Digital Transformation, Change Management and Family Businesses

One of the inherent system risks for family-owned businesses is the lifecycle (May 2012). Schumpeter (1939) explained why doing business in capitalistic markets is a cycle of economic growth and recession. Especially for companies with the aspiration to sustain over many generations this is a huge challenge. May (2012) suggests family businesses to outwit the lifecycle by following a few simple rules: (1) operate in long-lasting markets, i.e. chose a product portfolio which is independent from short-term trends, (2) introduce a lifecycle radar, a combination of strategic tools and KPIs, (3) continuous adjustments to such an extent to constantly eliminate products which are at the end of the lifecycle and to invest into innovation, (4) make bold decisions, e.g. radical changes like cannibalizing the current revenue and jumping onto new technologies to overcome the innovators dilemma (Christensen 1997).

Bartels, von Hochberg and May (2017) interviewed 50 owners of large family businesses among others related to disruptive trends. They identified that companies that had already survived several generations and had been faced with the downfall of their original business areas have developed strategies to diversify their business and change the business models. Some do not operate in their original business area any more, but others had been able to adopt their business model from selling their product to offer their product-as-a-service (cf. Digital Transformation Process). The common challenge today is the increasing dynamic and speed of change. These changes are not only of technical nature, but especially a question of changing the culture. A possible success factor might be the opportunity of succession as the following generations are already digital natives (cf. Digital Transformation Context).

These considerations demand transformation capabilities in family-owned businesses. Cassia, Massis and Pizzurno (2012) researched “strategic innovation and new product development in family firms” due to the fact that little is known about leading and managing complex transformations in family businesses and with the aim to offer a better understanding of the influence of “familiness” (cf. Family Businesses) in particular the strength and weaknesses. They found out that the advantages are long-term orientation, human resources and dedication to “progression”, tendency to be close to their customers and being focused. Their disadvantages are being conservative and risk averse, a lack of openness, readiness to change, conflicts within the family and the economic rationality of decision-making processes.

Gouillart, Kelly and Gemini Consulting (1999) say that the business models originate from the industrial age and are influenced by mechanical engineering. In the digital age these business models come to a limit. Business transformation means a fundamental change, where a company needs to redefine all dimensions (cf. Digital Transformation Content). Gouillart et al. (1999) researched how companies in industries like chemistry, electronics, pharmacy, automotive etc. managed the change and synthesized these approaches into the “four R of transformation” that need to be achieved:

  • Reframing, i.e. change of attitude by achieving mobilization of the employees, creating a vision and setting the goals and KPIs;
  • Restructuring by constructing a value adding business model, aligning the necessary infrastructure and redesigning the business processes;
  • Revitalizing by becoming customer centric, inventing new business and changing the rules with the help of emerging technologies;
  • Renewing by creating a reward structure, encouraging individual learning and renewal of the organization.

This business transformation approach follows the basic principle of change management described by Lewin (1947, 34): “Unfreezing, Moving, and Freezing of Group Standards”.

The most prominent model underlying the research of Lewin are Kotter´s “8 step process for leading change” (Kotter 1995), summarized here only on headline level: (1) establish a sense of urgency, (2) form a powerful guiding coalition, (3) create a vision, (4) communicate the vision, (5) empower others to act on the vision, (6) plan for and create short-term wins, (7) consolidate improvements and produce more change, (8) institutionalize new approaches.

Kotter never claimed to have developed this model, he captured it by observing more than 100 companies going through transformational change (Farell 2017). One prominent example is the digital transformation of IBM after the company lost more than US$ 16bn and needed to change their business model from selling and running mainframe computers to an e-business company (Farrell 2017).

