Shifting the focus from IT to your customer feedback loop

Once businesses embrace the essential need for digital intimacy as a competitive necessity, they'll be ready to start their digital transformation journey in earnest.

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In “Why today’s IT organization doesn’t work anymore,” I wrote about why traditional IT organizations don’t meet today’s need.  At the core of my argument was that with customers and 24/7 digital feedback loops at the heart of modern digital business models, classic, siloed IT organizations are ripe for disruption and transformation.  Given the need for a modern, forward-facing digital model powered by user experience, insights, and analytics, how is it possible to overcome entrenched legacy structures and cultures to drive technology-enabled value creation today and tomorrow?

In this post, I’d like to take a shot at reframing the discussion not around technology, but around, as Clay Christensen likes to call it: “the work to be done.” As it turns out, the aim of “the work to be done” in the digitally enabled enterprise isn’t really about technology itself – it’s about using the converged potential of the Internet, mobile devices, and pervasive connectivity to drive greater customer intimacy.  Since the path to digital customer intimacy travels through software development, I like to refer to that work as: “getting to know your customers through the software that you build.”

First: Build your customer feedback loop

Achieving greater customer intimacy is both an ongoing stream of work and a top-level goal in our digitally converged world.  The work requires building and adjusting the telemetry and sources of data into your feedback loop throughout the entire customer experience.  The goal is to create increasingly precise insights to help you continuously evolve your understanding of what you’re delivering to your customers.  This begins with building a foundation for analytics supported by data science, and then building on that foundation to incorporate machine learning and AI techniques to predict future needs.

Some business and customer engagement models are well suited to – and in fact require – customer intimacy and insights.  The rise of the subscription economy and SaaS are being driven in large part by the ability sense and respond dynamically to customers to drive almost real-time differentiation in the marketplace.  These models will evolve over time, but we can be certain that the customer feedback loop will remain a critical component for future business success.

Second: What’s your digital roadmap to evolve your feedback loop?

The real question is not about knowing exactly what you need to build, but about establishing the right process for building the roadmap to take you forward.  Technologies will come and go, and the need to build and integrate new capabilities while refreshing the overall architecture is as old as software itself.  The answer to addressing that need lies not in technology, but the processes around it.  The Achilles Heel of many legacy IT organizations is rigidity and lack of adaptability of their processes that hinder high-velocity change.

It’s tempting to be envious of legacy-free “born in the cloud” start-ups who seem to able to move at light speed compared to more mature, large-scale businesses. You only have the luxury of starting from scratch once, and that luxury wears off quickly.  Google is estimated to have an astounding 2,000,000,000 lines of code, and you could argue that most of it is legacy code that has to be maintained and refreshed.  There are no silver bullets to the challenge of continuously transforming large-scale systems to prevent the accumulation of technical debt that can threaten forward progress.

To survive in today’s dynamic environment requires an accurate snapshot of your current organization, processes, and architecture, a blueprint of your next destination along with a plan for driving all of the changes needed along the way, and an acceptance that the destination itself will continue to evolve.  Throughout what is a continuous journey, you must stay focused on your customers and your feedback loops to be able to refine and course-correct your priorities and investments, and to take advantage of tools and technologies such as APIs and containers that can give you greater flexibility to adjust quickly.

Third: How will you ensure your culture drives your technology and not vice versa?

One of the most common mistakes IT leaders make is to assume that practices like agile and devops (or devsecops) are just about building software.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The outcome of these processes may well be better software faster, but at their essence, these practices define both specific and broad-based behaviour changes that define a new culture in your organization.  This is where the old, silo-based models, built on serving hardened organizational functions really start to fall apart.  Culture change may start with getting rid of waterfall development practices, but it doesn’t stop there.

Although agile methodologies are highly structured, they are fundamentally redefining the activities and behaviours around how new value is created.   Silos of activity give way to a value stream orientation that integrate all of the roles and functions that need to come together to deliver customer value.  It takes advantage of the customer feedback loop to identify what works, what doesn’t, and what else may be needed.  Identifying what is no longer needed becomes as important as identifying new activities.  At scale, this includes ongoing architectural refresh to prevent the accumulation of technical debt and rigidity.

Putting it all together

The environment around IT and what it is being asked to deliver have changed at a pace for which traditional IT was never designed.  Not only that, but all technology organizations exist within the larger enterprise that may itself have been unable or unwilling to respond at the pace and scale necessary to stay ahead in the digital world.  Once a business embraces the essential need for digital intimacy as a competitive necessity and source of differentiation, it will be better ready to support the cultural changes and investments needed to start its digital transformation journey in earnest.

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