Professor Christopher Tucci tells us why prioritising digital transformation may be a matter of survival for all businesses
As a computer science researcher in the 1980s, Professor Christopher Tucci worked on the foundations of the internet and AI (artificial intelligence). His interests were varied enough that, alongside this, he even had a brief spell teaching a course on the literature of J. R. R. Tolkien.
It was while working in industrial computer science that his fascination with IT and how companies were developing their digital strategies was first sparked. His focus on this subject proved to be particularly well-judged, with the issue of innovation in the digital space – and how to go about it – dominating board rooms to this day.
“Once a new technology is out there, the first ones to adopt it become more efficient but once everyone has it, you don’t stand out, so then the question is how can you keep innovating?” he says.
Eventually, this interest in digital innovation and passion for teaching led him to academia, and he completed his PhD at MIT in 1997. Still, perhaps it's no surprise he describes his path to his current role as Professor of Digital Strategy & Innovation at Imperial College Business School as “pretty indirect”.
Amazon vs. the little guy
Twenty years ago, most companies were doing “absolutely nothing” to digitalise, Professor Tucci says, and he believes that for many businesses this remains the case.
“My sense is companies are almost paralysed because there’s so much happening right now,” he says. “They definitely feel they want to do something, but they don’t know where to start.”
“People talk a lot about big data for example, and everyone wants to have a big data strategy, but how many companies are really doing anything with their data? How many companies even have access to their data?”
The first step for many businesses, he points out, is liberating these data so they are able to use them in their strategy.
“I can understand why people are hesitating, but on the other hand, it may be better to throw yourself in and start playing around. I think that’s best practice.”
Everyone wants what Amazon was already good at
And we need look no farther than the present moment to see what a lack of digital strategy can mean for companies. With the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and ensuing lockdown, many businesses were hit particularly hard because they didn’t have an online presence. This meant that every little shop and restaurant had to scramble to be online in order to survive, while at the other end of the spectrum, Amazon has “taken off”.
Even more recently, as we settle into a version of the "new normal", this has remained crucial with physical supply chains flipped – possibly permanently – as a result of the e-commerce boom.
“Everyone wants what Amazon was already good at,” he says but companies “need to move” to achieve this.
Another of the issues businesses are facing as a result of COVID-19 is having a distributed workforce and in some cases, a workforce scattered around the globe. This poses problems such as how to keep employees motivated and how to give them goals, he says.
Time to move
Unfortunately, Professor Tucci explains, the result of all these challenges happening at once is that we’re likely to see more small businesses going under.
“The big companies might have enough cash on hand to play around and to experiment and figure out what works,” he says. “This will allow them to weather the storm.
“Then on the other hand, you have small companies, and they may not be in a financial position to react. For companies that hadn’t thought of a digital strategy before, it’s going to be tough to navigate now.
"With small businesses collectively employing a large number of people, this is a problem for society as a whole. One thing is for sure, he says, “Now is definitely the time to work on this and experiment with it.”
I can understand why people are hesitating, but on the other hand, it may be better to throw yourself in
Since joining the School in May 2020, Professor Tucci has been teaching courses in design thinking, digital strategy, and innovation management. In addition to his primary research area, looking into how firms make transitions to new business models, technologies, and organisational forms, he also studies crowdsourcing.
“I studied how firms adopted different technologies in the disk drive sector, how that affected their performance and I eventually got very interested in crowdsourcing and crowdsourcing platforms and how they were changing the nature of R&D,” he says. “I was always thinking about open innovation and how, as an element of an open innovation strategy, you could have internet participants solving your problem.”
This doesn’t always have to be about achieving monetary goals, he says, adding that it can equally be used to help with sustainability issues, for non-profits and other business models.
Much of Professor Tucci’s work involves engaging with other academics, while using real-world examples so companies can see how his work is relevant and useful to them.
This dialogue with business owners is essential because one of the many lessons companies have learnt – in some cases the hard way – is that the need for a sophisticated digital innovation strategy has become urgent.