To Digitally Transform, Think like Clive Davis

If you’re a music fan you probably know the name Clive Davis. If you’re not though – and heaven help you - Clive Davis is one of the most successful music producers and record industry executives of all time. He’s worked with a who’s who of rock and pop musicians from Janis Joplin to Rod Stewart to Whitney Houston over the last 50 years. Now 85, he’s still in the game and is the Chief Creative Officer of Sony Music Entertainment. By any measure of success and longevity, in what is after all an extremely precarious and fickle business, Davis has earned his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

What you may be wondering though does the archetypal A&R man have to do “digital transformation”? Well, let me explain ...

The “digital” alarm bell has been going off (literally and figuratively) now for 20 + years. The transition to the cloud, the slow decline of ERP, the rise of Google and Apple and Amazon, the primacy of “consumer IT”, the move to Agile and Containers, the awakening to the power of data, the importance of design thinking – none of these things are new, and yet in the second half of 2017 many, many organizations are still struggling to master them, let alone leverage them to thrive in markets changing all around them faster than ever.

The question is, why? The answer – in my humble opinion – is because the executives running these organizations don’t think like Clive Davis.

Clive Davis’s success can be put down, in no small measure, to his ability to separate his own personal tastes from the tastes of the market. As an octogenarian, Davis probably favors Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett when he’s doing the dishes or mowing the lawn (as if). But when he’s working he’s listening like an 18 year old and can hear the magic in Lil Uzi Vert or Rex Orange County - music that to his contemporaries must sound like the aural equivalent of a dislocated shoulder. Or at least the decline and fall of western civilization.

Davis recognizes that he is not the target audience; that the music is not aimed at him and has nothing to say to him. He knows that he wouldn’t buy the music. But yet he can still make judgments about its quality and its commercial appeal. And he can do this precisely because he knows that the music isn’t being made for him.

This is the mistake that is hampering so many executives in so many businesses facing the onslaught of change being rendered by digital technology. They don’t personally like the new generation of technology and technology mediated solutions and they don’t appreciate that the new technology/solutions aren’t aimed at them.

Twitter is ridiculous. Facebook is for egotistical blowhards. What even is Snap? Why do my kids spend so much time on it? Social media is destroying a generation. We can’t do this transaction on-line because of the threat of hackers. Pokémon Go? Give me a break. Virtual Reality? What are these guys on? The Cloud? But we’ve got a data center. Monetize our customer’s data? Why? Isn’t that illegal? How does this Slack thing even work? What’s wrong with email?

To the average 50 year old, running an insurance company, a bank, an airline, a retailer, contemporary technology, contemporary business approaches, and contemporary norms are the commercial equivalent of Lil Uzi Vert – terrible, ugly, ridiculous, not nearly as good as the things we listened to aka the technology solutions we built and used.

These executives fail to see that they are not the target audience. That new solutions shouldn’t be built for their contemporaries but for their kids. They fail to separate their own personal tastes from the tastes of the where the market is going.

Doing this – separating your own personal judgments from those of the market – is terribly hard (hence why so few executives can do it). It’s tough for people who have ascended slippery career ladders to admit they don’t know something. It’s tough for them to even contemplate that they are “aging out”. That they are no longer “hip to the hop”, in touch, on fleek. But mostly it’s hard to admit – privately to yourself let alone publically to your staff/boss/board – that you’re no longer that interested in something and that you don’t really like x or y.

To truly grasp the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution you’ve got to really love it – and everything about it. Or, if you can’t, you’ve got to surround yourself with people who do. In Clive Davis’s case, A&R people who trawl the clubs and Soundcloud and YouTube and Spotify and SXSW. In your case digital whisperers from Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work.

So next time you’re in a meeting with your team trying to inch forward with your digital transformation initiative, remember to think like Clive Davis. Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about the next generation and the stupid things they’re interested in. Play your Sinatra or Costello or Counting Crows tunes all you like at home. But don’t pretend that, now that you have the turn table (aka the digital transformation budget) the kids are going to dig what you all say. They ain’t lit with that.