the slings and arrows of detractors, resistors and skeptics.”

In practical terms, this means leaders, even if they’re only running a small company with a few employees, need to be crystal-clear about the attitudes towards digital that lead to positive outcomes. It means taking educated risks but being transparent with customers about what you’re doing, and why. Finally, it means recognizing that digital transformation could take time. Despite what the headlines might suggest, few organizations become an “Uber of” overnight.

Digital transformation is a challenge but also an exciting opportunity. It’s about leveraging the right strategies and technology to help you get there. Find out how on-premise legacy solutions are holding you back and why now’s the right time to move to the cloud with Salesforce’s free eBook: