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Digital Transformation was a buzzword throughout the last few years. Still, as we focus on 2020, we can reflect on what it has, and hasn’t, delivered and why – and what so many Digital Transformation initiatives have not delivered is actual transformation. Change? Yes. Improvement? Often. Transformation? Rarely.

Digital Transformation is a simple term with a big promise and a big promise that often gets overlooked right from the start. Transformation isn’t simply incremental improvement or slow change. Transformation is a fundamental alteration to what an enterprise is and how it operates. It’s scary and seismic and necessary because with the speed of change today, enterprises that don’t face the reality of transformation wither and die.

Now that’s not to say that Digital Transformation needs to be a “big bang” project – although it can be when vision meets desire within an organisation – but what any real Digital Transformation initiative needs is ambition and openness. This is where so many fall down at the first hurdle. Let me provide an example.

In late 2019 I met with an organisation that had identified that they were in a position to innovate and radically change both themselves and how their market and customers even thought about them let alone interacted with them. They approached me (and some others offering seemingly similar stories) to discuss the how. We met, and the first thing that hit the table was a technology/applications map that summarised what they had and what they thought might be on the road ahead. It was a good document and a good start. The conversation then moved to whether I thought they should stick or twist with some of those systems, whether this Technology or that was the way forward and there was a side discussion about which parts of their architecture were considered ripe for change and which were more sacred. All useful discussions and all very familiar – anyone in Technology for long has been in this meeting or one very similar before.

What I proposed next was, by their admission, very different from what their other discussions had covered. I asked them to put aside the technology specifics and to tell me what they thought their endgame should look like. What kind of business did they want to be at the end of the process? Not what transactions did they want to perform, but what outcomes did they want to be able to deliver for themselves, their partners and their customers? Did they, I asked, want to be smarter than the others? Did they want to harvest ideas and innovation for their own people and deliver those same insights and opportunities to their external ecosystem? Did they, in short, want to be a data-driven enterprise that then turned data into informed action and constant improvement? Or did they want to do what they were doing now, but a bit more efficiently?

Now, you might say that I was asking the same question but with fancier words but I wasn’t. If they wanted to do what they did now but a bit better then upgrading, replacing or augmenting their transactional systems was an excellent pathway. It was well-trodden, low-risk and unlikely to have too significant a change-management impact. They’d come out the end of the process better but not fundamentally so. They wouldn’t be Digitally TRANSFORMED; they would be Digitally Improved.

The alternative was to put data at the heart of everything they did, at the forefront of the way they thought and to then put in place processes and tools to allow them to respond to what that data suggested. It’s the difference between first asking “why?” or first asking “how?” – one is founded upon an inquiring and innovative mindset while the other assumes an outcome and seeks the best way to that outcome. I think there’s a saying about assumptions and what they can do for you and me.

So what, in concrete terms, does all of this mean?

It means a shift in the entire approach to architecting and mapping an enterprise’s technology landscape. Instead of starting with the transactional systems and working outwards, then maybe putting a data layer above (or below) that map from which business intelligence, analytics and reporting are drawn starting with the data at the heart of the plan and work outwards. What do we know? What do we need to know? From where do we gather that data and to where does it need to move? How do we move it? How do we present it? To whom – internally and externally? What can we do to plug process gaps, to bridge system chasms, to test potential innovations or changes in direction? And how can we do this without massive expenditure on people and time? In a purely technological sense, we’re talking RPA, BPA, Workflow, Portals, BI, AI, ML – the acronyms and exact words aren’t crucial, what’s critical is the mindset and foundation.

If we have our data at our heart, then we can easily monitor what’s working and what’s not, what do our processes look like and then where are they failing or being circumvented – and why? When we augment that data with data-enabled toolsets, we allow us to quickly and powerfully take action when we answer these questions. When we start from data and move to actions, then we’re changing the entire mindset of our organisation, becoming data-driven and analytical, moving to a culture of questioning and change. We knock down resistance because we can point to clear evidence of why we need to do things or where we’re not doing them in the best way. We’re making sure we are open to innovation and, yes, transformation.

And that’s how we deliver on Digital Transformation. By putting data first, then using that data and the insight it provides to trigger actions using smart technologies that are themselves data-centric. We move forward in a continual cycle or insight to action to change and then back to new insight and onwards.

So, coming back to my example. My colleagues and I are presenting soon on our vision of what a data-centric and digitally-enabled business in this particular sector might look like. We will talk about Technology and tools, but more importantly, we will talk about strategic and vision. We will discuss Digital Transformation, not Digital Improvement.

Want to talk about what it looks like for your enterprise? Drop us a line.

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