Should strategy or technology drive transformation?

Posted by Paula Smith on 21 July 2015

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When companies first started talking about the cloud revolution and the third platform, the conversation changed from 'technology enabling transformation' to 'technology driving transformation'. But who is right? Do you start with a strategy or with a technology?

Those of you who have read previous posts will know which side of this particular fence I sit on. I firmly believe that IT strategy comes first. Not the over-theoretical, fluffy strategies that we see so much of, but rather a strategy that has a clear vision, objectives and outcomes that can be realised; a strategy that moves the organisation forward and doesn't just maintain the status quo. 

It seems that MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte agree. Their 2015 Digital Business Global Executive Study and Research Project identified strategy, not technology, as the key driver of success in the digital arena. Why? Well here are the highlights:

1. The power of a digital transformation IT strategy lies in its scope and objectives

Look through any case study on successful programme implementation and you will see a common theme. A clear and shared understanding of what needs to be achieved, a well managed scope, and a plan. Digital transformation takes vision and bravery, but it also takes commitment. This is where the plan comes in. Your plan identifies your vision, scope boundaries and clearly articulates the objectives to be met. This allows your transformation team to look enterprise wide, to re-imagine the organisation instead of being forced into viewing the vision through a singular operational lens. 

2. Maturing digital organisations build skills to realise the IT strategy

Ah my favourite topic - capability development. So your organisation wants to transform. Who will lead that transformation? Do you have the internal capabilities for IT project management? Do you have the required skill sets to deliver the new model now? If you do, why haven't they been leveraged already? If you don't, where will you get them from? How would you go about outsourcing IT and IT solutions? This is a tough conversation but one that must happen honestly, and it must happen early in the piece.

The capability to deliver a transformed organisation does not lie simply in its leadership, although that is critical. Having a team with the necessary skills to deliver the programme and an on-going, realistic plan to upskill; embedding and uplifting capability across the organisation and constantly improving and leveraging those skills is a must, since our current models of service delivery and managed IT services are changing rapidly (or at least they should be).  If you haven't already looked at design thinking, do it now.

IT solutions
Finding the right IT solution

One of the great things about New Zealand is our ability to be creative, to innovate, but like other countries we have skill shortages, and that makes designing and delivering the right IT architecture rather tricky. For the past few years we have focused on specific IT shortages: .NET developers, PRINCE2 Project Managers etc. Writing an advert or a job description for these people is easy, but how do you find someone with the skills and personal attributes needed to re-imagine an organisation or deliver on your transformation vision? How do you find someone who is an expert in enterprise information management? It's not as if you can find them easily in the BSc Computing or the BA Business Management, or the MBA classroom (though you might).

Visionaries and conceptual thinkers pop up everywhere. Organisations need to think creatively about where the skills will come from and how you reduce the inherent risks in transformation by assessing the track record of the people you look to hire or develop. Do you leverage SFIA, Lominger or other tools? How important is a qualification over the passion, experience, and personality traits of the person standing in front of you?

3. Identify your intrapreneurs

The MIT/Deloitte study doesn't discuss this, but when I talk to clients about their transformation or even just simple service improvement objectives I will ask them this question: Who are your intrapreneurs?  Though often small in number, intrapreneurs will provide you with the kind of conceptual thinking, passion and desire for improvement that will help energise and sustain a transformation project. If you look at the research on this topic going back to the 1980s, researchers agree that intrapreneurs bring value to the organisation. The benefits they provide typically involve improved and sustainable growth, increased revenue and profitability, improvements to organisational culture and collaboration and more. Having an intrapeneur capable of delivering business analytics and business intelligence is invaluable.

Sounds like something you may want from a digitally transformed organisation, doesn't it?

4. Technology provides an opportunity for innovation, but culture is still king

I love technology. I love the opportunities it creates for us. From the light bulb to the smartphone, our lives have changed positively. But without a culture that supports ideation and knowledge sharing, that is open to opportunities, that wants to improve, where staff are empowered and leaders really do lead and provide vision, technology is just a widget. Addressing an immediate need but not really changing anything, not realising the value and the possibilities that could be achieved.

I like this quote from Tim Brown in the Harvard Business Review, way back in 2008! 

"The need for transformation is, if anything, greater now than ever before. No matter where we look, we see problems that can be solved only through innovation....These problems all have people at their heart. They require a human-centered, creative, iterative, and practical approach to finding the best ideas and ultimate solutions."

So while we look to technology to enable our transformation projects or business process reengineering and to provide us with opportunities we haven't even imagined yet, let us also not lose sight of the fact that ultimately we are human beings, with human beings as our customers and stakeholders.  

Further Reading and Video

Tim Brown on Thinking Big