What it means to lead a "driving digital" organization

Digital transformation thought leader, Isaac Sacolick, talks about digital transformation and why it needs to be a strategic imperative.

futuristic user interface - smart city - digital transformation
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I’ve interviewed many CIOs for their insights on the transformation of IT into a strategic asset. Many of their success stories appear in my book, "The Strategic CIO: Changing the Dynamics of the Business Enterprise" and in my CIO.com column, "Transforming IT for Business Success."

I’ve also been reading a number of books on digital transformation and have come across a terrific book by Isaac Sacolick, author of "Driving Digital: The Leader’s Guide to Business Transformation Through Technology,", which covers many practices such as agile, devops, and data science that are all critical to successful digital transformation programs. Isaac is a recognized top social CIO, a long time blogger at Social, Agile and Transformation and CIO.com, and is now president of StarCIO.

I recently had the opportunity to meet Sacolick where he shared his insights on what it means to lead a “driving digital” organization. Following is an excerpt from our conversation.

Phil Weinzimer: What makes digital transformation programs more critical and strategic compared to transformations of ten and twenty years ago?

Isaac Sacolick: There are a number of factors that make digital transformations a strategic imperative for most businesses. Customers today have many options to select products and services that compete on factors beyond cost including convenience, intelligence, and overall satisfaction with the experience. Winning products and services offer intelligent experiences, are contextual to the physical and digital environment, and offer conveniences that drive product and brand loyalty. The experiences that companies must offer today go beyond the web, social, and mobile experiences developed over the last ten to twenty years.

In the past, enterprises were concerned about direct competitors to their products and services and the potential of startups to disrupt their business. Today, the threat is far broader as competitors from other markets and spaces can leverage their capabilities to sell services in areas that don’t disrupt their legacy businesses. Consider Garmin selling wearables, Netflix producing original content, Porsche selling vehicle subscriptions, and of course Amazon becoming the lead cloud computing company are all examples.

The last factor is speed. Companies can develop new products and services leveraging the availability and maturity of technologies such as cloud services, mobile lowcode development platforms, and self-service big data platforms. It’s forcing most companies to have technology as a core competency and both application development and data science capabilities.

PW:  What practices need to be core competencies for digital organizations?

IS: In Driving Digital I share the practices that are foundational to digital transformation. Since more companies are developing customer facing applications, they have to mature their agile development practices so that they mature to business and product development processes. That means developing a product management capability that can perform market research, analyze customer data, enable competitive user experiences, and rapidly plan and test products that are aligned with digital strategy. It also requires an agile planning process so that teams can deliver sprint to sprint but also forecast roadmaps and drive decision making toward minimum viable product offerings. Lastly, digital organizations have to go beyond cloud as infrastructure and look to leverage continuous integration, continuous deployment, infrastructure as code and leverage automation to enable more frequent and stable application deployments.

Second, organizations need to have data management as a maturing capability. CIOs have to challenge the culture and management practices so that leaders leverage technology backed analytics and rely on PowerPoints and spreadsheets less frequently. They should be leading data governance so that employees receive access to appropriate data sets, understand policies on allowed use of data, and have access to data catalogs and dictionaries that define the data they access.

Lastly, digital organizations have to evolve the culture and challenge the status quo. You can’t drive new business models, leverage technology, or adapt the workplace if the culture resists change.

PW:  If "everyone has to be a technology company," how can budget stretched CIOs compete in the war for talent?

IS: The majority of businesses can’t adopt the same tactics used at Google, Apple, and Facebook to attract talent or develop technologies. Most businesses can’t compete with the number of engineers they hire, the skill levels they target, or the compensation they offer. This requires most businesses to be creative about how they source the technology talent required to succeed.

Businesses have to be more data driven even where there is significant competition for data scientists, PhDs, and quants. That mean most firms have to be creative and leverage technologies and practices that enable more people across the organization to perform analysis and deliver insights. Citizen data science programs are a combination of technology, practices, and governance that enable business analysts in marketing, operations, finance, and other departments to self-serve the analytics they require to drive their organizations.

Similarly, CIOs can leverage low code and citizen development platforms to enable departments to create the applications they need to drive collaboration and workflow. Between citizen data science programs and low code development platforms, CIOs can use IT resources on the most strategic projects and extend the boundaries of traditional IT to departmental technology practices.

 CIOs also have to explore other talent sourcing options. Outsourcing remains a viable option especially when agile practices are matured to use a blend of in house, outsourced, and freelance resources.

PW:  What should CIO be doing to leverage emerging technologies like AI, IoT, and blockchain?

IS: CIOs have to take a number of steps in parallel. First, they have to drive a learning organization that learns about the capabilities of these technologies beyond the published hype. In addition to having members of the business and technology teams learn about the technologies, CIOs should be exploring partnerships and looking to invest in proof of concept to better understand an emerging technology’s application to their business’ products and services.

Second, what’s common with these technologies is that they will all require the competency to conceive of products and services that leverage the capability, access to clean data sources, and the ability for organizations to develop applications that integrate the technology in order to deliver value. Ongoing investment in digital core competencies is an enabler to leverage these emerging capabilities.

Lastly, CIOs should seek examples of how companies in other industries are applying these technologies. For example, supply chain experts can turn to fintech to learn more about blockchain, construction companies should investigate manufacturers building IoT capabilities in their products, and retail companies can look at media companies for AI use cases to draw inspiration and to better understand implementation details.

PW: What are some of your recommendations on getting business teams on board with transformation programs?

IS: Find a diverse group of early adopters across all departments, levels, seniority, ages, and backgrounds. The key to transformation is to start working and experimenting with them on ideas and pilots. Try to get more of them exposed to customers to gain perspectives on what they value and need. Of prime importance is to have at least some senior leaders in this group and ideally the CEO so that you can get top down support when required.

The key to going from early adopters to a mainstream program is to achieve some quick wins and to market the results. After that, make sure to have a communication and learning program so that the next wave of participants can easily become supporters.

Equally important is to have a program in place to handle detractors.  There is a lot of fear in the organization on the impact of automation, job roles, and power, and being prepared to answer common questions about digital transformation asked by employees can help change people to become supporters and participants.

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