by Charles Araujo

3 telltale signs it’s a real digital transformation

May 03, 2017
Cloud Computing Data Center IT Leadership

It's easy to get caught up in the hype surrounding digital transformation and lose your way. These three indicators can help you stay on the right path.

maze direction lost way out future
Credit: Thinkstock

“Get a digital transformation for only $199.95, but only if you call to order in the next 15 minutes!”

OK, so I haven’t seen an ad like this on late night TV—well, at least not yet. The unfortunate truth, however, is that the term “digital transformation” may be the greatest selling tool the enterprise technology industry has created in a generation.

Everywhere you turn, someone is selling something using the term “digital transformation.” The truth is, many of the things technology companies are selling are incredible new technologies that do, in fact, play a vital role in your digital transformation journey and are worthy of your consideration.

But digital transformation is not just about buying some new technology. In fact, the technology is the smallest part of it.

+ Also on Network World: Busted! 5 myths of digital transformation +

That’s why what I heard during a recent panel conversation about real world digital transformation so encouraged me.

I recently moderated a panel at an event entitled, Embracing the Digital Transformation Journey, presented by Eclipse, a DXC Technology company. The panel included Matt Calderwood, executive vice president with Eclipse; Paul Bergen, manager of enterprise financial systems with Teck Resources Limited; and Corey Wells of Microsoft.

During the lively and interactive conversation amongst the panelists and the audience, three key themes emerged. I came to realize that these three themes were, in fact, important indicators—telltales, I might call them—of an organization that is going beyond talk and hyperbole and pursuing an actual digital transformation effort. 

Telltale 1: It’s all about the questions

During the panel, someone asked Bergen a question about how he controlled the scope of his digital transformation efforts and kept them from running out of control. He responded, somewhat nonchalantly, that he didn’t need to worry about that because they simply focused on the business question they were trying to answer and that the question forced them to both bring together cross-functional teams and zero-in on the business value they were trying to create.

I had to stop him and interject that he had just vastly understated a significant reason that they were successful in their digital transformation efforts: They focused on finding answers to business challenges.

For most organizations, digital transformation is all about the technology. They begin by assessing a new technology or their existing technology gaps.

What Bergen so innocuously demonstrated, however, was that they weren’t focused on the technology at all, but instead centered everything around a set of core business questions or challenges they were trying to address—and that’s what drove the success of their efforts.

The act of focusing on a business-based question rather than on the technology centered them and kept them focused on the real, overarching purpose of digital transformation: to deliver business results.

If your organization is approaching its digital transformation efforts from this perspective, if you center everything around answering a strategic business question, it’s the first indicator that you’re on the right track and approaching your transformational efforts from the right perspective.

Telltale 2: It’s not about the technology

My opening question to the panel was to explain what the phrase digital transformation actually meant to them. Calderwood gave this answer: “Digital transformation isn’t about the technology at all. It’s really about the people and process.”

It was a striking answer given that he is a technology company executive responsible for selling digital transformation solutions to their clients. But he was exactly right. Technology is always that last piece of the puzzle. Without first focusing on the people and the process, all of the technology in the world will not help you.

As Calderwood alluded to, digital transformation is about much more than just implementing some new technology. It is about adopting fundamentally different ways of working by focusing on changing your business processes and by shifting the behaviors of the people who must act upon those processes.

If this business and process transformation is happening, you’re in good shape. If it’s not, you probably need to take another look.

Telltale 3: Focus on the business case

As the panel came to an end, another audience member asked about the interaction with business executives on the technical aspects of digital transformation. Bergen’s response was instructive.

He explained the entire process, discussing it in terms of the “business project,”  “the business leader’s objectives” and so on. The message was clear: These were not technology projects; they were business efforts.

Bergen also made a point of clarifying that it wasn’t an “us or them” situation. He considered himself and his team part of the business and that when they discussed these very technical projects, the discussion was about the collective effort and outcomes at a business level.

The driving force behind everything, however, was on the needs of the business, and the ownership of everything started and stopped there.

Why digital transformation is hard

Digital transformation is used to package and sell technology because it sounds progressive and modern. But real digital transformation is much harder to accomplish because it means changing your culture, the behaviors of your team and potentially, even your core business and operating models. In the rush to get things done, however, even the most earnest transformational leaders can find themselves lost in the weeds, unsure if they’re going in the right direction and doing the right things. These three telltale signs can help you stay on the right path and fight the good fight.

Disclosure: Eclipse paid a speaking fee and covered my travel expenses for this event, a standard industry practice. As of the time of writing, Microsoft is an Intellyx customer. None of the other organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers.