Introduction to Seven Key Insights

Zeynep Aksehirli (Northeastern University, USA)
Yakov Bart (Northeastern University, USA)
Kwong Chan (Northeastern University, USA)
Koen Pauwels (Northeastern University, USA)

Break the Wall: Why and How to Democratize Digital in Your Business

ISBN: 978-1-80382-188-7, eISBN: 978-1-80382-185-6

Publication date: 14 December 2022


Aksehirli, Z., Bart, Y., Chan, K. and Pauwels, K. (2022), "Introduction to Seven Key Insights", Break the Wall: Why and How to Democratize Digital in Your Business (American Marketing Association), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 1-7.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2023 Zeynep Aksehirli, Yakov Bart, Kwong Chan and Koen Pauwels

Late one afternoon in New York, we listened to a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) complain about the lack of progress in his company’s digital transformation. “I don’t get it” he sighs,

we spend years getting all our data together in a lake and hiring the best data scientists to analyze it. Despite millions invested, I just don’t see any impact on our business. What can I do?

“Well”, we answered politely, “we just spent the day in your beautiful skyscraper building and noticed the data scientists all live on one floor and don’t even have lunch at the same place as the managers. Talking to each, we noticed decision makers and data scientists had little interaction, yet plenty of stereotypes about each other. How do you expect the data science to influence the decision makers, and vice versa, if you have yet to manage the human factor? We recommended ensuring close cooperation between the business units demanding, and the data scientists delivering the digital goods.” A year later, we were happy to see middle management and data scientists engaging closely in fast feedback cycles, answering business questions and improving tactics for the company’s customers. Unfortunately, they were less happy with top management and information systems, as they perceived a lack of strategic support. “Where is the strategic vision?,” “What are our swimming lanes?” and “How is leadership ensuring the whole organization and each of our careers improves with data-driven decision making?” are some of the comments we heard. High time to get back to the CEO to advise him anew.

As these experiences show, digital transformation is not easy, and means different things to different people and at different levels in the organization. Even the academic literature lacks a common definition, with most focusing on shiny new technologies.1 However, digital transformation is an organizational transformation that changes how an organization employs digital technologies.2 Indeed, a key observation we saw across industries and continents is that the entire organization is changing, not just the interfaces with customers. Structures, processes, workflow and decision rights are being transformed by digitization. Digital and social can be leveraged to generate new insights about employees and customers but more importantly to give them the tools to connect with each other and further the organization’s goals. Done right, digital transformation not only enriches customer experience and the company’s bottom line, but also enhances the lives of employees by complementing and replacing norms, and furthers science as more collaborative, open and global.3 Unfortunately, only 11% of global Chief Marketing Officers believe that they have completed their digital transformation.4 Therefore, this book focuses on practical tools and frameworks that readers can apply in the technology, marketing, strategy, structure and cultural aspects of their organization, no matter the size or industry.

Who are we to share insights with you about this challenge? As business professors in marketing and organizational behavior, we have consulted several companies, both separately and together as part of the DATA (Digital, Analytics, Technology and Automation) Initiative at Northeastern University. We analyzed and published research on metrics and big data, organizational growth pains, social media and mobile shopping behavior, and how to nurture data-driven decision making. We wrote books on both the methods and the implementation of digital transformation, as we realized already a decade ago that “It’s not the Size of the Data, It’s How You Use It” ( Since that time, we have interacted across four continents with hundreds of managers, analysts and data scientists as executive education and MBA instructors, and in positions such as the President of the American Marketing Association Academic Council and the Vice President of Practice for the Information Systems and Management Science Organization. Our clients include global brands, fast-growing startups, consumer and business product and service providers, big tech firms and media companies. For this book alone, we interviewed dozens of senior data scientists and managers, many of whom gave us permission to share the full interview in Chapter 8. Totaling over a century of combined experience, they work in such industries as apparel, construction, ethics and data literacy consultancy, furniture, lingerie, software services, sports and technology. One central question kept coming back: how do we “break the wall” in digital transformation by democratizing digital data and insights and embedding this learning in our organization?

The answers to this central question led us to seven big insights, which form the basis for the structure of this book:

  • (1)

    Start with the vision and integrative framework for digital transformation (Chapter 2).

  • (2)

    Adopt a comprehensive and dynamic process for setting relevant business goals of your transformation (Chapter 3).

  • (3)

    Identify the gaps through deep analysis of your current situation (Chapter 4).

  • (4)

    Hire the right new talent and upgrade current talent (Chapter 5).

  • (5)

    Align moving parts of management, information technology (IT) and business in your culture (Chapter 6).

  • (6)

    Implement by democratizing digital tools and manage for expectations (Chapter 7).

  • (7)

    Learn from others’ experiences across industries and job titles (Chapter 8).

The first insight is eloquently expressed by our interviewed data literacy expert Rahul Bhargava:

In digital transformation the agency is on digital, not on the thing being transformed. But when you integrate something there are two parties. What is the other one in your case? I would encourage you to think about that question because you could have a lot of answers that are all valid, but which one you care about most can guide you into a terminology that better reflects your ideas and what’s the thing being transformed.

