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Embrace, then Execute: Digital Due Diligence

Derek Britton Head of Brand, AR, and Customer Advocacy, OpenText
Photo by Patrick Case on Pexels

The DX Imperative

"The first step is always admitting you have a problem."
—Michael Tutty

When it comes to digital readiness, we are in the era of must-not-fail for most organizations. One ITPro article offered, “Whatever a company’s vision for the future, it must include digital transformation in order to grow.” Elsewhere, a recent CIO.com article commented, "Organizations can’t afford to fail at digital transformations, given that 'we have now entered the era of the digital business, where transformation must be part of enterprise DNA,' according to IDC’s '2023 FutureScape: Worldwide CIO Agenda 2023 Predictions.'"

Crystallize the Vision

"Clarity of vision is the key to achieving your objectives."
—Tom Steyer

This is not to suggest that digital transformation (DX) is a simple box-ticking exercise. The question of what, specifically, makes it so challenging has been picked over and debated for a good decade now, in contexts that include case studies, academic papers, and all manner of speculation. Popular culprits for digital-transformation failure include inadequacies in skill, improper change management, poor governance, anemic executive support, misplaced technology strategy, and many more besides.

Because of its sheer size and complexity, digital transformation is hard to pigeonhole as a single entity or program. "Transformation" in the singular is misleading in that sense. Instead, it is a complex array of interrelated (and often competing) projects, spanning from today into the medium-term horizon. It requires, in essence, a long list of milestones. Millions of stars make a galaxy.

One of the commonly reported reasons cited for the failure of DX programs is a lack of clarity around its vision or goals. Not defining clear goals means your organization will end up with people going in lots of different directions, without alignment. One COO is quoted as saying, "Like any change initiative, the No. 1 thing is just to make sure you have got your goals defined properly and then defining initiatives that actually deliver those goals." 

Easy to say, perhaps. With a galaxy of details, setting goals and priorities for digital transformation is a complex task. A Harvard Business Review article refers to an “unspoken disagreement among top managers about goals,” making it difficult to agree on “what to prioritize.” A 2022 report by Frost & Sullivan illustrates the difficulties in establishing a clear vision: “Key priorities include adapting to new work models and customer expectations, increasing capacity to respond to higher demand (even in the face of declining resources), enhancing eCommerce and related marketing capabilities, managing security and compliance, and accelerating digital customer engagement.”

That’s quite a mix of needs. The dilemma of digital transformation is that it isn’t a single thing at all. Embracing the scale of the requirement is a critical step in the DX process.

Eating the Elephant

"Have a bias toward action. . . . You can break that big plan into small steps and take the first step right away."
—Indira Ghandi

Once you've embraced the need to define a transformation program as multiple milestones across separate workstreams, the dilemma becomes clear. One article expresses it this way: “[Do] not indulge in a lot of big projects that can be difficult for your workforce to undertake. Digital transformation is a gradual process marked by constant evolution.”

A Bain & Co. paper underscored this sentiment by rejecting a big-bang approach, saying, “In reality, doing everything at once increases the risk of failure. Winners prioritize initiatives and carefully design transformation plans that produce a cadence of improvement. They don’t try to become best in class everywhere, only where it matters most to their business.”

Get in Lane

"Cooperation is the thorough conviction that nobody can get there unless everybody gets there."
—Virginia Burden

Focusing on key transformational drivers means taking a clear perspective on critical operational capabilities required to achieve them. As I outlined in this blog, this would typically cover critical technology functions as application delivery, IT operations, security, analytics, and incumbent business systemseach as their own swim lane.

Looking at the discrete functions and the part each will play in delivering against short- and longer-term milestones helps establish a dispassionate, comprehensive framework for prioritization.

And a framework will be necessary, because otherwise how would you prioritize one functional swim-lane over another? As this article put forth, “Does a modernization program need to deliver value immediately? What about establishing new data insights? It cannot be one size fits all. IT leaders must establish individual road maps to tackle separate challenges.”

Embrace and Execute

"To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often."
—Winston Churchill

While change may need to happen incrementally over time, the first step is to embrace the complexity of what is required. And by conceptualizing what the organization is looking to achieve, both now and into the future, IT leaders can then build discrete functional programs to deliver incremental improvements against it.

Successful digital transformation then becomes a compound equation of requirements, applications, processes, platforms, culture, and skills, across each discrete function. It’s a proverbial swimming marathon, involving many swim teams, across several lanes, with each length of the pool a fresh requirement, until all lanes finish and the medley achieves its overall objective.

Digital transformation is a vast, perilous mission. A practical approach to acknowledging and acting upon a medley of component parts enables leaders to plan with confidence.

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