Although evidently successful for many large enterprises, Oxley (2017) claims that “Kotter’s change framework doesn’t work for large family businesses”. He argues that on the one hand, steps 1 to 5 of Kotter’s model are based on the assumption that no individual leader can enforce change and followers must be convinced to change. On the other hand, the underlying message of steps 5 to 8 is that those who do not comply with the change must leave the organization. Oxley (Oxley 2017) says that this is contradictory to the “familiness” and therefor special characteristics of a family business: (A) dominant ownership, often combined with the existence of a figure who is followed unquestioned by the organization and (B) individual loyalty, i.e. a very strong commitment to the employees and the sense of obligation to take care of them (cf. Family Businesses).

Figure 1: Success Factors of Digital Transformation, adopted and translated from (Müller-Seitz and Weiss 2019, 51)

An alternative approach for family business and hidden champions will be provided by Müller-Seitz and Weiss (2019) who describe five success factors for cultural and structural change to manage digital transformation, cf. Figure 1:

  • Self-organization:
    Change to agile ways of working as the central guiding principle to give space for innovative thinking due to interdisciplinary teams and flexible work environments. Self-organization demands a respectful understanding of people, in which employees are fully trusted.
  • Dealing with uncertainty:
    “Across many industries, a rising tide of volatility, uncertainty, and business complexity is roiling markets and changing the nature of competition” (Doheny, Nagali and Weig 2012). VUCA as an acronym referring to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity has recently found its way into business lexicons (Bennet and Lemoine 2014). To deal in a VUCA world demands curiosity and the attitude of “fail early and fail often”.
  • Work, organization and communication:
    A customer and innovation centric company culture as the basis for success and strengthen the strength of the people as a guiding principle for HR.
  • Add value with cooperation partners:
    Valuable partnerships create the basis for common success as well as building of intercompany networks and linking of work.
  • Organizational learning and knowledge management:
    Implicit knowledge is difficult to handle, but worthwhile to transfer within the organization. Knowledge platforms inside the intranet are possible solutions.

Work Cited

Bartels, Peter, Peter von Hochberg, and Peter May. Strategien erfolgreicher Familienunternehmen 2017. Report, PWC, 2017.

Bennet, Nathan, and G. James Lemoine. “What VUCA really means for you.” Harvard Business Review, Vol 92. (1/2), 01 15, 2014: 27-29.

Cassia, Lucio, Alfredo de Massis, and Emanuele Pizzurno. “Strategic innovation and new product development in family firms.” International Journal of Entrepreneural Behaviour & Research, Vol. 18 (2), 03 2012: 198-232.

Christensen, Clayton M. The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1997.

Doheny, M., V. Nagali, and F. Weig. “Agile operations for volatile times.” McKinsey Quarterly. 05 2012. (accessed 09 20, 2019).

Farell, Adrian. John Kotter – Leading Change Guru. 04 28, 2017. (accessed 09 01, 2019).

Farrell, Adrian. Lou Gerstner – IBM’s Digital Transformation Change Master. 05 21, 2017. (accessed 09 01, 2019).

Gouillart, Francis J., James N. Kelly, and Consulting Gemini. Transforming the organization <dt.>. Wien: Ueberreuter, 1999.

Kotter, John P. “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail.” Harvard Business Review, May-June 1995: 59-67.

Lewin, Kurt. “Frontiers in Group Dynamics: .” Human Relations, Vol 1 (1), 1947: 5-41.

May, Peter. Erfolgsmodell Familienunternehmen. Das Strategie Buch. Hamburg: Murrmann, 2012.

Müller-Seitz, Gordon, and Werner Weiss. Strategien zum Umgang mit der digitalen Transformation … aus der Sicht eines mittelständigen “Hidden Champions”. München: Vahlen, 2019.

Oxley, David R. Why Kotter’s Change Framework Doesn’t Work for Large Family Businesses. 07 11, 2017. (accessed 09 01, 2019).

Schumpeter, Joseph A. Business Cycles – A Theoretical, Historical and Statistical Analysis of the Capitalist Process . New York, Toronto, London: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1939.

How do companies formulate and implement digital transformation strategies?

