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Turning the pandemic business disruption into a boost for digital transformation

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

As part of its digital transformation agenda, Thales marketing and sales operating model needed to embrace new digital ways of working. Mann saw an opportunity to accelerate the digital transformation of marketing and sales enablement practices across all lines of business by creating a comprehensive and universal digital platform—Thales Digital Seller (TDS).

Working as one team, one Thales

The idea was simple: everyone in the company has access to compelling, high-quality sales enablement content on all Thales products and services to have better conversations with clients and prospects anywhere in the world. The implementation, however, took a lot of effort and careful planning for Mann and his team before a pilot was launched and began delivering on the promise.

When the global pandemic made “business as usual” impossible, the value of a shared digital platform to equip sales enablement practices became immediately clear to everyone in the company as it enabled Thales’s marketing and sales force to persevere during an unprecedented worldwide business disruption. In 2020, the platform’s user acquisition shot up by 150 percent, with the upward trend continuing in 2021, as the platform was enabling fully digital ways of working. 2022 has brought more instability to the world, and the pandemic is far from over in many places, proving once again the vital importance of intentional digital transformation.

Propelling an innovation evolution

Mann had identified the need for enterprise-wide digital transformation as far back as 2015 while leading BIG: Business Innovation and Growth, an intrapreneurship initiative at Thales that invited employees to contribute ideas to improve operations, devise new business models, and otherwise add value to the organization and its customers. BIG proved highly popular and yielded many great ideas, including a number of proposals to explore new digital platforms to support sales enablement. One of those proposals won the executive jury selection at BIG’s Innovation Challenge in 2016 and eventually grew into the Thales Digital Seller. Once Mann and his team selected a technology partner whose software satisfied all of Thales’s business requirements—and most of all, ability to scale—the idea started to take shape.

Building an enterprise-wide initiative with systems thinking

For a digital transformation to succeed, all its many components need to be planned, built, and deployed simultaneously. This is a system, hence requiring a systemic approach to execution. The effort is significant, Mann cautions. “Putting in place the transformation, while taking into account all the dimensions of the system in the very early days of the journey, is a big challenge. You have to address many questions from the very beginning, even though you may not yet have the answers. However, you need to go and start the whole system from the beginning, accounting for each and every dimension, while managing different degrees of maturity. Neglecting any dimension of this system would risk failure.” To solve this challenge, the system needs to demonstrate value right away or risk losing momentum and the goodwill of the organization to participate in building that system.

Augmenting human with machine

Mann observed an interesting dichotomy in how employees viewed the TDS platform: “what will this digital tech do for me?” vs. “how do I need to adapt to the digital tech for the best result?” The first group was in a subconscious competition with technology, only seeing it as an add-on at best and a nuisance at worst. The second group thought bigger and was willing to adopt a new way of working enabled—not assisted—by the new technology.

Choosing the right technology partner is important, but the greatest platform on Earth is useless without users. In order for Thales Digital Seller to succeed, it needed to become a routine part of everyday work of the marketing and sales teams globally. Mann recognized the seriousness of that challenge. “When you implement a new platform, you’re asking people to change how they work and, in turn, how the whole organization is running,” he says. “People don’t like to be told how to do their jobs, especially when they were comfortable with what they’ve been doing for years. What we did instead was instill a sense of community and of ownership in our colleagues by including the company name in the name of the new platform. We are all Thales, and naming the platform Thales Digital Seller was a way to say that it is not just about the platform, it is about us.”

Harnessing organizational complexity

What came as a surprise was that in an organization with such varied product lines and wide geographic reach, its matrixed structure and complexity proved to be a benefit. Mann explains, “Because the more the organization is complex, the more you have diversity within the organization and the more you have the opportunity to leverage good internal examples that will inspire and influence others. In fact, in our large and matrixed organizational, these pockets of excellence already exist. They are just not well distributed. It became a kind of a friendly competition among internal peers, who would be the first to set examples and be the change we aim to make and that others would be invited to embrace.”

Navigating the contexts

When organizations talk about digital transformation, what is usually discussed are dimensions such as people, technology, governance, and business risks. Mann points out another aspect that he often finds missing in stories of transformation but considers vitally important in any enterprise-wide endeavor—context. For Thales, the context was twofold: the political context of the organization, alliances among peers and along the reporting structures, and their own changing nature; and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, which changed everything overnight.

“Usually, you have around 60% of your population who are followers. They may go ahead and embrace the change but you need to have 10% of people that are part of it earlier and who are showing great examples,” Mann says. “Because of COVID, a large part of those 60% of people jumped onboard very quickly because the customer relationship engine on which the whole company was relying on for sales enablement was completely disrupted. So, it has created an unprecedented case for change.” COVID had rendered any real or perceived competition between human and machine completely irrelevant—if people wanted to keep doing their work, relying on the TDS platform has become the obvious option. The machine won, yes. But more so, the organization did. Thanks to the Thales Digital Seller, the company’s salespeople were able to keep the customer engagements going outside of their usual context like tradeshows, office visits, and other face-to-face meetings.

Setting sights on the future of a company transformed

Mann sees the Thales Digital Seller initiative as a source of competitive advantage for Thales in support of the Group’s short-term objectives and future challenges. “In addition to the positive impact on the top-line growth by driving the generation of new opportunities and revenue, this transformation brings a competitive advantage in building more productive customer engagement thanks to the reallocation of the unproductive time spent to search for relevant sales enablement content or recreate content that already exists,” he says. “This transformation had a positive impact on the bottom line, too, driving greater ROI from the content creation expenses—allowing cost savings by reducing the creation of unused content and securing cost avoidance by not maintaining multiple sales enablement technology platforms, that salespeople have to rely on to access, adapt and share value propositions to engage with customer the productive and meaningful way in building a future we can all trust.”

Originally published on Innovation@Work the MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog:

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