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Andy Canham is the president of SAP Canada. Tony Olvet is group vice-president of research at IDC Canada.

By now the buzzwords are familiar: artificial intelligence, machine learning, the internet of things, big data, blockchain. While most people have a vague sense of the potential impact these technologies will have, Canadian business leaders must turn potential into results.

A wave of change is washing over business, and the implications are significant. As Canadian enterprises face the challenges of new global competition, shifting customer demands, economic uncertainty and an ever-quickening cycle of innovation, decision-makers must build a digital transformation road map.

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Digital transformation is the application of the aforementioned technologies to fundamentally change the way something is done. The outcomes are new approaches to creating, selling, delivering or even consuming products or services. This can range from enhancing banking services on a mobile device to predicting and preventing inventory shortages or even improving the way we order a cup of coffee.

But how do you move a business beyond institutional inertia?

As organizational leaders look to improve their own businesses, it is critical to go beyond general trends and examine how technology has created an opportunity for every employee to be part of this revolution by becoming a digital change agent – even individuals who’ve never glanced at a line of code.

The pervasiveness of cloud computing is a good example of how technology has been transformed from a concern of the IT department to something employees company-wide are utilizing to optimize efficiency. When a business is cloud-based, there is suddenly an ocean of usable data, partners and IT vendors are only a step away, software can be fired up at the touch of a button and collaboration is business-focused rather than IT-focused.

In a cloud-enabled business, HR teams can work on machine-learning projects such as auto-filtering candidates. Operations teams can engross themselves in internet of things projects such as fitting out equipment with sensors to optimize maintenance schedules. Finance teams can do ambitious big data and AI projects. And the procurement department can navigate its way onto a digital supplier network.

This kind of self-sufficient digitization across an organization is what executives were thinking of when they said “every business is now a technology business,” in response to a report conducted by IDC Canada. We’ve entered an era in which a business’s technologies and processes are so tightly linked to its customers and markets that the boundary between internal operations and the external ecosystem (customers, markets, partners) is disappearing.

As these lines blur, it’s important to remember that digital transformation is a balancing act that requires both offensive and defensive consideration or accelerating and stabilizing factors. Accelerating factors are tied to enhancing customer experience, revenue, growth and other indicators of progress, while stabilizing factors help organizations manage risk, security, compliance and other hurdles.

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As Canadian business leaders adapt to the digital economy, organizations will need to choose between weathering the storm, developing digital transformation competencies and becoming a disruptor or a fast follower of disruptors.

But whichever path they take, executives must empower digital change agents within organizations to step up. This means providing department heads, IT leaders and employees all along the chain the space and opportunity to harness the power of data to drive business value, inform internal processes, improve the customer experience and ultimately foster innovation in an ever more competitive global market.

Becoming a digital change agent invariably means pushing through bureaucracy, convincing skeptical naysayers, being energetic and knowledgeable and having a plan to make it happen. It also means building a team, as lone wolves don’t tend to do successful digital transformation projects. None of these are easy to do, which is why genuine digital change agents are hard to come by.

The more businesses suffer from a culture of inertia and digital apprehension, the more highly valued these digital change agents will be. Transformation leaders must be aware of failing to understand the practicality of a potential project and should be wary of marketers portraying their products as simple guarantees of success. Decision-makers must draw on IT partners for their knowledge and experience and can’t be afraid to engage with new sources of IP and talent, including startups, incubators, associations and universities.

As Canadian enterprises face the challenges of a new frontier, fuelled by data and the onslaught of new competition and evolving customer expectations, embracing digital technologies must be a deliberate and thoughtful process, driven by business strategy and enabled by technology.

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