“Born-digital companies”, i.e. companies that are founded on digital platforms and exploiting digital technologies as core components of their business models, have no need for a digital transformation. Unlike “pre-digital” organizations, which are established companies belonging to traditional industries that have been financially successful without digital technologies and capabilities (Tumbas, Berente and Brocke 2017) (Ross, et al. 2016) (Chanais, Myers and Hess 2019). In recent years, these companies have started digital initiatives to explore and exploit the benefits of emerging technologies. The first steps entering digital business models are usually characterized by a high level of uncertainty as this affects products and processes and transforms key business operations as well as organizational structures and management concepts. The digital transformation is very complex and has company-wide impact. The formulation and implementation of a digital transformation strategy has therefor become a key concern for many pre-digital companies and a systematic approach is crucial for success. (Matt, Hess and Benlian 2015) (Hess, et al. 2016).

Getting to a digital transformation strategy has two perspectives. First, the process: how to develop, implement and evaluate the digital transformation strategy considering the new aspects digitalization brings to the organization. Because digital transformation is a continuous effort of high complexity that can reshape a company and its operation, it is important to clearly define and assign roles and responsibilities for the formulation and implementation of a digital transformation strategy. Second, the process of defining a strategy along the dimensions and building blocks of a digital transformation strategy, but this also includes decisions on the necessary resources to be able to execute the strategy and achieve the company goals. (Matt, Hess and Benlian 2015)

Chanais, Mayers and Hess (2019) describe in a case study research 7 main phases of digital transformation formulation and implementation:

  • Phase 0: Recognizing the need for digital transformation
  • Phase 1: Setting the state
  • Phase 2: Initially formulating the digital transformation strategy
  • Phase 3: Preparing for the digital transformation strategy implementation
  • Phase 4: Starting the digital transformation strategy implementation
  • Phase 5: Finding a working mode
  • Phase 6: Enhancing the digital transformation strategy

Barann et al. (2019) did a structured literature review of articles from the databases EBSCOHost, ScienceDirect, AISNet and Scopus resulting from the search of keywords in the area of business model innovation, digital transformation, digital innovation, data-driven innovation for SME. They identified requirements for a procedural approach and synthesized these findings into a procedure model for digital transformation in SME, cf. Figure 1.

The following requirements have been the basis for the procedure model: (R1) Integration of external supporter like innovation labs, research institutes and consultancies, (R2) provision of practical orientation based on best-practices, real-life examples and incorporating domain-specific knowledge, (R3) creation of a supportive environment like the awareness of the need for digital transformation which needs to be ensured before any implementation starts, (R4) consideration of tangible goals, i.e. clearly defined and measurable goals, (R5) provision of an individual roadmap, (R6) enabling a stepwise implementation, (R7) identification of opportunities, (R8) assisting reflection & measurement, (R9) balancing strategy and operation, (R10) supporting all levels of digital and data-driven innovation, (R11) consideration of open innovation, i.e. ideas and resources should be shared between internal and external entities, e.g. start-ups. (Barann, et al. 2019)

Figure 1: A Procedure Model for Digital Transformation in SME, adopted from (Barann, et al. 2019, 4981)

The synthesized procedure model from Barann et al. (2019) consists of two phases. Phase I is about the formulation of the digital transformation strategy, while phase II is about the implementation.

Phase I, Orientation, has two steps:

  • Position company: (a) establish a planning team, (b) understand the business model, (c) analyze the as-is-situation, (d) reviewing digitalization topics, and (e) analyze digital maturity.
  • Create digitalization roadmap: (a) generation of ideas, (b) alignment of the ideas with the strategic goals, (c) evaluation of the ideas, and (d) development of a digitalization roadmap.

