I like solving business problems, and I much prefer practical solutions as opposed to solutions that may sound exciting but are impractical to implement for one reason or another. That is why I am so enthusiastic about the opportunity to help drive digital transformation in the promotional products industry. 

I knew PPAI was moving in the right direction while interviewing for the job with our President and CEO Dale Denham.

“What buzzwords do you hate and why?” he asked me (despite the irony of the buzzword in my would-be title, director of digital transformation). Dale’s intention was to ensure that the person leading digital transformation had ideas that could be executed rather than a theoretical vision. He then proceeded to ask me to define digital transformation. I don’t recall my specific answer at the time, but since then I’ve put a lot more effort into creating an outline of what digital transformation means.

Digital transformation, as I define it, has four pillars:

  • IT uplift
  • Digitizing operations
  • Data-driven decision-making
  • Enhancing existing or creating new products

The first pillar is very practical, even with the buzzy term “IT uplift.” Essentially, IT uplift consists of moving to the cloud, upgrading software to the latest version and providing staff with tools to effectively do their jobs, which also results in employee satisfaction. This sounds very simple on the surface but needs to be well thought out to be successful.  

For smaller businesses, this could mean switching to OneDrive and moving everything to the cloud, which makes accessing information a breeze from any device. For larger businesses, this will take more time, as with more existing infrastructure and systems, the more complicated the uplift is to plan and execute. By the end of this phase, you should have more reliable, secure and efficient IT operations to be able to respond to future demands.

You should not skip IT uplift, because doing so will likely hamper your efforts as you get further into the digital transformation. However, don’t start your IT uplift until you’ve created a vision of where you want to be when you finish. 

Often, IT uplift has significant crossover with the second pillar, digitizing operations. Where IT uplift is more focused on ensuring your IT systems are current, this pillar focuses on the users. It includes reducing or eliminating manual processes, creating new workflows and different methods for sharing data electronically. 

This pillar frequently involves replacing systems, but occasionally that is a mistake as new systems can create new issues sometimes bigger than the previous issues if you haven’t properly evaluated the situation. So, before you “rip and replace,” evaluate as much data as possible and see what more you can extract from your current systems. 

Using data for evaluation leads me to the third pillar: data-driven decision-making. It’s about how we leverage data in an actionable way. Data-driven decisions are often as simple as leveraging benchmarks to improve performance rather than accepting how you do things. Other slightly more complicated examples are adjusting your marketing campaigns based on response or engagement. 

All of these pillars are intertwined, so as you digitize your operations, you need to be thinking about what decisions you need to make and what data can help you make the best decisions. Each pillar is also impacting your client experience, but this pillar is especially important as clients want more data to drive their marketing decisions. 

The final pillar is creating new products and services or enhancing existing products in their base for growth. Essentially, now that you have the first three pillars in place, ask what opportunities you can exploit to drive growth. It may be as simple as providing better service that improves the client experience or creating a new product that helps your clients based on the additional data you have.

Digital Transformation is one of three core components of the PPAI strategic plan. We have our own internal transformation effort that has already begun. While many of our systems are cloud-based, many are not. The planning and transition has begun to replace multiple systems with fewer, more integrated systems based on the needs of the future rather than the needs of the past.

Our internal efforts primarily serve to meet our goal of facilitating the industry’s digital transformation. We have started that effort by listening to our members and staff with you, the customer, in mind. We are creating solutions to address the problem and avoiding the trap of finding a “cool” solution in search of a problem. 

Digital transformation plans will fail without executive support. First and foremost, the executive support is required to keep people motivated through a period that usually involves a lot of change. The change goes well beyond processes and usually involves a shift to a digital-first mindset. 

There is an investment needed upfront for planning as well as upgrading software and other systems. Digital transformation often requires additional hiring for the processes that don’t necessarily go away when the transformation is complete. In addition to investing in hiring, consulting, training and other unknown expenses, make executive support critical. 

The less executive support you have, the less aggressive you can afford to be with your transformation—but you can still transform.  

In some cases, businesses are forced to transform to stay competitive. It may take a while to realize the ROI, however, the long-term effect lies in employee satisfaction, better customer experience and new products and services.

PPAI is looking forward to driving digital transformation in the industry and providing you as many resources as possible to help you on your journey. Get started today and leverage these pillars to map out your journey.  

Edwin Gonzalez is the director of digital transformation at PPAI.