Mary K. Pratt
Contributing writer

10 ways to accelerate digital transformation

Feb 21, 202314 mins
Digital Transformation

Disruptive forces dictate the need for speed when it comes to key digital initiatives. Here’s how IT leaders are overhauling strategies and processes to streamline IT for quicker success.

butterfly transformation
Credit: Kriachko Oleskii / Shutterstock

The pandemic-era push to quickly boost digital touchpoints and services proved that transformation can happen fast.

That has left a lasting legacy: Even as the pandemic recedes, enterprise executives continue to expect CIOs and their IT departments to deliver transformative capabilities at a rapid-fire pace.

If you think you’re keeping up, think again: One recent study from research firm Gartner found that the majority of CEOs (59%) say digital initiatives take too long and 52% take too long to realize value.

The pressure is on to accelerate digital transformation, according to CIOs, researchers, and analysts. They say growing concerns about economic slowdowns and a possible recession only ratchet up the need for speed.

Veteran IT executives and executive advisors offer the following 10 strategies that CIOs can employ to increase the velocity of IT work and the delivery of transformative initiatives.

1. Shed the legacy mindset

CIOs have been shedding legacy technology for years, but Ken Piddington, vice president and CIO of US Silica, says it’s time for CIOs to kick the legacy mindset to the curb, too.

That means shortening the expected lifespan on new technologies as well as the timelines for seeing returns. In other words, stop thinking big bangs, seek out smaller, quicker victories.

Piddington says he accepts that some technology investments will be short-lived, that they will be designed and implemented to meet the needs of the moment and deliver returns quickly, and then will have to be retired.

“Understand that we might have to throw it away quickly, and that’s not a sunk cost,” Piddington says, adding that as a result CIOs need to get okay with more churn in the tech stack and truly embrace technology strategies centered around smaller investments and iterative builds rather than the big projects of yesteryear.

2. Go all-in with modern work processes — particularly agile

Another way to ensure IT can more quickly deliver transformative features, functions, and services is to go all-in with modern approaches to work; more specifically, CIOs say that means fully embracing the agile development methodology.

Indeed, the majority turn to agile practices for the speed it can bring to enterprise initiatives: 52% of respondents to the 2022 State of Agile Report from DevOps platform maker said they prioritized implementing the methodology to accelerate time to market.

Bobby Cain can attest to the speed agile generates. Cain, who started as CIO for North America at Schneider Electric after serving nearly a decade as the company’s business transformation VP, says his IT department adopted the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), brought in agile coaches to work with teams, and had workers earn agile certifications “so we don’t just think but act in agile terms.”

Cain points to one recent project as proof of the value brought by this full embrace of agile.

We don’t just think but act in agile terms.”
CIO North America, Schneider Electric

“The rebate modernization project is a great example of where we saved almost six months in being able to deploy a working solution,” he says, contrasting the agile project with a previous waterfall pilot where “we failed after six months because we designed it in a vacuum and couldn’t scale the solution.”

He further explains: “With an agile team we understood quickly that we needed additional data fields in existing data requests and transfers with our distributors. Partnering with our distributors during the design phase we quickly incorporated VOC [voice of the customer] into our design and it allowed us to adjust the solution during build/test phases to quickly change on the fly and ultimately deploy much sooner. This will enable the business to realize the value and trace it to the P&L ahead of schedule. Equally as important, it delivers productivity savings to our distributors through greater accuracy and less disputes and audits.”

3. Create reusable tools and repeatable processes

Kathy Kay, CIO of the Principal Financial Group, is a big believer in the value of creating tools and processes that can be used over and over to save time, so much so that she has a cloud enablement team that builds and delivers such things (from APIs to pipelines) to other technologists who then use them to speed their own work.

“So it’s easier for engineers to build out new environments, it makes it safer and easier to secure, and more consistent, and that enables those teams to do their work more quickly,” Kay explains.

