‘Start small,

with little steps’


Microsoft has been successfully surfing the wave of digital transformation for decades, abroad and in the Netherlands. But how does the company help its clients go digital?

What is the best moment to move a patient from intensive care to a normal nursing ward? Pacmed, a start-up doing smart data analysis for hospitals, is helping staff predict that time, ensuring that patients are safe while potentially making substantial savings on the most expensive form of hospital care. This is just one of dozens of examples that Ernst-Jan Stigter will pull out of his sleeve when you ask him about companies successfully exploiting digital opportunities.

Microsoft Nederland’s chief executive will also tell you about Albert Heijn. With the help of AI technology from Microsoft, the supermarket chain is predicting customer shopping behaviour and personalising special offers. Meanwhile, at the Johan Cruijff ArenA, smart sensors monitor the beautiful game’s grass, warning in plenty of time when it needs sun, water or even wind. 'Thanks to this sensor, we know that wind is crucial,’ says Stigter. ‘Ajax used to wear out the grass at the beginning of every year, usually because it lacked sufficient wind. We know this thanks to digital technology.’ But all such digital breakthroughs, Stigter is convinced, are based on human cooperation.

What does digital transformation mean to you?

‘We believe digital transformation consists of four dimensions, both for ourselves and for our customers. How do you create the optimal working environment to attract the best talent while providing opportunities for growth to retain existing members of staff?’

Ernst-Jan Stigter

Ernst-Jan Stigter (47) is sinds 2016 algemeen directeur van Microsoft Nederland. Hij werkt sinds 1999 bij Microsoft, in diverse managementfuncties in onder meer sales, marketing en operations. Stigter is sinds vorig jaar plaatsvervangend lid van de SER, daarnaast is hij voorzitter van Nederland ICT en lid van het dagelijks bestuur van VNO-NCW.

Should an organisation tackle all four parts at once?

‘No, because you can’t do everything at once. There is a logical sequence, and companies often begin with the third part because it seems easiest. Of course, it is relatively straightforward to use digitalisation to make internal processes leaner, faster and more efficient. At some point, you reach the optimal position and have made measurable improvements. That’s all well and good, but it won’t make you into a big hitter. If that’s your goal, you need to start by focusing on the fourth part, addressing new markets and launching innovative products and services. Or you could start with the first dimension, attracting digital talent and educating your current employees. We now see that companies are increasingly working on these dimensions.’

But shouldn’t your first step be to formulate a digital strategy?

‘Ideally, yes. But it sounds like a huge deal. You do need to dare to think big and look far ahead, but you can also think small in the beginning. Just start with a practical analysis and some minor, tangible digital adjustments. Then you will be more likely to bring your workforce with you. That’s another reason not to start with big thinking and strategising: until recently, you could initiate extensive digitalisation projects that would take a few years. But now, the level of disruption is so great that this is no longer possible. Tunnel vision and keeping the status quo only slows things down. You need to be agile, making little steps, with small teams.’

‘It is a director’s duty
and responsibility
to bring employees
into your

digital vision’

And that means you can sometimes fail?

‘Of course! I would even go as far to say that you should fail. You need to get started, test your progress, but also every month you should make a ‘top 10’ of things that went wrong. If you don’t find 10, then you are not changing hard enough! Together, you need to learn what works and what doesn’t: this is the only way to build your employees’ digital learning capacity. Don’t forget that trying out new things can be fun and inspiring for most of your workers. Curiosity is one of the most important raw materials for success, and this also applies to digital transformation.’

How do you tackle all this within Microsoft Nederland?

‘We try to grab every chance for digital acceleration. For example, in the past year we have used our Schiphol head office renovation as an opportunity for positive change. During the renovation, we encouraged our employees to work at customer and partner premises or to base themselves at flexible work spaces where they would have more contact with the outside world. The problem that we did not have an office became our opportunity to work as a network organisation.’

How did that feel?

‘Really good. It is very easy to work together virtually using modern technology and we will continue to do this in our renovated building. Around 70 percent of our space is now set up for employees to work together physically with customers and partners – something that happens a lot. This is how all kinds of new ecosystems spontaneously emerge. We have switched from our ‘new way of working’ to the idea of a ‘new collaboration’ which helps our customers prosper and our employees learn. We have just completed a series of ‘Partner Weeks’, where we invited in 400 partners to discover new solutions and markets with us. Once again, they were learning from each other.’

‘The status quo

only slows things down'

Are your employees also quicker to develop digital initiatives now?

‘Yes. I have a good example from our company restaurant. On average, about 350 of our thousand Dutch employees have lunch at the office, and the kitchen produces about 70 kilos of waste per week. We all thought that this was a lot, so recently a few employees put their heads together and started looking at a few data sources. We can easily measure how many people are in the building, for example using WiFi data. We linked this with restaurant cash registers and current weather data. This meant we could analyse how hot or cold it was when people bought certain meals, and on which days. By using this data, the kitchen can now buy in a far more focused way, and the amount of weekly waste has decreased by 70%. This is just one small example that shows how you can gain interesting insights by linking data streams.’

How do you reassure employees that they won’t be automated out of a job?

‘Research tells us that the status quo is most people’s best friend, and they prefer to keep it close. They often argue against things simply to avoid change, and this is obviously a real danger for every organisation. So you certainly should not force and threaten them, but you do have to inspire those employees to change. It is a director’s duty and responsibility to bring employees into your digital vision, to support them with training and to place them where they will really flourish. That is the art of leadership. Fortunately, almost everyone realises that you can no longer spend 25 years in the same job.’


Sector: ICT | Product: Software and hardware, cloud services | Workforce: 135,000 worldwide | Active in: 122 countries | Turnover 2018: $110.4 billion | Net profit 2018: $16.6 billion

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