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AWS urges enterprises to embrace their heritage when facing down disruption from startups

At this year's AWS Transformation Day, the cloud giant's enterprise strategist, Miriam McLemore, talked about why enterprises should be looking to embrace their heritage and legacy when moving to the cloud

Enterprises can ill-afford to overlook the knowledge and experience they have accrued from decades spent cultivating their customer bases, cautions Miriam McLemore, enterprise strategist at Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Speaking at the AWS Transformation Day in London on Wednesday 30 October, McLemore said there is a tendency for enterprises to view their business legacy as a bad thing, particularly when it comes to facing down the competitive threats posed by nimbler, born-in-the-cloud companies.

In the rush to digitally transform their businesses, many enterprises focus all their efforts on learning and adopting the working practices of cloud-native startups at the expense of drawing on the competitive advantages their own heritage confers upon them, she said.

“You need to recognise in enterprises the things you have,” he said. “What are the value elements to your organisation? Obviously, deep knowledge of your market, highly skilled employees and financial resources.”

“We talk about startups [as the ones] in a great position but enterprises have the financial resources and the customer base and the brand equity that startups dream off.”

Before joining AWS in August 2017, McLemore worked at soft drink manufacturing giant Coca-Cola for 26 years, where her last four years were spent working as the CIO for its corporate functions and consumer technology division.

During the event keynote, she opened up about some of the challenges Coca-Cola faced during its own digital transformation journey, and how the company overcame them.

Slow IT delivery cycles

These challenges included slow IT delivery cycles, exacerbated by technology teams spending too much time tending to the needs of the firm’s legacy infrastructure, and a process-laden business culture.

“[Process] was for me one of the biggest struggles,” she said. “We had to go through the procurement process, the finance process, the legal process… and the process really became the enemy.”

There was also a fair amount of resistance to change within Coca-Cola, she said: “[There was] a lot of cultural resistance of the changes and the future, and there were a lot of people [working] at Coca-Cola [who had been there] longer than I had. When you have that longevity at a company, it is very difficult to push through change, and we needed to focus on what our customers wanted.”

Overcoming some of these struggles involved reorganising the teams it put in place to oversee various digital projects, with McLemore calling out the work that went into updating some of its HR systems, which included replacing a sizeable on-premise SAP deployment with Workdays’ cloud technologies as an example.

The team overseeing this project was made up of 150 people, which McLemore acknowledges brought its own organisational difficulties, until the decision was taken to break up this big team into a number of smaller ones, based on what part of the project they were involved in.

“[Once] we broke it down into core functions, we began to pick up momentum,” she said. “In order to transform, the first thing you need to do is gain technical flexibility and speed, and [that means] you have to organise into smaller, independent, flexible teams.”

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Seeing progress occur can play an important part in helping win over people who remain unconvinced by a company’s digital transformation efforts, as can “lowering the cost” of failure within an organisation, so people feel more at ease with getting involved.

“We had to lower the cost of failure [at Coca-Cola]. No-one is going to take you to the future if when they screw up and something goes wrong, you burn them at the stake,” he said. “If you’re made an example of what not to do, you’re not going to get the reach anymore.”

Another barrier to enterprise digital transformation is a feeling in the company that change is not possible, and – in response – McLemore said it is important for business and IT leaders to remember that, once upon a time, the organisation they work for was a startup too.

“I think enterprises forget they have innovation in their DNA,” she said, before making reference to the fact Coca-Cola started out over 130 years ago being marketed as cough syrup, before the company pivoted and repositioned it as a beverage product. 

“[For enterprises] it is about regaining that DNA and regaining that focus on the things that make you different and the things that are value statements of your organisation, and then pairing that with the technology and the capabilities that exist in the market today,” she said.

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