Phase II, iterative transformation, has three steps:

  • Create supportive environment: (a) create awareness, (b) involve employees, and (c) create digitalization culture.
  • Prepare digitalization project: (a) select digitalization goal, (b) identify opportunity, (c) select opportunity, (d) perform resource and project planning, and (e) build expertise.
  • Implement solution: (a) design solution, (b) refine solution, (c) realize solution, and (d) monitor solution.

Terstegen et al. (2019) researched between July and October 2018 various articles about procedural approaches for the formulation and implementation of a digital transformation strategy with the focus on Industry 4.0 and the manufacturing industry, automotive, electrical engineering, medical devices. They synthesized the identified procedural models into five phases:

  • Information Phase, transparency and creation of a common understanding
  • Strategy Phase, as-is-analysis, digital vision and strategic direction
  • Tactical Phase, determination of targets and deduction of projects
  • Operative Phase, implementation of projects
  • Controlling, measurement of target achievement

The focus of these procedure models are in three phases of “why” (strategy phase), “what” (tactical phase) and “how” (operative phase), cf. Figure 2.

A detailed overview of the identified procedure models can be found online (2019).

Figure 2: Overview and categorization of identified procedure models, adopted from (Terstegen, Hennegriff, et al. 2019, 4)

Feichtinger (2018) also compared various models and identified that they can be aligned into these three major phases:

  • Phase 1 (Analysis) asks the question “why” and contains the current status and the analysis phase. The starting points could be a digital maturity assessment (DMA), an evaluation of customer requirements, emerging technologies and industry/market trends.
  • Phase 2 (Definition) starts with the question “what”. Here the vision and goals will be defined, the design of the digitalization determined, and the necessary changes deducted.
  • Phase 3 (Planning) answers the question “how”. Feichtinger (2018) found out that the third phase is not consistent in the literature. It is not clear whether it is still the planning of the digital transformation or already the implementation as for example this phase had been summarized under operative tasks by Terstegen et al. (2019).
Table 1: Comparison of strategic process phases, adopted from (Feichtinger 2018, 43)

Digital Transformation Strategy has different perspectives and each perspective tries to reach different goals. Matt, Hess and Benlian (2015) speak of four perspectives: use of technologies, changes in value creation, structural changes, and financial aspects. Von Leipzig, et. al. (2017) add to the perspective that the ability to digitally change the value creation is not all about the technology and structural changes, but rather about a radical strategic and cultural change in the organization. The purpose of a digital transformation strategy is to exploit the benefits of emerging technologies to improve productivity, decrease costs and come to innovative products, services and business models. But there is still no coherent alignment in the research where a digital transformation strategy should be allocated (Hess, et al. 2016) (Matt, Hess and Benlian 2015). In analogy to the manufacturing strategy Mills, Platts and Gregory (1995) have given a classification of “strategy” in the business context:

  • Corporate Strategy: What set of businesses should we be in?
    • Business Strategy: How should we compete in XYZ business?
    • Functional Strategy: How can this function contribute to the competitive advantage of the business?

Some argue that a company’s IT strategy can evolve from a functional strategy to a corporate strategy. But IT strategy is about the efficient management of IT infrastructure and applications, where digital transformation strategy incorporates all areas of the organization (Hess, et al. 2016). Sebastian et al. (2017) brings the business strategy and the functional strategy in relation:

  • Digital Transformation Strategy: How can we integrate existing business capabilities with new capabilities made possible by emerging technologies?

The characteristic of integrating corporate, business and functional strategies makes it mandatory to align, coordinate and prioritize the many independent dimensions of digital transformation across all other strategies. If these tasks are executed half-heartedly, the formulation and implementation of the digital transformation might lose the scope with possible serious effects on operations. Therefor it is necessary that the person responsible for the digital transformation strategy has enough experience in business transformation and is aligned with the strategy´s targets (Matt, Hess and Benlian 2015).

Singh and Hess (2017) compare the new role of a Chief Digital Officer (CDO), as one option being responsible for the digital transformation, with other existing roles for different levels of strategy within the company, cf. Table 2.

