This Digital Transformation is Not the One You’re Looking For

I was sorting through some browser tabs that had been open for a couple of weeks on my laptop and rediscovered a press release that had caught my attention earlier. After rereading it, I realized that I had left the release up in my browser because it could be the poster child for the inane manner in which technology vendors and IT consulting firms are talking about and selling what they very much want to be the next big thing – Digital Transformation.
CA Technologies’ press release was a horrific example right from the start. It’s title, “CA Technologies Study Reveals Widespread Adoption of Digital Transformation”, nearly made me spit coffee all over my laptop. Really? Is Digital Transformation (DT) something that can be adopted? Hardly. After all, DT is not a discrete technology. Rather, it’s a never-ending journey that organizations undertake to better the efficiency and effectiveness of their operations.
DT involves making changes to business objectives, strategies, models, cultures, processes and so many other elements. Many of those changes can be supported by the deployment and adoption of enabling technologies, but DT isn’t about the technology itself. It’s a mindset, a way of thinking and acting as an organization that spans across all of its planning and execution.
In that regard, DT is very much like the discipline known as Knowledge Management (KM) that was similarly a darling of technology vendors and their consulting partners nearly 20 years ago. Most large enterprises at least considered implementing KM practices and technologies. In fact, many did, although the majority of those ‘efforts’ failed to survive an initial pilot program. In the end, only a few big companies, the ones that treated KM as something more than a technology set to be adopted, whole-heartedly embraced the discipline and successfully wove it into nearly every aspect of their businesses.
We’ve seen the same phenomenon play out with Social Business. McKinsey & Company has been tracking the deployment and impact of social constructs, behaviors and tools in a cohort of roughly 1,500 enterprises for nearly 10 years now. Earlier this month, in a teaser to its complete report of annual survey results, McKinsey published these related and telling findings:

“…35 percent of the companies had adopted social technologies in response to their adoption by competitors. Copycat behavior was also responsible for their diffusion within organizations, though at a slightly lower rate: 25 percent of all employee usage. Roughly a fifth of the companies we studied will account for an estimated 50 percent of all social-technology usage in 2015.”

Most organizations and individuals tried to ‘adopt’ social technologies because they felt competitive pressure to do so (thanks, in part, to vendors and consultants), not because they had investigated and understood how ‘being social’ at work could change how well their organization actually performed relative to both its current state and its competitors. On the other hand, a minority of organizations (20% in McKinsey’s survey) have made the dedicated, all-in commitment needed to succeed with Social Business.
Today, we are beginning this cycle all over again, this time under the moniker of Digital Transformation. Consider these findings from CA’s study:

“Digital Transformation is being driven as a coordinated strategy across a majority of organizations (55 percent)…  As a result, 45 percent of respondents have already seen measurable increases in customer retention and acquisition from their digital transformation initiatives and 44 percent have seen an overall increase in revenue.”

In other words, if you aren’t “adopting” DT already, you’re toast. At least that’s what CA and other technology vendors and consultants want you to believe in a fresh state of panic. Hence these findings from CA’s study:

Digital Disrupters have two times higher revenue growth than mainstream organizations. They report two and a half times higher profit growth than the mainstream organizations.”

That may be accurate, but surely those “Digital Disrupters” did not achieve the reported results merely by adopting technology, whether it be from CA or another vendor. They’re the ones who have taken a comprehensive view of DT and, as CA itself puts it, have “…many projects underway in multiple areas of the company, including customer services, sales and marketing, and product/service development.” It’s not a coincidence that CA was only able to include 14% of the organizations surveyed in the group it labeled “Digital Disrupters”. That matches up pretty well with McKinsey’s finding of just 20% of organizations surveyed making more than a token effort at becoming a social business.
All of this is to say beware of vendors and consultants selling technology as the cornerstone of DT initiatives. Yes, technology is an invaluable piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the only or most important one. DT can’t simply be adopted; every aspect of it must be considered and actively embraced by the entire organization.

Are you ready to take on tomorrow’s IT? Think again.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front. The business of IT is very complex and getting increasingly more complex every day. It does not matter whether you are the buyer or the seller; the industry is evolving into a very different and complex beast.

Evolution of the CIO

How we, as CIOs, have lead IT organizations is very different today from how it was done just 5-10 years ago. In many ways, it is easier to forget what we learned about leading IT and starting over. Of course, the leadership aspects are perennial and will always endure and grow. I wrote a bit about the evolutionary changes for the CIO in more detail with the 5 Tectonic shifts facing today’s CIO. In essence, tomorrow’s CIO is a business leader that also has responsibility for IT.

Consider for a moment that the CIO and IT organization sits on a spectrum.

CIO IT Org Traits

Where the CIO and IT sit along the spectrum impacts perspective, delivery of solutions, target, and responsibilities along with a host of other attributes for both the organization and providers alike.

The changing vendor landscape

Add it all together and today is probably the most confusing time for providers of IT products and services. Traditionally, providers have asked customers what they need and then delivered it. Today, many customers are not really sure what they need or the direction they should take. And the providers are not well equipped to lead the industry in their particular sector let alone tell a good story of how their solution fits into the bigger picture.

As an example, one provider would tell customers their cloud solution ‘transforms’ their business (the company IT is part of). This is completely wrong and over-extends beyond anything their solution is capable of. As such, it positions the company to over commit and under deliver. For the wise CIO, it leads to a serious credibility problem for the provider. It would be pretty unique for any vendor to truly ‘transform’ a company with a single technology let alone one that is far removed from the core business functions. A better, more accurate statement would be: We help enable transformation.

