For the next few weeks, Ian Pattersonwho leads the UK Digital Transformation offering at The Digital Consultancy is writing a weekly Digital Transformation Diary exclusively for Prolific North.

Ian Patterson

Ian Patterson

Patterson worked for more than a decade in the North West, leading teams and projects at the likes of BJL, Guardian Media, MoneySuperMarket and Studio North.

The dark side of digital

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been sharing my experiences working with agencies, clients and in the public sector, covering attitudes toward digital disruption and the qualities of a digital change agent.

In this penultimate diary I want to share some of the digital risks that businesses and their suppliers take, and how damaging they can be for a brand.

If you’re the person paying for digital services, then you may want to read on before you renew your retainer or sign-off that proposal…

Digital Gremlins

I’m sure you remember the 1984 film ‘Gremlins’, and I’m sure you can also recall a time you’ve experienced a technical glitch or online inconvenience. These frustrations can cause even the calmest of people to scream at the screen! Some people assume it’s something they did wrong, and others conclude that someone somewhere must have neglected his duties. After many years managing suppliers and in-house teams, I can say that I believe in digital gremlins. They come in the form of people who take advantage of those who know less than them, force through an agenda, don’t communicate risk or cut corners for their convenience.

We all dread wash-up or post-disaster review meetings, when best-laid plans didn’t work, projects went over budget or targets were missed. But what if you never knew the truth behind your own digital disaster?

bad-vs-goodThis happened to me, whilst leading a large project some years ago, an outsourced project manager suddenly became impossible to contact. At the time the situation was shrouded in mystery, and excuses followed excuses. Years after I got to the bottom of the real reason. The supplier had taken on too much work and decided to prioritise a more attractive client (which happened to be the BBC). It’s as a result of these experiences that you wonder if everyone is using the same honesty, transparency, and fairness playbook.

Most digital initiatives involve teamwork, and we place a good deal of trust in each other to get the job done. The unfortunate reality is that people have ulterior motives, other agendas and bias towards things they would rather prioritise over your goals. An example would be those digital suppliers (I use the term loosely to cover either agencies, technology houses, media companies and software vendors) that put their needs before those of their clients. During my agency days I’ve been expected to sell services that matched those of our in-house team or third-party vendors, above and beyond what the client actually needs. In this space it’s difficult to imagine how suppliers can be truly impartial, when they have targets to meet and prescribed services they want to offer. This is one of the most disappointing practices I’ve witnessed over the years, because the client can suffer for many years from buying the wrong technology, platform or service, all to meet the requirements of the supplier. This, coupled with many digital suppliers lacking any form of risk management, governance or online legal support, leaves many clients exposed by unforeseen risks.

A series of unfortunate events

Aside from viruses, the dark web, social media PR nightmares, lapses in security, data breaches and legal oversights, there are more rudimentary risks that businesses should be aware of. Over the years, I have witnessed many unfortunate activities that could have been avoided:

  • No strategic foresight
  • No SLA past point of delivery
  • Failing to align digital KPIs to wider business objectives
  • Unwillingness to share information, train and empower others
  • No risk management or contingency planning
  • No project framework or undefined roles
  • Top-down management restricting opportunity to innovate
  • No provision of legal recommendations or governance options
  • Suppliers who suggest solutions that suit their skills, over client needs
  • Third-party supply chains that compromise data protection
  • Inferior bought-in services, commissioned to increase profit margin
  • Not anticipating the extent to which a digital activity may impact customers, employees, suppliers or other stakeholders
  • Intentionally misleading or ‘foggy’ technical information

Over time I’ve come to appreciate the role of a digital consultant who can offer truly impartial, strategic options that empower clients to make the best decisions for their business. Unfortunately many digital professionals, some in-house and some supply-side are compromised by factors that are out of their control, such as time pressures, fixed delivery routine, prescribed technologies or services, a need to ‘build the portfolio’ or hit targets.

Perhaps the biggest oversight we all made with the Internet was how much it would fundamentally change the way we conduct business. When we started making websites, setting up social media accounts, introducing everything from Apps to automation, no one could have anticipated the long term commitment and complexity that would permeate through every facet of our working world.

Next week we end the digital transformation diaries by focussing on those who work across digital services. I’ll be asking ‘What’s next for the digital sector?’

Ian Patterson is the head of digital transformation at The Digital Consultancy. Over the last 16 years, he’s led digital projects and teams at Cable & Wireless, Rapp Collins, and Guardian Media Group.