Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Digital Transformation: A CXO's Guide

Digital transformation: Two CIOs explain how to make it work

From building the right capability to creating joined-up journeys, two digital leaders explain how they're leading successful digital transformation initiatives on behalf of the business.

Can we cope with accelerating digital transformation?

Special Report

Digital Transformation: A CXO's Guide

Reimagining business for the digital age is the number one priority of many of today's top executives. ZDNet offers practical advice and examples of how to get your digital transformation right.

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What does successful digital transformation look like? Research from consultancy Contino and Tech London Advocates (TLA) suggests it requires three things: a clear vision, solid alignment between technology and the business, and a powerful effort to bring staff on the journey.

The report profiled 20 digital leaders who it considers to be the top 20 digital transformation innovators in Europe. We speak with two of those CIOs to find out what they believe is the key to making digitisation stick.

Building the capability to meet fast-changing customer requirements

Gary Delooze, CIO at building society Nationwide, says talking matters when it comes to leading change. When the firm started its transformation journey, Delooze and his colleagues met with external experts and talked about both their experiences and best-practice lessons from working with other companies. 

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Delooze: "'Lighthouse projects' show the business how digital transformation brings big benefits."

Image: Nationwide

The aim of these conversations was to differentiate between success and failure in digital transformation. One of the things Delooze learnt quickly was that the business needs clear evidence of how digital change might lead to positive results. He refers to this evidence as 'lighthouse projects'. These beacons show the rest of the business how digitisation can produce great results quickly -- and create benefits in other areas of the organisation, too.

SEE: Agile development, Agile management: How to keep teams productive, wherever they are

Delooze focused on creating experiments that could demonstrate how a different way of working might lead to better outcomes. He created cross-organisation and geographically dispersed digital hubs, which included a small number of people working on services and products for the building society's members.

While the first hubs worked out of the company's head office in Swindon, these teams are now spread across a series of locations, working in not just Swindon, but also in London, India, from home, and even from the firm's branch network.

The people in these hubs use an Agile approach to deliver new product features iteratively and rapidly. By allying experimentation to the firm's commitment to the cloud, Delooze says the company can test technological innovations quickly.

He gives an example: when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Bank of England announced that building societies would have to give customers the opportunity to take a holiday from their mortgage payments. Nationwide knew it would have to deal with the challenge quickly, but its call centres were inundated with requests from customers.

"So very quickly we said, 'right, we actually need to do this online; we can't have people waiting for hours on the phone to do this. So let's focus on building a digital journey to do that. Let's see how quickly we can do it and get it live'," says Delooze.

A project of that scale two years ago would have taken the IT team six months from the requirements-gathering phase through to design, build, test and onto implementation. With an Agile way of working engrained into the company's culture, Delooze was able to set up a digital hub to start experimenting with potential solutions in the cloud.

"Within five days, we'd designed it, built it, and implemented it -- and in under 10 days, it was live and active, taking payment holidays," he says. "That success comes back to both the cloud platform we'd created, the people capability we put in place to allow them to work in that way, and the environment that we created."

Creating joined-up journeys to deliver digital transformation success

Jon Braithwaite, UK and Ireland CIO at food and support services company Compass Group, is another digital leader who believes a clear vision, business and IT alignment and organisation-wide buy-in are critical success factors for digital transformation.

"Having a CIO that can evangelise and sell the art of the possible is super-important," he says. "You also need to be part of a business that is receptive to that change and willing to engage with it -- and Compass is."

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Braithwaite: "You need to be constantly talking to the business; constantly bringing them on the journey."

Image: Compass Group

The company runs 11,000 point-of-sale devices across a range of organisations and events. When the pandemic hit, many of these events stopped. The board at Compass then took the the decision to invest heavily in technology, digital and data during the past 18 months.

SEE: Digital transformation: Five ways to help your business boost customer experience

Braithwaite says his team used that backing well, developing multi-channel approaches for its customers and exploring potential applications of artificial intelligence. He says the pandemic has changed his business's relationship with digital transformation forever -- and for the better.

"We've done an awful lot during some really difficult times for everybody. I think we've done some great stuff, and there's more to do. But we're in a really good place to leverage a lot of the digital work that we've done over the past 18 months or so," he says.

Like Delooze at Nationwide, Braithwaite says demonstrating credibility quickly is extremely important. He says one of the priorities for his IT team is to align any digital transformation efforts to business strategy. The team pilots, trials and delivers capability incrementally, so that the business can see results quickly.

"It's a classic Agile approach," he says. "I think that quick, visible delivery can get lost sometimes in IT. And it's something that's very much at the core of how we try and work. I think being able to demonstrate to the business that their faith is being rewarded in some tangible early benefits is a good thing."

Crucially, Braithwaite says CIOs and their team shouldn't just turn up to the boardroom with a set of potential positives at the end of the pilot project. Digital transformation success relies on constant engagement. Digital leaders must bring the business along during every stage of the journey, from inception all the way through to implementation.

"You can't just evangelise to the board on day one and then not talk to them until the end of the project," he says. "You need to be constantly talking to the business; constantly bringing them on the journey. And what I've found is they tend to share the challenges, they share the pain, and they also share the gains with you."