The Wall Street Journal: What Keeps Companies From Thinking Digitally?
June 1, 2016
Clara Shih, CEO and author, says the problem is often a lack of leadership
That’s the argument made by Clara Shih, chief executive and co-founder of Hearsay Social Inc., a maker of digital marketing software founded in 2009, and a director of Starbucks Corp. Ms. Shih – who has written a new book on the subject called “The Social Business Imperative” – argues that every company needs to accept the fact that it, too, must become a technology company.
In other words, opening a corporate Instagram account won’t cut it.
Ms. Shih spoke with The Wall Street Journal about her role at Starbucks and what’s holding larger companies back digitally. Following are edited excerpts from that conversation.
WSJ: What do you see as your role on the Starbucks board? Is it fair to say you’re a digital ambassador to the company?
MS. SHIH: My job is to be a director. You can initially start with digital ambassadors, but ultimately digital becomes so strategic that it’s everyone’s job. You can’t delegate it to a single director or small group of directors. You can’t delegate it to a social-media team or to the digital team. It really has become everyone’s job, whether you’re a CEO, chief marketing officer, front-line salesperson, customer support.
I contribute like anybody else. I ask questions. I offer specific insights. The questions and insights that I tend to volunteer often come from the Silicon Valley startup culture. I by no means am the only person who asks those types of questions, nor are those the only types of questions that I ask.
WSJ: You joined the Starbucks board in 2011 and now it’s 2016. How has the company evolved in that time?
MS. SHIH: We continue to become more technology-oriented. A number of the directors are really digitally savvy. It’s really independent of tenure and generation. I think having Kevin Johnson – having been an executive of Microsoft and Juniper – appeals to Starbucks in that this is a technology executive who really infuses that DNA into Starbucks. It’s further reinforcing that Starbucks is a technology company.
WSJ: In your book, you argue that, today, every company has to be a tech company. What does that mean?
MS. SHIH: You have to be where your customer is. If your customer begins their buyer’s journey online or if they want to complete their buyer’s journey on social, mobile and digital, of course, you have to be there too.
When I think of the store experience, it’s not just the physical merchandising and layout of the store. People are often on their devices when they’re in the store, so part of the store experience is the Wi-Fi, it’s the content we can deliver through the Wi-Fi, it’s the mobile app.
WSJ: Are companies embracing this perspective?
MS. SHIH: I think most are doing something and they’ll acknowledge that technology and digital are important – but it’s all about execution. Transformation is much more than putting up a Twitter account and training your customer-service rep or marketing team to tweet.
The need for leadership
WSJ: What’s the stumbling block?
MS. SHIH: Here’s the thing about companies: They’re made up of people. Of course, there are people within the company who view technology and innovation as imperative. But there are also a lot of people, especially in big companies and especially in regulated companies – take any of the banks that Hearsay works with – whose job it is to minimize risk. We see this with Hearsay, too, where a chief marketing officer or a head of sales will say, this is great. Then somebody in compliance looks at it and because their mandate is to reduce risk they say no. That’s why companies can’t move forward. They kind of get stuck.
Unless CEOs personally take ownership for digital and innovation, it’s not going to happen, because there’s going to be an impasse with the people that want to go forward and the people that don’t.
WSJ: Any good examples of an older company that has transformed?
MS. SHIH: I saw many, and I’ll share one such story with you and that’s John Hancock Insurance. Traditionally, [insurance] was an entirely offline experience for everything from purchase to claims. The second issue is they don’t have frequent touch points. Most of the time you buy insurance and then you never hear or want to hear from the insurance company again until there’s a claim.
Last year, John Hancock partnered with a company called Vitality [owned by South Africa-based insurance company Discovery Ltd.] and they launched this new program in the U.S., where they provide free Fitbits to their insurance customers for the purpose of encouraging them and tracking how active they are. They realized that all the actuarial tables show that the more active you are, the longer you’ll live, the healthier you’ll be. They said, instead of being this passive assessor of risk, what if we became an active coach?
WSJ: How can other companies be more digitally oriented?
MS. SHIH: Every company wants to be innovative, they want to change. That’s why they come out and do these visits in Silicon Valley and they launch these innovation labs. Most of the time, it doesn’t work out.
It’s because there are two issues. One, the company culture was established to be very risk averse. Two, which is related to culture but is more process oriented, is that it’s hard to take an idea and operationalize it. Imagine having 200,000 employees and trying to get everyone to change direction. That’s a struggle that many companies face right now.
Original article published May 30, 2016, in The Wall Street Journal.