Change by design: The new role of digital and software in organizational transformation

Don't settle for the 'new normal'—it’s time to reimagine the role of digital transformation in the future of work.

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In 2021 and beyond, business and technology leaders should not settle for a “new normal,” nor frame the future as the “next normal.” If we really think about it, the business and operational models that powered yesterday’s companies were largely scaled and optimized from paper-based analog processes. Simply digitizing legacy systems, and mindsets, isn’t going to cut it in the new world. We no longer have generous multi-year timelines to transform. It’s time to reimagine the role of digital transformation in the future of work, create new value for digital-first customers, reskill employees for the new world, and explore innovative technologies to build tomorrow’s business, today.

The bright side of this global disruption revealed things that we previously thought impossible in such short time frames. We learned we were resilient when tested, and capable of assembling and executing in ways we didn’t think were possible before. The best leaders are already leveraging those learnings and innovating. 

Change by design: The role of software in digital transformation

For most established organizations, it’s not just about becoming as innovative as Google or Amazon; it’s about mastering tech with a purpose to make it a force multiplier for your specific business. For many, the goal of a digital transformation was simply to digitize and modernize legacy systems and processes. And after years of well-intended initiatives and projects, it’s safe to say that many leaders at organizations could no longer see the forest for the trees.

The pandemic has fundamentally changed that view, reminding us why we do anything: to delight our customers and to empower our employees as times and trends evolve.

With that north star, we can look to leverage software for true business model modernization. Software and digital are the main means of creative and functional production in this age. Incredible feats can be achieved by aligning business strategy with software products and software architecture to microservices and organizational structures. Like the technological revolutions that have come before it, software is this age’s means to grow, to increase existing revenue streams and create new ones. Digital production—enabled by highly creative software delivery work to produce intangible assets—is the lifeblood of all customer and employee interactions, and it can make or break our relationship with a brand or organization.

I recently heard the story of global travel company TUI Group and how it turned disaster into an opportunity to overhaul how a business operates. With planes grounded and hotel doors bolted up, the leadership at TUI—led by Group CTO Pieter Jordaan— took proactive steps to prepare the organization for the new world unfurling.

Solve your biggest problem first

Identifying who our customers have become during these times and identifying their most pressing problem(s) and aspirations, and then walking back from there, is a great place to start. It can help block out the noise—the calls to return to pre-pandemic roadmaps, conflicting priorities, the whirlwind of opinions, the avalanche of vendor pitches—to hone in on what matters. The solving of these customer problems plants stepping-stones in the river that stands between our current and future state.

Jordaan offers some sound advice: “Take your business and break it down into smaller chunks and start building things. And don’t solve problems that don’t exist yet, that you haven’t yet faced.”

Through slicing their business into manageable chunks, TUI Group was able to reach a consensus on what their biggest current challenge was through the eyes of the customer. Looking at the software ecosystem that supported the customer experience, Jordaan realized the existing approach was too disjointed and insufficient. All 180 regions that TUI served across the globe were using individual systems to sell and market to customers using their own databases and customizations.

The group sought to unify these regions through a centralized cloud platform—built from existing pieces—to remove the need to reinvent the wheel for each country. They faced some blowback as it entailed shutting down each region’s system; the people in those regions naturally feared the loss of control over sales and their own customizations tailored to their unique customer journey. However, the team's fears and reservations were quickly allayed. The new modern and simplified digital experience was embraced, with TUI generating 50% of its revenues through the cloud platform in less than six months.

Set the vision, work backwards, move with charted, incremental measures

One of the key lessons of this story is that the company didn’t just move to the cloud because it’s the thing to do. They had a clear business goal: they knew that the cloud platform would enable their teams to better support customers and that leadership would be able to measure this technology decision (a better platform for marketing and selling to customers) against business results (i.e., leads and sales). They didn’t try to transform the whole business, just a key part of their incremental journey. In “breaking down the universe into increments,” Jordaan says he was able to “see how the universe of business is changing.”

This idea of seeing the universe change is so crucial. We’re all guilty of hoping that just by doing things— investing in development through talent, tooling and process (DevOps, SAFe, etc.), RPA, AI, machine learning, the cloud—we’re changing our universe for the better. But as Hemingway famously opined, “don’t confuse motion with action.” As we continue to take steps to continuously, incrementally improve, we need clear outcomes aligned to our actions. We also need to measure each step as we go to ensure we’re achieving those outcomes. We need to track our progress; otherwise, what’s the point?

So reassemble the business-technology taskforce that led your business through this challenging last year and pick the most glaring customer problem that you face today. And like TUI Group, start small; the company originally picked a low-volume region to trial the cloud platform before rolling it out. Whatever business-critical product or service you pick to double down on, don’t think of this as a temporary solution or quick fix; these are changes that are taking you into the future.

With clear outcomes agreed upon, and with end-to-end Flow Metrics to close the feedback loop with customers to help you learn and iterate at a faster clip, you begin to score and promote little wins. These little wins are important because they reinforce the culture of continuous improvement. They allow you to see and feel the impact of your decisions and changes. It gives the whole organization a sense of purpose.

If you’re waiting for instructions, you may be on the wrong side of innovation. Ask yourself, “What’s my role in all this?” The most important lesson in these times of disruption is that the role is actually yours to define and shape.

Whether you’re a business or technology leader (or both), now is the time to grasp this opportunity, build on this momentum, and spearhead real business transformation and modernization. Set out your vision, define your future state, and map out how you incrementally get there.

You can hear more on this topic in a deeper conversation between Dr. Mik Kersten and Brian Solis on the podcast, “Project to Product.”

This article is co-authored with Dr. Mik Kersten, CEO and founder, Tasktop and the bestselling author of Project To Product: How to Survive and Thrive in the Age of Digital Disruption with the Flow Framework. Dr. Kersten started his career as a Research Scientist at Xerox PARC where he built the first aspect-oriented development environment. He then pioneered the integration of development environments with Agile and DevOps tools while working on his Computer Science PhD at the University of British Columbia. Founding Tasktop out of that research, Dr. Kersten has written over one million lines of open-source code that are still in use today and has brought seven successful open-source and commercial products to market.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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