Kay points to the creation and use of a principal design system as an illustrative example, saying it is meant to ensure that the company’s customers have a consistent experience when interacting with the company regardless of where those customers are located. The system uses various AWS services that have been designed and configured to enable that desired customer experience, and, Kay says, “When leveraged, it will allow an engineer to quickly build an environment that’s secure and consistent — and to build more quickly than if they had to create it for themselves.”

4. Educate your IT team on key business drivers

By now, CIOs everywhere have gotten the message that they must align with the business and its strategies. But Piddington has found that keeping his team updated on “what’s really driving the organization, what are the headwinds and tailwinds” is equally important for keeping pace with business needs.

“It’s my responsibility to make sure I communicate that down to my team. Otherwise, how can they make educated decisions?” Piddington asks.

Piddington shares such information with his IT team, and he also invites other departmental executives to speak with his staff so they learn about the opportunities and challenges that the company is facing.

It’s my responsibility to make sure I communicate that down to my team. Otherwise, how can they make educated decisions?”
VP, CIO, US Silica

That communication pays dividends when it comes to speedy tech development. Piddington points to a recent exchange he had with one of his developers. Knowing that the company saw more customer access to real-time logistics information as a way to gain and keep market share, she developed over just one weekend a program that could deliver those insights through Amazon’s Alexa. “It was about quickly showing the art of the possible, the ease of accessing the data,” Piddington says.

5. Make your business more digitally literate

Similarly, CIOs who have been able to increase IT’s ability to deliver transformative features, functions, and services are educating their business unit colleagues on the potential — and limits — of emerging technologies, says Kamales Lardi, author of The Human Side Of Digital Business Transformation.

“A lot of times organizations like to leave tech to the CIO, but that creates multiple challenges. That means the CIO is the only one who has tech literacy, so there’s no one else in the room who can help answer questions like, ‘Are we aggressive enough? Are we right with resource allocation? Is this the best solution for what we want to achieve?’” Lardi says.

Although CIOs have taken the lead in marrying technology solutions to enterprise objectives, Lardi says those who can most quickly determine the answers to such questions enjoy a true “collaboration with business leaders and board members and the tech team.”

6. Make IT training a priority

In another nod to education, transformative CIOs likewise say continuously building up the IT team skills is essential for the ability to move fast.

Ramon Richards, senior vice president and CIO of Fannie Mae, says it’s about “investing in the right training to make sure people have the right skills to support the digital capabilities we think are important for the business we support.”

This may seem obvious, but it requires CIOs committing adequate resources to identify what skills will be needed as the organization moves forward, paying for the teams’ training, and carving out time for teams to get that training done, Richards says.

[Accelerating digital is about] investing in the right training to make sure people have the right skills to support the digital capabilities we think are important for the business we support.”
SVP and CIO, Fannie Mae

For Richards, that has meant training sessions to ensure his workers know how to use cloud infrastructure tools and services to an optimal degree “so they’re efficient in building software, and so we are able to deliver software faster and can deliver more resilient software with more controls in place to protect us from cyber threats.”

He adds: “It is about changing and modernizing how we work across our technology and processes by making sure our people have the right skills to operate.”

Richards knows firsthand the speed such training can bring, sharing that he lacked enough skilled workers on prior transformative projects and had to go to the consultant and contractor market to find the needed talent — a process that added time to the project’s delivery.

“We learned early on in our journey as we scaled digital capabilities that if you don’t have enough people with the right skills it will slow down your progress,” he says.

7. Invest in modular architecture

In addition to talking about process and people, transformation leaders also focus — not surprisingly — on the third part of the PPT framework: technology.

More specifically, they focus on investing in the right core technologies, architecture, and design to enable their technologists to quickly deliver whatever transformative tech the business needs.

According to the 2022 State of Digital Transformation report from IT service management company TEKsystems, 87% of “digital leaders agree that their organization’s ability to compete in the market is greatly dependent on the flexibility of their technology architecture.”

