Digital Business Transformation – Get it Right

[900 words]

Introduction

Digital business transformation is a top-of-mind priority in management. Like all buzzwords, DBT is vague, but champions the cause of technology. At the same time, technology failure is common. [1] I try to clarify: how to identify business priorities for innovative change; the role of tech; and how to implement successfully.

Digital Business Transformation: The Blind Imperative

The rallying cry in a recent article [2] is that everyone must embrace DBT or get left behind! Of course, there is truth to that. In any given industry or sector, all kinds of innovative change is occurring, but that is nothing new.

The imperative to innovate is fueled now by societal changes (due to lockdowns) and the word digital — i.e., everything tech, ultimately connected with “the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, AI, and even the “transhumanist” agenda. The implication is that digitization (i.e., technology, in some unspecified form) is the immediate answer to all business challenges.

Technology Failure

Well, a parallel stream of reporting confesses that IoT; IIoT; SaaS; ERP; RPA (robotic process automation); big data analytics; client profiles management; and various enterprise applications fail or under-deliver at alarmingly high rates.

In previous posts [3] I responded to the reasons for failure given in online reports. What is not mentioned in those reports is that the challenges were already identified and solved back in 1980s and ‘90s. Project leaders still seem to routinely ignore the needs of roll-out and principles of successful program implementation. Further, the stories show that people installing new systems are even forgetting tech basics like inter-operability of systems, upgrades and compatible file formats.

The Technology Myth

Rampant tech failure scarcely has any effect on the DBT imperative. I believe it is because the technology myth is sacrosanct. This is the myth operating in the subconscious of managers, saying: “We must purchase the new [fill in the blank] tech system, because that action, in and of itself, will save the business, generate efficiencies, inspire employees to adopt new behaviours, move us ahead of the competition and delight our clients.”

The corollary is: “Because we are using the latest technology, we have identified the root problem correctly.”

Of course, this article is not an anti-technology manifesto. Technology can either facilitate, or even make possible to begin with, the needed creative change to respond to new conditions.

A balanced dialogue is needed, because proponents of some technology will often rightly propose radical changes that no-one had even even considered. Software vendors can hardly be blamed for imposing a solution when they ask: “What is your business process?” and get no answer. The client (perhaps under the influence of the technology myth) has not bothered to map out the workflow and so is at a disadvantage in the discussion.

The more fundamental point is that beneficial business changes do not, properly speaking, originate in the technology itself. The technology is merely the enabler of some desired change, which has a deeper logic.

Technology is not the hero when extraordinary changes are accomplished in a low-tech fashion. We might have engaged our employee group with newfound trust; created a novel client outreach program; or managed our supply chain risk — all without entailing new tech.

Various approaches

Different approaches to DBT are evident. In the article cited [2] the author makes excellent points about documenting and inter-relating marketing, sales and customer experience processes. He asks: “Do You Have a Documented Sales Process?” and recommends tracing through “a visual representation of your entire prospect and customer buying journey.”

Yet, in demanding “alignment” among employees, he seems to ignore org change basics. Alignment is not a discrete task, and will not be uniform. Real alignment occurs as staff participates in building new methods and proving results.

Rather than defaulting to marketing and customer experience, I believe that we have to cast the net wide to all domains to identify the most potentially valuable prospective changes. My view is corroborated in a recent article [4] by HBR: “Today a complete strategy has to encompass carefully coordinated choices about the business model with the highest potential to create value…”

Strategic planning; innovation process

Pressing needs for business change can only be comprehensively identified, compared and selected in strategic planning and innovation exercises.

An iterative and participatory strategic planning process works well. The firm’s strategic identity, capacity for change, special assets, industry trends and client need all come under review. [5]

Innovation, a vast subject, can be approached meaningfully in structured discussions to reveal: possible innovation targets and levels of benefit. [6]

Summary

In sum, we see that the cry for “Digital Business Transformation” is justified, as long as we are not slaves to the technology myth, and so do not jump headlong into tech acquisitions.

Conclusions

1. Identify priorities for change in comprehensive reviews. Strategic planning exercises and structured innovation help you to discern the most acutely needed projects, which then receive cost-benefit and priority ranking.

2. Make sure technology serves, not drives, the business. Do not embrace any given technology indiscriminately. Explore radical change enabled by tech, but only enable worthy projects with tech where needed.

3. Reject the technology myth. Don’t become another “failed program” statistic. Manage tech initiatives by taking account of IT architecture and factors for organizational change. For all initiatives, even low-tech, apply principles of successful program implementation.

4. Do risk assessment to identify and fix — at the front end — the uncertainties affecting your implementation. [7]

References

[1] (Forbes, 2021) 14 Common reason software projects fail– recent representative article

[2] (Mike Lieberman, square 2 marketing, 2021) Rate your digital transformation progress

[3] (Robertson 2020) Innovation – successful tech implementation – scroll down to 3-part series

[4] (HBR, 2021) Why do so many strategies fail?

[5] (Robertson, 2019) Strategic Planning: Process, Templates and Effective Implementation

[6] Innovation: How Can My Organization Get Started? – innovation methodology; free introductory course

[7] How to Conduct High Quality Risk Assessment – online course

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