Table 2: Comparison of CDO and other CxO Positions, adopted from (Singh and Hess 2017, 34)

Being responsible for the digital transformation strategy Singh and Hess (2017) identified five skills and competencies necessary: (1) IT Competency, (2) Change Management Skills, (3) Inspiration Skills, (4) Digital Pioneer Skills, and (5) Resilience, which is in “traditional” companies even more important as digital transformation requires profound organizational-wide changes.

Singh and Hess (2017) also identified in their research three different types of roles, Chief Digital Officers play:

  • The Entrepreneural Role, with a strong customer focus, exploring IT-enabled innovation and pointing towards a fast-paced technological environment sometimes even with the adoption of whole business models.
  • The Digital Evangelist Role, with the focus on inspiring and training people in the organization to prepare them to deal with the challenges and corporate changes in the process of digital transformation.
  • The Coordinator Role, with the focus to initiate and design the controlled organizational shift from decoupled silo functions to cross-functional cooperation, which affects many stakeholders of the company on functional (IT, HR), business (marketing & sales, production) and corporate level (executive/advisory board).

It is important to understand that being responsible for the digital transformation strategy does not mean to replace all other strategies and the ones being responsible for them. The company should experiment with emerging technologies and explore the related opportunities across all functional and organizational borders. Therefor being responsible more means acting like a coordinator to ensure collaboration between the different strategic disciplines and that the targets of the digital transformation strategy can be reached with a strong focus on business transformation. (Singh and Hess 2017) (Matt, Hess and Benlian 2015) (Hess, et al. 2016) (Sebastian, et al. 2017)

Also, Westermann et al. (2011) come to the conclusion after studying 157 executive-level interviews in 50 companies in 15 countries that the lead for the change need to come from the top, but top level visions seldom leads to bottom-level actions when not supported by top-down communication and governance backed-up by incentives and measurable targets and coordination. They see four different coordination models for digital transformation, cf. Figure 3:

  • Silo: No coordination effort as each business unit runs their own digital strategy
  • Digital hub: Digital strategy defined by a central digital unit. Each business unit can have their own strategy but must coordinate with the central digital unit to use their solutions and resources.
  • Central coordination: Digital strategy defined, funded and coordinated at enterprise level, digital operations developed and managed on business unit level
  • Global: Digital strategy allocated to a central digital unit which coordinates strategy and budget. Digital operations are developed and managed on business unit level, but must use solutions and resources coming from the central digital unit  
Figure 3: Coordination models for digital transformation, adopted from (Westermann, et al. 2011, 54)

Knowing the procedural aspects and the key participants in the digital transformation strategy, there are several starting points for the transformation journey.

Berman (2012) proposed three different strategic approaches to transformation:

  • The “what”: Reshaping the customer value proposition
  • The “how”: Reshaping the business model
  • Combining both approaches by transforming operating model and customer value proposition at the same time

No organization, even “pre-digital” companies, will start their digital transformation from “zero”. Usually providing information digitally or digital sales channels like e-commerce are existing. Berman (2012) says that “from this starting point, a company’s strategic approach to transformation typically follows one of the three paths”, cf Figure 28.

The paths depend on strategic objectives, industry type, competitive pressure and customer expectations. Companies, who has the business model “Business-to-Business” (B2B), usually start with reshaping operations and then address the customer value proposition to achieve full transformation (Path 1). Companies with the business model “Business-to-Consumer” (B2C), where the focus on the customer value proposition provide immediate benefit, will first focus here and then integrate digital operations (Path 2). Companies seeking industry leadership or companies adding the customer value perspective to their operations (going from B2B to B2B2C) will try to do both at the same time (Path 3). (Berman 2012)

Figure 4: Paths to digital transformation, adopted from (Berman 2012, 18)

Sebastian et al. (2017) identified in their empirical studies two different types of digital transformation strategies: a customer engagement strategy and a digitized solutions strategy.