This goes beyond adopting cloud computing and software-as-a-service, they say. Rather, it’s about building an IT infrastructure that’s as nimble and responsive as the organization itself aims to be.

It’s about being “modular, open, and agile” and building microservices so teams can configure and reconfigure as quickly as business needs change, says Samsara CIO Stephen Franchetti.

“We need architecture that can keep up with the rate and pace of business change,” he says. “So we have to step back and consciously build that architecture [where it’s] easy to connect and easy to access data.”

Franchetti has seen how that speeds up work. “We essentially use these microservices as Lego building blocks, being able to quickly rearrange them to enable outcomes for the business,” he says.

For example, Samsara IT quickly brought together microservices around customer and product usage information to enable more real-time invoicing, payment, and product delivery information on the company’s website. IT then used those same services to enable the company’s go-to-market teams to have better data around customer usage, support cases, and interactions with the company website.

“We were able to achieve these outcomes in a fraction of the time; using the legacy approach would have taken many [more] months to achieve,” Franchetti says.

8. Speed up access to data

Another critical component for speed: ready access to high-quality data.

Many, if not most, transformative efforts — such as automating processes and personalizing user experiences — rely on data. So it’s imperative for CIOs to break down remaining data silos and build a data architecture that supports immediate access to needed data.

Getting that work done means agile teams won’t have to pause and wait for the data they need in the middle of projects, explains Thomas Randall, advisory director at Info-Tech Research Group and its SoftwareReviews division.

“There can’t be independent silos; there needs to be integration across data portfolios,” Randall adds. “[Departmental executives need to ask,] ‘How might we capture, store, and leverage data for the benefits of other departments as well?’”

Samsara’s Franchetti says CIOs often struggle on this front due to the sheer volume of challenges around data. His approach has been to tackle it bit by bit, leaning on a quote (attributed to South African Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu) about there being “only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.”

“I’ve struggled across companies to get full investments to eat that elephant all at once, so to make it successful, I attach data initiatives to business outcomes,” he says. “And by building out these strategic use cases, doing each one in the right way, ensuring we’re building the architecture in the right way, we build out these bodies of work that get us to where we’re in a position to expand and expand more rapidly.”

This incremental approach to data then produces a flywheel effect, he explains, allowing each subsequent initiative to move faster by building on the work already done. “It comes down to success breeds success,” Franchetti says.

9. Deal directly with customers

Another way to speed transformation: Ditch some of the intermediaries that exist between the CIO and the customer.

“I would challenge any CIO on how much time they spend with their customers and how much direct knowledge they get from their customers. In most organizations the touchpoints with customers are the product development teams, marketing and sales teams. CIOs rarely have that touchpoint,” Lardi says. “But one way to accelerate transformation is to understand who the target audience is today and tomorrow, what problems you are trying to solve for them, and what experiences they want, so you’re building solutions for your customers rather than building solutions to be sold.”

She says CIOs and their IT teams have a plethora of data that they can access to gain insights about their customers. She also says CIOs should find ways to directly engage customers — something that fits well with the modern work processes (such as agile development and human centered design) that leading CIOs have adopted.

10. Align IT’s pace to each business unit

Yes, CIOs do indeed have to move as fast as the business needs. But at the same time, they don’t want to be so fast that they outpace them, Piddington says.

“You really have to be in tune with your organization, because everyone says they want something yesterday. But not all things in all business units need to have the pedal to the floor. There are different levels of speed needed,” he says.

That’s why CIOs must understand the pace of the various business units and their individual needs, Piddington says. He uses that insight to prioritize projects, thereby ensuring he can deliver speed where and when it will make an impact.

“Even if IT can build [something] quickly, if the business isn’t ready to use it then it will sit on the shelf. So we’ve created shelfware, and I could have used those resources to deliver something elsewhere more quickly that could have delivered an ROI right away,” Piddington explains. “It’s about understanding the timing of the investment to maximize its return.”

More on digital transformation: