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Taking the Danger Out of Digital Transformation

Innovation Executive Forum | Posted on March 11, 2019 by Karen Bader

Digital Transformation.

At its base, we know what the term means.

What isn’t always as clear, is what Digital Transformation actually means in practice, to the companies making the transition. It isn’t enough for the C-suite executives at the top of the tower to say, “We need to be digital”, or, “We need to be in the cloud”. Rather, what needs to be asked before any digital directives are given is, “What does our business need, and how are we going to get there?”

At our recent IEF gathering in Atlanta, Georgia, we assembled a group of IT leaders to discuss just that – how to get the business headed in the right direction. As one attendee noted, for some organizations, “Digital Transformation” has become a dangerous term, as business executives latch onto the idea without knowing what they need in advance. How do we begin to combat the issue?  Our conversation yielded some interesting findings.

Needs before transformation

Over the course of the evening, an attendee in the food and wine business kicked things off by explaining that the key to digital transformation is simply understanding what is most important to the business. Once that has been determined, strategies for helping them digitize and improve processes can be developed.

“What is the business trying to achieve?  What do we have aside from our products that are valuable? It’s our data. And how do we take that data and monetize it? How do you realign a sales force, so it’s a monitored business? How can you give your customers an Amazon-like service so restaurant managers aren’t being asked to make orders while on shift?  It’s a data transformation, an e-commerce transformation. It’s everything.”

Throughout, it’s imperative that IT market themselves internally as an enabler of progress, rather than a roadblock to it.  IT must step back and listen to all stakeholders, then treat each independently, as opposed to a “one department” solution.   

The art of the possible

As our conversation revealed, when we start looking at Digital Transformation as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, a world of possibilities opens. As one dinner attendee, an IT leader in the staffing industry noted, his organization has had great success through the addition of non-traditional roles to their IT department, to help drive innovation and foster change – notably, roles in data science.

“They were brought in to help scale the business, move things to the cloud and help us get out of the traditional data center business,” he said. “We have legacy systems that are in the process of being de-coupled. But if you want a strategic seat at the table, it really boils down to the data.”

Agility over all

Once the needs of the business have been set, a cross-functional transformation team can be set up. One attendee explained by including representatives from other departments, like HR and Legal, in addition to IT, barriers to progress can be removed and business outcomes accelerated. By including non-IT personnel on transformation teams, IT leaders can better understand how those groups operate and what they need moving forward.

Listen, don’t let data get out-of-hand

Over the evening, we also discussed the role of data, and how thanks to smart devices, IoT and the like, companies are scrambling to catalog and monetize that data. One attendee noted that when it comes to data governance, strength should be the default position.

“You got to be careful about exposing too much data. You have to find that balance so you don’t expose weakness in your organization to the customer. You’re talking about good data governance practice.  You have to know what you have, who you’re sharing with, and what you’re sharing.”

As we can see, when it comes to dealing with data, IT leaders need to straddle the line between enforcer and neutral facilitator. IT can and should learn to become a great listener.

IT doesn’t own data

When it comes to data, another attendee pointed out that many IT departments need to relinquish a bit of control. IT needs to understand that they are the facilitators of data, not the owners of it.

“Data is not an IT thing,” she explained. “We’re facilitators, but not the owners. You want to be partners with staff so they don’t hide data from you. You say ‘hey, I’m here to facilitate.’ You don’t want to get excluded from the process.”

Be deliberate in the cloud

Around the table, another key factor in determining the success of digital transformation was identified as the ability to measure spend in the cloud. Many attendees noted that without a deliberate approach, costs can quickly balloon.

In fact, one noted that it can actually be “scary” how fast spending can rise.

“What scares me the most is when they come in and say how fast they can spin out new environments.  All I see is the cash register. Then I get an invoice at the end of the month, and it’s too late.”

Education is important, but again, as mentioned above, understanding the needs of the business, and that digital tools are a means to an end as opposed to the end themselves, can help move things along smoothly.

When it comes to security, an ounce of education is worth a pound of cure

We also discussed security, a factor on everyone’s mind in this age of hackers and cybercrime. One attendee pointed out that a good way to get non-IT employees to understand the importance of security is to make the comparison to home insurance. Another is to run dry security runs, to test the business, and educate key stakeholders on any deficiencies, or areas for improvement.

Final Thoughts

As virtually every company transforms into a digital company, our Atlanta event made it clear that Digital Transformation needs discipline, a clear understanding of the needs of the business, and the ability educate all stakeholders along the way. It can help streamline adoption, lower costs and answer the question, “Why are we doing this?”

In summary

  • Digital tools aren’t the end goals themselves
  • Digital transformation needs a clear, easily understood strategy
  • Education is the key to keeping the business moving forward together

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