Having defined and scoped digital projects, or indeed a total transformation agenda, only a few very large, mature organisations are likely to have all the skills internally that are needed to execute.

If you’re in the great majority that will need external help, this third part in the series on digital leadership provides tips on how to select the right digital business partners for your organisation.

There are several types of roles and skill sets you may need on your digital journey.
This article considers three of them:

1. Senior, strategic advisor – an independent, experienced, totally objective individual who provides periodic, strategic input typically through a Steering Committee or Advisory Board.

2. Consultants – subject matter experts who work closely with your staff, often in teams, in areas such as business case development, process re-design, customer experience mapping and design, digital supply chain re-engineering, change management etc.

3. Digital agencies – digital specialists who build customer technology interfaces eg. mobile applications, websites, social media campaigns, digital advertising etc.
Whilst these are distinct roles, there are some aspects of partner selection that are common good practice. Indeed, they are no different from selecting a professional partner in any other area of your business.

Key questions include:

• Do they genuinely have the technical expertise and experience we need?

• Are they conflict free – not just with competitors but in any incentive to drive a particular outcome because it may deliver their firm further work eg. towards a proprietary technology?

• Do they have the right cultural fit with our organisation?

• Do they have the time and commitment level to be a true partner with your success at heart? Each of the three roles above has further, more specific attributes to look for.
Senior, strategic advisor

In many ways, this role is akin to a short-term NED appointment but with a narrower focus. As this will be an individual, their precise experience, business orientation and availability has even higher importance. Boards sometimes tend towards finding someone they trust from within their existing networks for such roles.


Unless you have a clear standout who fits the bill, resist this approach. Look further afield for someone with a genuinely different background and perspective. Personal attributes to balance include; supportive but not a rubber stamp, challenging but not too radical, big picture v detail and confident but not arrogant. Be very diligent on reference checking and request full disclosure of their competing time commitments.


Selecting consultants for digital projects is no different to any other. Keys to a successful outcome are clarity of expectation and fulfilment of obligations by both parties.

This means:

  • Having very clear objectives, scope and deliverables (if they evolve from the initial terms of an RFP, it doesn’t matter as long as both parties are clear on what they sign up for)
  • Testing the knowledge and experience of the team through interactive dialogue, not pre-prepared presentation pitches (and of course, reference checking)
  • Meeting the whole team, not just the partners. Ask them, preferably one-on-one, what concurrent commitments they have – you should have comfort from the outset that each team member can meet their time commitment to you
  • Ensuring that you, as the client, also make realistic commitments and stick to them. If you commit three people to working at least 3 days per week each, ensure they do – no excuses. If you commit to reviewing draft documents within 48 hours, ensure you do. Don’t fool yourselves.
  • Whoever the ultimate sponsor is, they must set the tone from the top regarding the project’s importance.

Digital agencies

The digital agency landscape is highly fragmented and very crowded with a bewildering array of options. Choosing the right partner(s) can be a complex exercise yet making the right choice is critical not only for the project(s) itself but because any perceived “failure” gives ammunition to sceptics or naysayers and can therefore jeopardise future projects from proceeding. As with consultants, internal clarity on your needs is a key foundation for success.

Before identifying potential partners, be clear on your:

  • Digital strategy and vision (and how it dovetails with broader business strategy and goals)
  • Management structure and governance including “ownership of digital” • Existing digital activities and technology deployments/preferences
  • Key internal and external stakeholders to the project and its interfaces
  • Existing technical/digital resources and capabilities
  • Procurement and supplier management processes
  • Approaches to risk management, project governance, compliance and security
  • Culture

This preparation need not be as onerous as it might appear. It doesn’t necessarily all need to be documented as long as these aspects are known and can be articulated. In particular, a good, realistic understanding of your cultural environment and hence the appropriate partner fit, is critical.

For example, an organization might have a flat structure and operate in a highly collaborative way but with an average staff age of 42 and generally low technology nous; say, a not-for-profit. In such a case, a highly technical team of 23 year-olds is unlikely to be an optimal fit.

In making such assessments, you must be very honest about your organization, not just the candidates. This is one area where a well informed senior advisor as described above can add real value.

When you get to the point of engaging an agency, the following should all be considered:

  • Desired specialisations and services eg. eCommerce solutions, UX/design, social media etc.
  • Previous work/client references
  • Technology partner/reseller status eg. Microsoft, Adobe, Sitecore, Salesforce etc.
    Industry experience (if relevant)
  • Use of offshoring services
  • Company size, financials, structure etc.
  • Company culture eg. contributions to industry, investment in staff training, workforce diversity etc. “You must be very honest about your organization, not just the candidates.”

One practical way of assessing cultural fit is to include an extended, interactive workshop of say 3-4 hours as part of the agency selection process. Even if you pay a small amount of money for their participation, the investment will be worth it.

Once all the right internal and external resources are in place, even if an initial program scope and charter have been established, the program needs to be locked down and then delivered. The fourth part in this series provides advice on those specific nuances of delivering a digital project or program that warrant particularly close attention.

*This eight part series is sponsored by Expert360

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