“A customer engagement strategy typically aims to create a seamless, omnichannel experience that makes it easy for customers to order, inquire, pay and receive support in a consistent way from any channel at any time” (Sebastian, et al. 2017, 199). It focuses on personalized, innovative and integrative customer experiences. This kind of a strategy is based on collecting customer data and the use of data analytics to better understand and anticipate customer demands.

“A digitized solutions strategy aims to reformulate a company’s value proposition by integrating a combination of products, services and data” (Sebastian, et al. 2017, 199). It is driven by R&D to create digital products and services by combining existing capabilities with digital capabilities. This may result in the shift from selling a product to offering services with the effect of recurring revenues like Porter describes it in “how smart connected products are transforming competition”. (Porter and Heppelmann 2014)

Kaltenecker, Hess and Huesig (2015) researched the effect of shifting from product-selling to service offerings on the example of the software industry changing from selling licences for on-premise usage to offering their software on-demand out of the cloud. Their assumptions are based on the “Innovator’s Dilemma” (Christensen 1997), as well-established companies are facing this dilemma when they hold on to their technologies, even though emerging technologies with a potential of disruption are already available in the market. Kaltenecker, Hess and Huesing (2015) summarized different management strategies adopted by the software industry to prevent potential disruption using the example of shifting towards offering software-as-a-service out of the cloud, cf Table 3.

Table 3: Nine management strategies, adopted from (Kaltenecker, Hess and Huesig 2015, 247)

The media industry faced already the digital disruption as the digital change is undeniable when the customers shift from buying a newspaper to opening a news app, from renting a DVD to online streaming, from buying a cookbook to getting customized recipes onto the smartphone (World Economic Forum 2019). Hess et al. (2016) researched media companies and their digital transformation strategies. As a result, they suggested guidelines for formulating a digital transformation strategy based on four aspects where key strategic decisions have to be made, cf Table 4 : (1) use of technology, (2) changes in value creation, (3) structural changes, and (4) financial aspects.

Table 4: Key Decisions for a Digital Transformation Strategy, adopted from (Hess, et al. 2016, 138)

While the use of technology, structural changes and financial aspects are not necessarily industry specific, the value creation is different in each industry. To get also to an industry specific formulation of the value creation, Porter proposed to define the strategy along the value chain (Porter and Millar 1985) (Porter 2001).

Bughin and Zeebroeck (2017) identified besides disruption a second challenge in the transformation of the value creation: Based on their survey of 2000 incumbent companies across all major industries and countries, they see that for the majority digital initiatives show only little effect. On the other side top-performing companies could achieve up to 80 percent higher revenues than the industry average and achieve a digital return on investment (ROI) that is 10 times higher than the above mentioned low-performing companies in their survey. The outperformer usually had offensive strategies, i.e. commitment to radical changes, e.g. willingness to cannibalize their current revenues and to invest into digital technology. Bughin and Zeebroeck (2017) classified the digital strategies found into six types, where the first three are primarily offensive and the second three defensive, i.e. meant only to improve the existing operating models, cf. Table 5.

Table 5: The six types of digital strategy, adopted from (Bughin and Zeebroeck 2017)

As a summary, the formulation and implementation of a digital transformation strategy demand huge efforts as all strategic areas of the company are related and it takes a revolutionary approach for fundamentally changes. The leading must come from top, but the difficulty is to bring the visions and goals to the bottom. Therefore being responsible for the digital transformation is the role of a coordinator across the organization with experiences in business transformation. The formulation of the strategy has four aspects: use of technology, structural changes, financial aspects and especially changes in the value creation. There are differences in the transformation journey, type and management of the digital transformation strategy depending on industry type, business model and boldness of the company, i.e. whether to choose an offensive or defensive strategy. To answer the question how to formulate and implement the digital transformation strategy, there are at least three core phases: Analysis, Definition and Planning.

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