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July 15, 2021
3 min read

David Linssen on why digital transformation is a misconception

David helps companies, large and small, to build a better understanding of their customer's needs. Alongside, he helps them master the tech landscape they are operating in and teaches how it can push their business models to the next level—ultimately giving their customers a better digital experience. We sat down to discuss his views on shifting businesses and his love-hate relationship with digital transformation

What is it that made you dislike the definition "digital transformation"?

I love it when I'm experiencing the magic of technology and the joy and delight it can bring. Plus, how it can help solve real problems for real human beings. I love embracing technology as long as it results in companies solving the actual problems their customers face.

On the other hand, what you see everywhere is companies using this so-called 'Digital Transformation' as a buzzword—throwing it around as an enabler of more bullshit projects. There's a lot of noise and fluff you have to break through. Innovation theatre, I hate that part.

We hate that too. But what is the most important thing for companies to consider before they embark on a digital driven transformation? 

Having strategic awareness of the landscape you're operating in. It's essential to understand the value chain of your business and the evolution of the components within that value chain. Don't optimise for what's possible today; skate to where the puck is going. Understand how technology components evolve and become commodities.

Too often, companies are burning too much cash on solving the wrong problems. Understand where you make the difference for your customers and focus your efforts there.

Give me one mistake that you see most companies make and are the easiest to be avoided?

Understand that organisations need to sustain multiple methods instead of standardizing their processes and thinking. So many organisations have gone through agile changeovers recently. Before you know it, you're ordering your pencils in an agile manner. Agile is fantastic when you need to experiment, uncover a user's needs. Not when dealing with the known and measurable. Not all processes need to be standardized. Mature and smart organisations understand the evolution of the parts in their value chain and use appropriate methods.

Remind yourself of your limitations also. If you're an airport, you really don't want to build your own music streaming service. Don't reinvent the wheel. Look at what people are using already and connect to that. Digital success isn't about the shiny stuff. Understand where you can really innovate and optimise to make a difference to your customers or audience.

You have been fire starting the Schiphol airport transformation, but you originally started in the TV industry. Is there some kind of similarity between the two?

From media to airports was a logical transition for me. Media and broadcast television were the domains that were digitally disrupted the earliest. Many sectors felt safe and shielded, but people in the media industry have gone through dealing with emerging tech 15/20 years before others. So we learned the hard way what can happen and how you can adapt as a company. Since then, I've studied the patterns of change and the best practices that help you thrive in a digital world, which was inevitably how I joined the Schiphol project. 

Many airports talk about digitization, but forget to start doing it. When working on the Amsterdam airport project, what was their trigger to start?

Back in 2013, Schiphol went through its innovation theatre phase. They had many smaller unsubstantial projects, which were focused on getting press releases and attention—enabling them to be perceived as innovative. Without providing any substantial value to their passengers. 

Then, Schiphol faced a problem: the predicted number of passengers expected over the next few years was way beyond the airport's physical capacity. Hence, there was a huge business incentive to speed up digital to offload the number of passengers in the physical space and transition them to a digital world. Having this key business driver made them want to deliver the 'best digital airport experience' in Europe.
The Schiphol business units wanted to go faster; the existing IT department wasn't delivering. It always felt weird to me that an airport that made its reputation providing a high standard experience for their passengers physically, yet when it came to the digital processes and customer journeys, they were making a mess.

I think a key reason for this poor quality was because everything was outsourced per vertical or per department. Each vertical had its own design party trying to reinvent the wheel, it was chaos and there was no organisation or process. Their traditional approach of strict guidelines simply wasn't working for them. 

How did you make the organisation and leadership commit to the task? How did you make the unimaginable imaginable and create buy-in? 

The first thing was to align key management on the whole concept. We had to create a top-line vision of howa digital savvy airport would operate. Until that point, a lot of the actual execution of existing digital channels was just left to separate divisions within the company. If you want to provide a consistent, coherent, and optimised experience to your consumers, moving away from this divisional structure is essential. 

We also had to redefine the focus of the business. To really innovate and help passengers, it was important to first focus on the practical stuff and then move into the commercial side. The weird thing is that Schiphol had this in their genes. When they originally designed and planned the airport, they did various studies throughout the US and Europe. The studies emphasised the importance of getting the practical stuff out of the way so that travellers could feel relaxed. They had the passenger-centric mentality before it even truly existed. We wanted to reignite that vision. So we took the same principles from the 60's and reapplied this to their digital touchpoints.

Is there any part of the mobility domain that is likely to follow the same steps? A domain that is ready for delivering more digitally enabled solutions for customers?

In comparison to the aviation industry, I see that rail is falling drastically behind. If we look at high-speed trains in Europe, it's a mess. When I go from Amsterdam to Rome I have to buy tickets from 3 train companies, why isn't there a unified system? Why isn't my journey guaranteed? This is something airports solved years ago. Rail is too focused on optimising nationally, not internationally. That's a problem I'd like to work on. 

What would you ask the next interviewee? 

Facing climate change, we need to move away from our growth mentality regarding commodity flights and mass travel. What opportunities does this change bring? How will this transform travel? How can we repurpose all the existing infrastructure? Because if you're struggling with digital transformation today, imagine what the impact of climate disruption will be tomorrow.