Second, on explicit and business relevant goals, Jon Hay of the Red Sox told us:

Sometimes, especially in the IT world people get distracted by shiny objects and find that there’s a really interesting challenge that will take a long time, but maybe not be that impactful. I think part of my job as the president in the department is to have those frank conversations: “Here are other things that are coming from people in your department, or adjacent to you. How do we think about what the priority order is? And by the way, how can we maybe align some of these things for more efficiency?”

Third, analyzing gaps came back in multiple interviews:

Sometimes people do not know what they should be looking for, they have tons of dashboards shared but don’t know where to start. They are not clear on which dashboard or tool should be used. They’ve got three BI tools, one of them has 80% of the data, the other one has 15% of that data and the other one has 10% with different overlaps. Data needs to get filtered and sorted to where it is coming from, the trust issues around the data need to be solved.

Fourth, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Although many leaders seek the benefits of digital transformation, they are not prepared to pay the costs. These costs typically consist of training existing talent and hiring new, specialized talent. One interviewee told us:

When I’m hiring, I’m filling a very specific need because we want to build out the department. I’m looking for someone that can do a very specific thing very well and that’s where it starts to get tricky. Our industry doesn’t always pay well but had some perks, which have become less valuable with the pandemic. Now you’re competing for technical talent that knows what they’re worth, and they can go to literally anywhere, regardless of location. It’s actually been an effort for us to convince our senior executives – “Hey look, if you want these sorts of people, to hire data architects you gotta pay market rate.”

Fifth, aligning different parts of the organization is key, as shown for ethical issues by Cansu Canca, Founder & Director, of the AI Ethics Lab:

I think now, finally, organizations/companies are realizing that there are ethical issues and they have to deal with them, preferably from the beginning. But I can still not say that they are doing it right. I think the good part is that now there’s more awareness. They are putting in place dedicated teams, so that is a big plus. Previously it was only grassroots, and that didn’t go anywhere because the leadership was not interested. Now, there is an interest from the leadership and there’s grassroots interest. And they are trying. I mean, I think both of these aspects, both the leadership and the grassroots are coming together.

While Rahul Bhargava noted:

When I think about power, I think about the ability to authentically engage and change the circumstances for oneself or for a community that they’re involved in. That typically for me is trying to democratize rather than centralize power. If we look at most businesses that have succeeded in various forms of what one calls digital adoption or transformation, they often have a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches. When you see things like rich media document editing 30 years ago or smartphones, they are two examples that came more from the bottom-up approach where people brought those tools into the workplace and the workplace adapted to support and augment and take partial ownership of those tools to the point where you’ll see mobile tool adoption from the top down and you’ll see it pushed from the bottom up.

Sixth, it is important to implement by democratizing digital tools and manage for expectations:

I like things where you have a giant screen in the same room where a lot of people are working on the same thing being represented on the screen. So, there’s like a shared ownership of what feels like a mirror for us and not a window of somebody looking down at us from outside. That mirror is an example of a version that creates a very different narrative. If we’re seeing all of our work up there, then there’s a sense of shared ownership that could be cultivated. So sometimes there’s like social changes that are very small that work within business language and structure and then having something that talks about that not in a punitive way, but like, oh okay, here’s a trend we’re seeing, help me understand this trend. But not here’s a trend we’re seeing you need to work harder on. So much of it is just social.

Finally, it is so much cheaper to learn from others’ experiences (successes and failures) than from your own! Therefore, we share with you the insights from executives in the midst of digital transformation in transcripts of the top 10 interviews in Chapter 8.

Let’s start the journey!

Key Takeaways

Are you aiming to:

  • (1)

    Get measurable results from your digital transformation efforts?

  • (2)

    Align top management, IT and business leaders in your organization?

  • (3)

    Democratize the use of digital tools and opportunities across your company?

  • (4)

    Understand and apply a coherent framework for digital transformation?

Have you experienced:

  • (1)

    Resistance against digital transformation in your organization?

  • (2)

    Recruiting and retention issues of top talent?

  • (3)

    Low return on investment from buying digital tools and hiring data scientists?

  • (4)

    Frustration with the slow pace of progress toward the digital transformation goals?

Then this book is for you!



Fitzgerald, M., Kruschwitz, N., Bonnet, D., & Welch, M. (2014). Embracing digital technology: A new strategic imperative. MIT Sloan Management Review, 55(2), 2.


From Verhoef, P. C., Broekhuizen, T., Bart, Y., Bhattacharya, A., Dong, J. Q., Fabian, N., & Haenlein, M. (2021). Digital transformation: A multidisciplinary reflection and research agenda. Journal of Business Research, 122, 889–901.


Kraus, S., Schiavone, F., Pluzhnikova, A., & Invernizzi, A. C. (2021). Digital transformation in healthcare: Analyzing the current state-of-research. Journal of Business Research, 123, 557–567.