Be careful of Buzzword Bingo. Bingo!

In another recent IT conversation, the perception was that all Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) solutions were ubiquitous and interchangeable. While we hope to get there some day, the reality is far from standardized. Solutions from providers like Amazon (AWS), Google (GCE), Microsoft (Azure) are different in their own rights. But also very different from solutions provided by IBM (SoftLayer), CenturyLink (SAVVIS), HP (Helion). Do they all provide IaaS services? Yes. Are they similar, interchangeable and address the same need? No. For the record: Cloud is not Cloud, is not Cloud.

The terms IaaS and Cloud bring market cache and attention. And they should! Cloud presents the single largest opportunity for IT organizations today. However, it is important to understand the actual opportunity considering your organization, strategy, capability, need and market options available. The options alone are quite a job to stay on top of.

Keeping track of the playing field

The list of providers above is a very small list of the myriad spread across the landscape. To expect an IT organization to keep track of the differences between providers and map their needs to the appropriate solutions takes a bit of work. Add that the landscape is more like the shifting sands of a desert and you get the picture.

The mapping of services, providers and a customer’s needs along with the fact that their very needs are in a state of flux create a very complex situation for CIO, IT organization and providers.

Is it time to give up? No!

Today’s CIO is looking to up-level the conversation. They are less interested in a technology discussion and one about business. Specifically, by ‘business’ conversation, today’s CIO is interested in talking about things of interest to the board of directors, CEO and rest of the executive team. Trying to discuss the latest technology bell or whistle with a CEO will go nowhere. They are interested in ways to tap new revenue streams, greater customer engagement and increasing market share.

For the CIO, focus on the strategic conversations. Focus on the business opportunities and look for opportunities that technology can help catapult the company forward. Remember that the IT organization no longer has to do everything themselves. Divest those functions that are not differentiating. As an example, consider my recent post: CIOs are getting out of the data center business. If you are not willing to (or capable of) competing at the level that Google runs their data center, it is time to take that last post very seriously. Getting rid of the data center is not the end state. It is only the start.

5 Tectonic Shifts facing today’s CIO

The past several years have presented an interesting time for CIOs, their staff and the companies they work within. In many ways, the changes are significant shifts how companies have operated.

IT has a history of tectonic shifts

Tectonic shifts are not new. In just the past 25 years, we have seen many major shifts in the way we operate. Many of the changes were about technology. But others directly impacted how we think of and consume technology. Here are just a few:

  1. Distributed Computing: Moving from centralized mainframe computers that took up entire rooms to small computers that could fit on a desk. The smaller size presented greater processing capabilities at a fraction of the cost. This trend has continued right down to the very smartphone we carry today.
  2. Internet: There was a time when companies actually believed the Internet was a non-essential connection. A gimmick of sorts. Today, a company would have a hard time surviving without connecting to the Internet.
  3. Virtualization: Virtualization presented the opportunity to do two core things: 1) create abstraction between the application and hardware and 2) more fully utilize resources. This provided greater flexibility and utilization.
  4. Cloud Computing: The advent of cloud presented the opportunity to take virtualization to a whole new level through the abstraction of resources and ownership. Now, a company can operate while abstracting from the physical resources. In essence, cloud presents a significant leverage point for organizations.

Each of these shifts passed through a period of disbelief, challenge and eventually acceptance. Arguably, one could suggest that cloud still sits on the precipice of acceptance. However, each has also become a core foundation to today’s computing environment.

Today, there are a number of new tectonic shifts in flight. Each shift follows a similar path of disbelief, challenge and will eventually gain acceptance.

The five tectonic shifts facing today’s CIO

  1. The IT customer is the company’s customer: Technically, this has always been the case. It may have come through a secondary source: The internal user. Many IT organizations still believe their customer is the internal user. Today’s IT organization needs to think about how IT supports the company’s customer. That’s not to say that the internal user is not important. But supporting the internal user is in concert with supporting the external customer. It also positions IT to align with other departments within the company.
  2. Consumers drive business behaviors: This could be seen as a ‘who-drives-who’ statement. The reality is that consumer behaviors are driving business behaviors. One can look to several examples to support this:
    1. Cloud: Gmail, Yahoo, Netflix, Dropbox.
    2. Mobile: Smartphones, tablets and wearables.
    3. Speed: Real-time satisfaction of results, information and access.

To understand where we are going, just look toward the next generation of millennials, digital natives and ultimately, children. Understand how the next generation is adopting technology and adapt accordingly.

  1. Real-time replaces batch process: Many core IT processes follow a batch processing methodology. However, today’s business is moving toward real-time access to information and analytics. Speed is the keyword here and plays into the consumer/ customer drive for real-time satisfaction.
  2. Transformational CIOs replace Traditional CIOs: This is probably one of the most sensitive shifts to discuss. Transformation CIOs are business leaders first that happen to have responsibility for technology. They understand how the company makes and spends money at an intimate level. Traditional CIOs are more technology-focused.
  3. IT becomes a business organization that happens to have responsibility for technology: IT (and the CIO as its leader) needs to become a business organization from top-to-bottom. Each function must consider the business value of their actions and the best course to take.

Reaching for the stars

There is no question that these shifts (like those in the past) will rock IT to the core. We can expect each to follow the same sequence of disbelief, challenge and acceptance. In fact, a small number of CIOs are already well down this path. The reality is that technology, or how it is used, is changing right around us.

Now is absolutely the best time to be in IT. It is also the scariest for IT folks and the stakes are only increasing. The hope is that IT (as a profession) and the CIO see the future and aim for the stars. The future is brighter than ever.