Driving Digital Transformation
“Digital, Digitization, Digital, Digital, Digital Transformation. There, I’ve hit my mandatory quota of 5 digital mentions for my presentation, now we can get to something interesting.”
That was my opening line at a large data center and cloud conference in Rome. It wasn’t the one I’d planned, but I had just spent a day listening to my executive colleagues from around the industry wax philosophically about ‘digital’ with no mention of how, why, or what. No call to action, no roadmap, no substance. The previous presenter was sitting front row center with his jaw wide open when I finished the sentence. He’d had digital-this, digital-that, as the title for every slide in his deck. Sorry, not sorry.
I haven’t watched ‘Game of Thrones’ but I imagine ‘Winter is Coming’ might be similar to the way ‘Digital Transformation’ gets thrown around. ‘Um yeah, it’s this thing, it’s on it’s way, it’s already happening in some places. Everyone knows what it is, definitely, for sure.’ Let’s agree that: it is a thing, it is happening, and it is coming in stronger waves. From there let’s look at what it is, where it’s coming from, and how it can be embraced.
Let’s rewind to the beginning of widespread Information Technology adoption. We’ll go back to the early days of networked computing and use the adoption of email systems as an example. As a company adopted email systems for the first time, they were dipping their toe into digital transformation. Paper based systems and analog based voice calls were converted to a digital medium. What that was doing under the surface was creating business value through technology adoption. That is the key to digital transformation.
Theoretically if there were two companies in the same industry and one was first to deploy and adopt an email system, they’d have a competitive advantage. The advantage of speed and agility. The hidden key phrase of the sentence being adopt. Deploying an email system wasn’t enough. They had to drive adoption, incorporate it into their process and modify work flows to take advantage of it.
As technology became commonplace a shift occurred behind the scenes. Information Technology (IT) moved from a value-creation center to a cost-center. Technology purchase decisions moved from ‘what can it do for the business’ to how much money can we save doing the same thing. IT sales conversations shifted to circular conversations about return-on-investment (ROI), and sales cycles began incorporating any number of questionable ROI calculations.
Now comes Digital Transformation with all it’s hype being treated as something new. It’s not. Like most everything in technology it’s circular. We’re at a technology inflection point where IT can move back into the ‘what can it do for the business’ seat. Digital Transformation is simply using emerging technology and new IT operational models to drive new value streams for the business or mission. No more, no less.
Several things are coming together at once to form the catalyst of this shift. New technologies like big data, and AI. New consumption models like mobile first compute users. And new delivery models like cloud which provide an extremely low compute entry cost and a scale up model as a company grows. Uber is one of the most touted examples of combining these things to create market disruption, which is just silicon valley’s term of the week for transformation.
Uber is an example I like, and not in the doom and gloom ‘disrupt or be disrupted’ way people love to use them. The question I ask my customers is different: ‘If you were the taxi companies three years before Uber launched, and you had the idea for an Uber like app, could you have executed on it? Would your IT infrastructure and organization been able to build and adopt the new model?’ Universally the answer is no.
The first stage of digital transformation is modernizing the technology delivery stack into a system that provides agility. Agility to test out new ideas, agility to fail and try again. Agility to deploy the bright ideas that your organization comes up with. The world moves fast, the longer it takes to process an idea, and get it stood up, the higher the chance of missing the market and being out maneuvered.
The dirty secret in all of this is that the technology is easy. There are hundreds of great options to choose from when it comes to the right technology. You can cloud it, automate it, DevOps it, etc. Alone or in tandem all of these things can work perfectly from a technology perspective to achieve your goals. The tech is easy, but most still fail.
The hard part is choosing the technology stack that fits your organization, then remodeling your people and process to take full advantage of it. Nobody likes to admit that getting new technology running is the easy part. The hard part is getting it adopted to it’s fullest potential within your organization. Successfully launching a product or project internally is as important as picking the right tech and standing it up.
I look at this like Marine Corps boot camp. As a recruit we spend all of boot camp hating it and waiting to graduate, thinking boot camp is the hard part. Our drill instructors assure us boot camp is the easiest part of being a Marine. Years later we find out they were right. Boot camp, like a technology install, is fairly color by the numbers, if you follow the instructions things work as expected. Being in the fleet, post boot camp is like technology adoption. You’re up and running but now it’s your responsibility to apply the skills and capabilities the right way every day.
When looking at making technology shifts be ready to tackle the people and process with as much energy as you do the technology. You’ll need leaders, champions, early adopters. You’ll need to provide a clear sense of direction, intended outcome, and a sense of ‘why’. If your team is bought in, and all moving towards the same goal the technology stack becomes a supporting character in the transformation you’ll drive.
As a parting thought on Digital Transformation try and think big. I’ve been privileged to travel the world working with customers of all types in some very interesting places. I’ve gotten to see first hand the positive transformative power technology can have. From banks in Africa using cell-phone usage statistics to assess credit worthiness and provide small-business loans to people with no credit history, to hospitals in India using tele-medicine to provide advanced patient care on-site in remote villages.
Digital transformation is as much about change and a better future as it is about profit lines. Even better, the two don’t have to be separate goals. This is why I wake up every morning excited to see what I can help my customers achieve that day.