It's time to trash today's most abused and misused buzzword: Digital transformation. In fact, let's also dump "IT transformation" and "Digitalization."
While "Digital transformation" and its cohorts represent a great concept, they have been twisted in the industry to mean "apply technology and everything will be fine." They also come with the added warning that if you don't apply technology you'll die. Well, at least your company will die. That reminder of corporate mortality typically is accompanied by citations of Uber and Netflix as tech-driven success stories, and images of empty brick-and-mortar stores abandoned by retailers that were late to the Amazon revolution. You don't want your company to be among the losers.
Having planted the specter of the Grim Reaper in our brains, advocates for digital transformation then outline the life-saving fix. Of course, it's always something that the speaker just happens to sell or consult on: cloud/SaaS, DevOps, AI, mobile, edge computing, outsourcing, microservices, hosting, training, or maybe all of the above.
If you want to transform your organization -- or in the case of Amazon and Uber, an industry -- don't think first about technology. Ban talk such as, "AI can transform our company". You should start by understanding where your organization or industry is today -- its strengths, its weaknesses, and its potential -- along with what you want it to be down the road. Yes, think in terms of "business transformation," not a tech project. Tech can open up new opportunities and it can support that business transformation, but transforming a business is rarely a tech-first endeavor.
Concepts such as identifying the business's pain points get plenty of lip service and a bit of sympathy from IT, but little real action today. Too often, any proposed solution to a pain point gets buried in a development queue or written off as requiring too many resources.
As Jessica Davis noted in her Monday article Digital Transformation: What Not To Do, successful transformations require regular communication among all parties; IT, business unit leaders, line workers, and the C-suite.
To get off on the right foot and to contribute to the business transformation, IT leaders need to sit down with the executive leadership team and key business unit managers. Let those business leaders -- perhaps aided by an outside consultant -- develop a prioritized list of challenges and opportunities facing the organization. That short list becomes IT's primary marching orders.
Challenges might include customer pushback, faulty internal processes, shrinking sales, and employee turnover or dissatisfaction. Opportunities might be a new product line, a new customer demographic, or a new supply chain partnership. Don't even mention technology solutions until you know what problems you need to address, and how they relate to company goals for the coming years.
Where IT can best contribute is to look at those prioritized issues, and evaluate which technologies can address which issues. Consider establishing small, cross-functional teams -- some of your brightest IT folks paired with business unit line managers -- to hack the most important challenges and opportunities. Then the teams can build out suggestions for the executive suite on how technology and fresh thinking can move the company forward on each specific goal. In most cases it's likely to be one part technology and one part "fresh thinking". In some cases, the solution won't demand expensive and extensive technology initiatives. For example, killing a weak product line and adding resources to something more promising, or reworking some internal processes might be the answer.
Then the company can focus its technology resources on the mission-critical matters. The odds are that there will be plenty of opportunities to introduce AI, agile, blockchain, or whatever else turns out to be hot in 2019 as the business transformation moves forward.
None of this means that you stop exploring ways to implement new tech concepts. There always will be opportunities to experiment with pilot or tactical projects, even if the problems you address aren't among the top corporate priorities. The learning experience such programs offer is valuable in that the IT team and the business leaders get to see what an emerging technology can and can't do.
However, such experimentation isn't transformation; it's valuable in that it builds up the knowledge base that the IT team brings to the real business transformation. Even as companies invest in new technologies you can bet that IT resources will continue to be limited, and the best way to make the most of those resources is by being a full partner with the business leaders in achieving the key, long-term goals of the company.
Jim Connolly is a versatile and experienced technology journalist who has reported on IT trends for more than two decades. As editorial director of InformationWeek and Network Computing, he oversees the day-to-day planning and editing on the site. Most recently he was editor ... View Full Bio