Moving from purveyor of the printed word to bringing information to life

By Lynette Whiley

It’s no secret that the internet has disrupted many business models.  A prime example is the publishing industry which, not unlike the retail industry has been thoroughly disrupted by the internet and the increased demand for digital methods of connecting with customers along with the associated metrics for measuring ROI.

ITWorld Canada (ITWC) is a privately-owned company, founded in 1979.  Its roots are in print, publishing iconic titles such as CIO Canada, Computer World and Network World to name a few.  In 2011, Fawn Annan, then President and now CEO announced to her management that in order to survive and thrive, they would have to retire their print business.  Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the company was about to embark on a digital transformation journey.


Digital Transformation (DX) is a three-phase process.  

Step 1 is to digitize – convert all manual or paper records, data or processes into a digital format. 

Step 2 is called digitalization – using available digital technologies to automate processes and use the resulting digitized information to affect business outcomes.  Included here is introducing technology into existing processes to optimize value.

Step 3 is where digital transformation happens.  It’s the further layering of Step 2 digitalized processes to achieve enterprise-wide automation that spans multiple functions.  This facilitates modernizing current processes and the supporting infrastructure to achieve what was previously unattainable or unimaginable.  


Intrinsic to the success of digital transformation (DX) is leadership’s awareness that DX is more about organizational change than it is about technology.  And organizational change is about changing culture.

Annan’s 16-year tenure (24 years in 2019) with ITWC meant that she had deep, first-hand experience of an ingrained hierarchical culture and the foresight to recognize the need for an outside business partner who would bring a new set of eyes and solutions to effect the required change.  Jim Love began his tenure at ITWC as a technical advisor – he is now the chief content officer and CIO and Annan’s business partner. He proved to be the perfect catalyst. Together these two people have built a company culture that has been and will continue to be, transformational.

Annan and Love have written a book, Digital Transformation in the First Person that documents the journey they embarked on following that fateful day in 2011.  The book goes in-depth into a recount of the deliberate, sometimes painful steps that ITWC took to transform their business.  It’s a worthy read for any company that is looking for practical experience as they develop their strategy in this new digital world.  Annan is clear that the imperative for successful transformation is “to understand the true value of your organization, find the intersection of your passion and areas of greatest ability.”  

Hierarchy, Empowerment and Data-informed Decisions.  The once 100-strong workforce is now closer to 40.  Physical footprint has been reduced and, in the process, the outdated seniority-gets-you-an-office concept, eliminated.  The org chart is significantly flatter. As a result, decision making is no longer the traditional approach of an army general who only talks to his lieutenants who only talk to the foot soldiers.  Gone is the associated “do it because I say so” edict. Employees are empowered to identify solutions to problems, and they are not punished for failures (unless said failure is repeated of course!).  The company is, in fact, agile. The interesting part is that some employees resisted the switch to no offices, some resisted the lack of a title – titles plus offices gives status, shows progression in one’s career and within the company.  Some resisted having to argue for change using data and not just sheer force of will. Some employees left the company.

One of the things that Annan and Love recognized early on is the need for passionate, engaged humans who, if they didn’t know how to do something were quite eager to learn and become experts.  Love was responsible for instilling a disciplined data-based mindset. Every request for change was questioned and those that were supported with data, were prioritized. For a long time, whiteboards had a permanent imprint of this: You want this (function)……… so that you can do this ……… (measurable business result).

Customer focus.  Companies that get past the challenges that come with DX, do not pivot just on financial data.  They listen closely to their customers and carefully watch for reactions to changes in product or service.

Customers come in two forms for this publisher: their advertising clients and their readers. Loyal employees aside, the most unique asset that ITWC have is their database and their highly valuable, long-standing relationships with customers.  ITWC found that digitizing their printed publications (DX Step 1) did not replace rapidly declining revenue. Readers quickly lost interest in a replication of the printed product, and clients demanded more meaningful performance data if they were to continue investing.  The IT department was instrumental in using technology to find solutions that were of value to the customer. Not automation mind you, rather an optimal combination of technology and process to achieve success (DX Step 2 and 3). Today ITWC have an immeasurable knowledge of their customer base and have successfully protected it from becoming commoditized.

Organizational cultures used to be set up to be effective managers of customers.  Today the customer is now in control, they are no longer manageable and the challenge to all companies is to view their company through the eyes of the customer.  To immerse themselves in the customer journey (not just put it down on a powerpoint slide) is to begin to understand what the customer really finds to be of value.  To immerse yourself is to be able to identify the unspoken, unmet need of the customer which then enables a meaningful transformation.  

The second wave of Digital Transformation is upon us, and it will arrive with and an impact and at a speed that will make the last decades look like they moved in slow motion — while the future is uncertain and undoubtedly different,  we can learn something from those who have confronted the first wave of digital disruption”, says Love.  


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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