On 13 May 2022, the Board Leadership Center was pleased to welcome Johan Thijs, CEO at KBC, and Stéphanie Porteman, Connected Enterprise Lead at KPMG in Belgium, for an insightful and inspirational discussion on bringing digital transformation to the next level. This article summarizes the key takeaways for boards.


The pace of change is ever increasing. Companies no longer have years, or even months, to adapt to change – they have days or weeks, particularly when it comes to digital transformation. Yet over the past two years, companies have also proved to be resilient. For those that have not just survived, but thrived, what are they doing differently? How did they adapt and leverage digital technologies to build agility? 

The key is the customer. The most successful organizations invest around eight capabilities, which span all attributes of the customer experience. This results in a connected organization that goes beyond cross-channel interactions and is twice as likely to meet customer expectations, achieve its objectives and deliver return on investment[I]

Even before the pandemic or the study to identify these eight capabilities, KBC was pioneering a digital-first strategy, with largely the same pillars of success. For Johan Thijs, a successful digital transformation is not about technology; it’s about the customer and creating a product/service that is seamless, frictionless and hassle-free. 

Digital transformation is a journey. You will likely need to rethink your current processes – to move from a focus on product delivery to one that centers on the customer. However, you don’t need to do it alone. You can create an ecosystem of (carefully selected) partners to work with you along the way.  

Capabilities cube

Think differently

Digital transformation is not simply the digitization of current processes. Taking a 60-question survey and placing it online does not transform the customer experience. Instead, you need to inspire your teams and challenge them to “think differently” about what they are trying to achieve and how they can do it.

At KBC, for example, Johan Thijs asked his staff: How long does it take to confirm a mortgage today? This was years ago when it took upwards of 10 days to get a mortgage. He challenged his teams to reduce this to 10 seconds. How? By thinking differently, from a customer perspective, and simplifying the application and qualification process to its core: the payback capability of the customer.

To think differently about your business, first ask: What’s the essence of our product? What does it mean from our customers’ perspective? Then consider: how can we redesign the process to think differently and deliver our product/service quicker and more seamlessly? Only then can you start your digitalization journey.

Bring digital to the next level

KBC was a pioneer back in 2020 with its strategy “Differently – the next level”. Once you “think differently,” you go beyond the “automation of current ways of working” to transform your customer experience, and even your business model. With Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics as cornerstones of this strategy, KBC introduced Kate, their AI digital assistant to deliver a unique experience to customers – and now also to their own employees. 

Get inspired

In addition to anticipating what your competitors can do, look outside your own sector at what others are doing and how they’re doing it. How can you leverage those ideas to step back, rethink and redesign your processes to bring them to the next level? For example, look at Amazon – how were they able to offer same day delivery in 2009, while the standard postal system still cannot?

Think again about a mortgage – from the customer’s point of view. In today’s competitive housing market, getting a mortgage in 10 minutes or 10 days could mean the difference between getting the house they like or losing out to someone with an all-cash offer. Are you thinking about your processes and products/services through a customer-focused lens? Can you offer what your customers really need – before your competitors do?

Remember as well that just because something isn’t needed now, doesn’t mean it won’t be. The first Amazon Go store opened in 2018, at a time when it wasn’t necessary to have a cashierless shop. Then a global pandemic hit. 

Data is the new electricity

The value of data is in what you do with it. Innovation is only possible through data – and how you use it to anticipate the customer’s needs proactively, i.e. before they do.

Johan Thijs explained how at KBC, they use their customers’ data (with consent) to build new applications to meet their needs and to save them time, as well as money. And importantly, they never sell it. Data is a key success factor to understanding the customer; building and maintaining trust with their customers – so that they share their data – is paramount to that. 

Learn (when) to fail

Trial and error (or failure) is a part of innovation. For innovation and digital transformation to be successful, organizations need to create a culture of innovation – and an acceptance of the inevitable failures – from the top down. At the same time, a company cannot continually fail. Companies need to learn from their failures, and make sure they are not reproduced.

At KBC, they’ve addressed this with their Surf Studio – a place for experimentation of new technologies and ideas. Here, employees from across the organization (as innovation is an ecosystem and not siloed in one department) are empowered to test their ideas. However, only the successful ideas move into the investment and implementation phases.

Digitalization investments can be consequential. It is therefore important to start from a clear vision and integrate innovation and adaptation processes in the budget management, to monitor the return on your digital investments.

KBC invested massively years ago in Artificial Intelligence, Data Analytics and other front-running technologies and methodologies. They can now build on a strong foundation to adapt rapidly and continuously deliver new digital customer experiences.

It starts with you

A company’s digital transformation and innovation journey starts with the tone at the top – it starts with the CEO and the board. It also starts with the vision and strategy for the company. In today’s fast-paced world, a 10-year plan is no longer viable. At KBC, Johan Thijs updates his strategy at least every three years.

The strategy sets the foundation. From there, you (as a board) need to understand what’s changing in the world, in your market, in technology, and most importantly how your customers’ needs are changing – and adapt your strategy accordingly. This will help prepare you for the decisions concerning the investments in innovation the company will make. This is especially necessary when the short-term ROI is unclear, but where there is long-term value behind it.

At KBC, Johan Thijs runs quarterly trend-watching sessions with the supervisory board to keep them up to date on the latest evolutions. This provides inspiration and enables dialogue about future investments in innovation.

Finally, to help you in these decisions, ensure you understand what the innovation is and why you’re doing it. This story also needs to be brought clearly to the company’s employees to ensure they’re on board for the transformation journey, so that they can deliver and build upon it. 

About the Board Leadership Center

KPMG’s Board Leadership Center (BLC) offers non-executive and executive board members – and those working closely with them – a place within a community of board-level peers. Through an array of insights, perspectives and events – including topical seminars and more technical Board Academy sessions – the BLC promotes continuous education around the critical issues driving board agendas.



I. Source: A commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of KPMG, September 2018.

Base: 1,299 professionals involved with customer-centric strategy decisions.