The role of IT in making digital transformation projects work

More companies are embracing digital as an essential component of their overall business strategy for the future. But what is the role of IT?

Digital transformation can be a nebulous term and, like cloud and big data, it can mean different things to different people. But what is a common factor around this topic is that more companies are embracing digital as an essential part of their overall business strategy for the future.

The likes of John Lewis have led the way in implementing large-scale digital programmes in the private sector, and similar moves are taking place across the public sector. From local government and non-profit organisation projects by the likes of Camden Council and the Student Loans Company through to central government initiatives by the Government Digital Service, bodies are rethinking how they use digital channels to interact with the public.

While IT will be at the heart of digital services, there is also a requirement for collaboration with other teams within the business that are customer-facing. Marketing and customer service professionals are already staking claims to leadership roles within digital transformation projects alongside IT.

However, digital transformation projects are not clean slates. While they aim to provide new ways to interact, digital programmes will often require access to information stored in existing IT silos. These data sources can go back decades. So how can organisations marry the best digital options for serving internal and external customers with these legacy IT assets?

At the heart of this is a need to think differently around digital, based on the right mix of people, tools, frameworks and experience around collaboration. It involves creating a mindset change around IT and the business from the beginning, including moving away from conventional approaches to IT operations and towards more agile methods.

Digital projects on their own have tended to be more iterative than traditional IT implementations. Part of this is historical: they have been focused on online services and websites to deliver information, where the service can be changed in response to market developments without huge additional expense. Taking a lead from agile, goals are ongoing, rather than fixed and immutable.

Contrast this with the big investments that, for example, a large ERP project would entail, both on hardware and software. Making changes in the middle of a project leads to scope creep, change requests and potentially large additional costs. The impact of cloud computing and open source has made this less of an issue, because the cost of implementing these technologies is much lower.

In many cases, both open source and agile will need to complement legacy IT for the foreseeable future. To build on legacy, there are approaches that can help make this work. Alongside technical integration around data formats and programming interfaces, there is also the management side – rather than large-scale projects that take months or years to see through, agile projects are delivered in sprints, usually lasting two weeks.

This difference in project length is one of the biggest challenges for “traditional” IT in its interaction with the business. The ability to provide rapid showcases to demonstrate project progress will become the norm. There are more digital natives in the workplace, and there is an increasing number of people in business management roles who are tech savvy. 

Twitter mentality

This has led to more of a “Twitter mentality” around IT, which demands faster and more visible project progress and updates. Alongside this, business opportunities move at a much faster pace in the digital world, so IT outputs must keep pace in order to remain competitive, as well as pacifying senior management and stakeholders.

Managing this mix of projects involves thinking hard about what is presented back to the business over time. By being able to manage the digital “front office” that is available for everyone to see and evaluate services, IT can improve its ability to collaborate with business teams. At the same time, this front office can help the business side to collaborate with IT by streamlining requirements management. This approach is essential to successful collaboration between business and technology stakeholders because it breaks down some of the walls that can exist within an organisation.

Another element of digital programmes is the willingness to experiment with new tools and approaches. The perception in many organisations is that IT projects are either successes or failures, with no middle ground. This breeds a risk-averse mindset. Consequently, organisations are losing the ability to make pivots around these new projects and experiments in the way start-ups do.

Degree of experimentation

One approach to this problem is to look at how the interface with the business stakeholders can enable a degree of experimentation, without it representing a perceived “failure”. Managing these expectations on the business side can also free up IT to try out new avenues, reducing the risk of exploring solutions with low cost and flexible tech environments and tools. This is an important way to begin collaboration around agile projects with line-of-business teams, if this is not something IT does already.

Creating this degree of freedom can make IT more productive and more empowered to take risks. But, at the same time, there must be an awareness of how far that experimentation can go. This ability to make “go/no-go” decisions quickly is fundamental to the future success of digital projects.

For companies looking at digital transformation projects, there are a number of strands that have to be brought together to make their initiatives successful. Just as cloud computing led to CIOs having to flex new muscles around SLA management and integration across different platforms, so digital transformation will require the development of new skills and knowledge. 

This will typically include building a greater understanding around other business units and their requirements, looking at working in more agile and collaborative ways, and learning more about customer needs and behaviours. For CIOs that are willing to embrace a new way of working, digital transformation represents a great opportunity to have a big impact on the future direction of the organisation.

Gareth Eynon is digital director at CDG, a digital integrator that helps organisations to implement new strategies and technologies

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