Digital transformation: The new rules for getting projects done

Three digital leaders explain how the challenge of dealing with the coronavirus has changed how their organisations will exploit technology in the longer term.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Making a success of digital transformation is as much about supporting cultural change across the business as it will be about buying about buying shiny new systems and services.

Tech executives speaking at the recent DTX: NOW virtual event outlined how their organisations have coped with the huge challenges of the past six months and offered their tips for succeeding with digital transformation in the post-COVID age.

1. Create faster planning cycles for digitalisation

Major General Tom Copinger-Symes, director of military digitisation at UK Strategic Command, says the military often takes years, even decades, to bring its plans for change – such as the design for a new fighter plane or battleship – to fruition. He says coronavirus has meant slower moving organisations have had to move quicker.

"Sometimes it turns out to be a lot easier to take risks in a crisis, because you'll mobilise around that purpose, and some of the concerns that you have when you're not in crisis drift away, and suddenly people become very empowered, very willing to take risks, and then you suddenly find you can move much faster," he says.

SEE: Guide to Becoming a Digital Transformation Champion (TechRepublic Premium)

While the military's role is to be resilient and to cope with shocks at all times, the pandemic has required a series of rapid responses to significant tech challenges. Those challenges have included increasing capacity for remote working, getting laptops to the NHS, and helping to establish the UK's temporary Nightingale hospitals.

"Amidst all the misery, this has been a great opportunity to fast-forward a lot of changes that were on the stocks anyway," says Copinger-Symes. "So I wouldn't want to say it's been positive, because that would undercut the tragedies out there, but I think we've adjusted in stride and there are a lot of opportunities to look out for, too."

Like other organisations, the UK military has to put its five-year plan for tech-led change on the back-burner while it deals with the priorities of the pandemic. However, this change in emphasis has helped the organisation to reprioritise – and Copinger-Symes hopes the move away from a slower planning cycle is permanent, particularly when it comes to tech.

"That has to change, because increasingly our competitiveness is found through the software not the hardware. And if you adopt decade-long planning cycles with software, you're not going to be very competitive," he says.

"I think we were being forced to be change our planning to a much shorter loop, so I think this pandemic has accelerated that process. And I'm not saying we're on top of it or we've got it all right, but I think that's just another acceleration of where we were moving anyway – to that software-based view of the world, rather than a hardware view of the world."

2. Use innovation to power short-term goals

Jamie Broadbent, head of digital and innovation at RBS International, says the bank had to park its long-term strategic priorities at the outbreak of COVID-19 and instead move into crisis-management mode. That shift led to a shift away from traditional hierarchies and ways of working – and towards letting people make decisions quickly.

He gives the example of legacy processes. Although it's a digital-first bank, the organisation still relies on its physical infrastructure, such as people in offices and contact centres, and face-to-face and paper-based processes. Almost overnight, RBS had to switch to deliver everything digitally.

"We've had no paper, we've had no wet signatures, we've had very limited face-to-face contact with our customers, and yet we've still managed to do business just fine because we've been able to embrace the benefits of digital at the same time that all of our customers have actively embraced that as well," he says.

SEE: Your next next digital transformation project should look very different

Broadbent says it's already clear that many of these physical processes will be not coming back post-COVID because people – both employees and customers – have found a better way of working. The key to success now will be how the bank makes the most of this behavioural change going forward.

Banks are normally centred around five-year planning and funding cycles. Broadbent says coronavirus has shown the importance of focusing simultaneously on short-term demands and longer term disruptions.  

He says the aim now must be to first zoom out and think about the likely shape of banking in 10 to 15 years given the advent of disruptive trends around AI, big data and quantum computing. Then, digital leaders in banking should zoom back to the short term and focus on "the powerful actions" that will help their organisations move in the right direction.

"And I think that's now where we're starting to make peace with the way that the funding cycle needs to work – you need to have a long-term vision, and then short-term goals or objectives that guide you towards that," says Broadbent. "Ultimately, it's about delivering innovation much faster on behalf of the consumer."

3. Embrace collaboration to put the customer first

Coronavirus might have come as a bolt from the blue for executives and their employees, but Larry Anderson, transformational change lead for EMEA at Nike, says organisations with collaborative cultures have been able to ensure their operations remain effective and their digitalisation continues.

"You have to reprioritize your projects and put the right people around the right problems," he says. "We already had a very good relationships with our business users and stakeholders. So we were able to use that platform from March onwards to accelerate towards the completion of our programme of work."

Anderson says he's had people from the firm's finance department during the past few months asking about how they can be more agile. This interest in design-led thinking is evidence of a broader change in culture and mindset beyond the IT department. Now, he and his colleagues need to take advantage of this joined-up style of working that COVID has necessitated.

SEE: Without cloud computing, businesses would now be in even deeper trouble

Like other experts, Anderson believes organisations looking to make the most of digital technology in the longer term must focus on their planning horizons. He encourages companies to innovate and iterate quickly. Put customer demands at the heart of the longer-term planning process and think about how an ecosystem of partners can feed into your transformation processes.

"It's about road-mapping and understanding what trends are coming up in the future," he says. 

"I think COVID will become a filter for organisations to really focus on customers – and that has to be a number-one priority. Collaborating with people or organisations who have complimentary attributes, I think is also a way to accelerate your growth, because the digital train is not stopping any time soon."

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