One of the few certainties emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic is the accelerated adoption of digital business models by companies of all sizes, largely driven by necessity. International Data Corp. estimates that 90% of companies have at least begun their digital transformation (DX) journey. As many but not all workers return to offices, leadership teams and managers must now assess how to continue to drive their organization’s DX.
Based on experience and observation in projects ranging from implementation of data infrastructure systems to machine learning-based predictive modeling to supporting corporate business analytics initiatives, it is clear that success in DX depends on two key considerations: planning and people.
Developing a clear and complete roadmap is must at the outset of any data project. Digital transformation goes beyond technology and process implementation, it is focused on changing the foundations of business to become more efficient and competitive based on those implementations. With this in mind, any data technology project has to be part of a big picture strategy outlining the vision of the organization’s future state and how it will get there. Seventy percent of DX projects fail, devolving into parallel projects and added information silos largely because there is no guiding strategy and plan.
A solid implementation strategy must include several factors to map the path from the current state to the envisioned future state. Input from almost every part of the organization is required to properly define that future state.
It is important to define data governance by understanding the various personas consuming and utilizing information within the organization. It takes significant effort to compile the who, what, when and why of data consumption, but it is well worth the effort.
There are a few things that organizations can often improve as they set out to create a data strategy, either for a wholesale shift from spreadsheet management to a true infrastructure or for continued work on a DX already underway.
Whether through internal interviews, structured ideation — such as design thinking — or any other method, laying the groundwork and setting the vision for the next phase of your organization’s digital journey is critical to achieving what you expect and shortening the time-to-value of the investment:
- Align the vision. Communication is essential for aligning the purpose and expectations among stakeholders, users and consumers. It is critical to have a high-level sponsor to drive the project and provide executive advocacy when inevitable hurdles arise, but it is also difficult for a single person to fully understand what is happening or missing from a data utilization standpoint. Digitalization projects, especially major ones, should have their own organizational structure and accommodate different viewpoints during the strategy phase of the project.
- Look both ways. All too often, developing a DX road map involves considering the present and the future without regard for lessons of the past. It is valuable to not only understand where the organization is today, but also how and why it got there. This added forensic effort can help inform the path forward by uncovering what has and has not worked, as well as unfinished initiatives that can still be driven without a lot of extra investment.
- Iterate. Once complete, the road map should not be treated as a static object. At every major step there should be some review and reconsideration. This is not to say that the organization should fall into analysis paralysis — but, given the pace of change in nearly every aspect of business today, a regular check-in among stakeholders can provide a lot of value. Has the organization changed? Have priorities shifted? Are there technology changes that should be evaluated?
It is critical to have the right people involved from the beginning, both in helping set the right vision for an initiative and for understanding the organizational history that has led to the current state. However, the way these people are involved is even more crucial for long-term success.
“People, process and technology” is a common mantra when discussing DX, but the three are not created equal. One often-overlooked factor is that the implementation of technologies or workflows may not only affect the tasks that an individual performs, but also the individual’s role in the organization. As processes change, even when the changes are designed to make business less complicated, the interactions between people and technology can become more complex.
Hal Gregersen of Massachusetts Institute of Technology identifies three areas that should be considered as implementation of technology disrupts existing business processes:
- Capabilities. While learning tasks associated with new software or workflows is necessary, managers must consider the overall capabilities needed to deal with the changed requirements and see that their people are properly equipped.
- Roles. Technology impacts the way people interact with the business as well as with others. As an example, a decision made by a plant floor operator may now be instantly visible to upper management through real-time dashboards rather than obscured in layered and rolled-up reports. This fundamentally changes the operator’s experience and identity.
- Emotional energy. If constant virtual meetings have taught us anything, it is that using technology can significantly impact both our work and personal lives. People at all levels need to be equipped to navigate the challenges imposed by DX.
It is not just the front line that needs to be considered in the digital journey. Leaders from bottom to top must adjust and adapt. Ultimately, the goal of DX is to enhance the organization’s business model. All the work and investment required to implement new technologies, restructure workflows and train people will have little value if decision-makers cannot utilize the data and manage the changing workforce.
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