Digital transformation's elusive ingredient: efficiency

What happens in the IT backoffice no longer stays in the IT backoffice.

By moving to more digital engagement and infrastructure, everyone expects dramatic boosts in their pace of innovation and product or service delivery. Be it subscribing to new cloud platforms, adopting data-driven analytics for decision-making, implementing robotic process automation, or opening new customer channels, great leaps of progress are anticipated. But a couple of things might get in the way. First, there is organizational readiness and openness to such change, which is often lacking in sufficient quantities. Then, there's the actual efficiency of the digital solution or configuration itself, which also tends to be problematic in many cases.

Photo: HubSpot

A recent survey of 463 enterprises released by Appian and, for example, finds many are hamstrung by inefficient processes and technologies that are slowing down or washing out any gains from digital transformational efforts. They are often too "overwhelmed by mounting technical debt and the number of software applications needed to support changing IT environments." Ninety-one percent, in fact, struggle with technical debt, and 74 percent say it slows down their ability to respond to business initiatives. Technical debt is defined as the costs and complexity that grow as a result of constant short-term fixes and overlays.

Digital efficiency is one of the topics covered in Charles Betz's latest book, Managing Digital, published by The Open Group. Betz, a Forrester analyst, sees new classes of risks arising from digital initiatives. Such risks "can reduce or destroy revenues, erode organizational effectiveness, and worse." Sounds counterproductive to the purpose of going digital.

So, let's assume you have the buy-in and budget for digital approaches, and everyone is on board and ready to make it all work. Betz describes the things that could still slow down progress:

  • "Unmanaged demand and disorganized execution models"
  • "High queue wait states, resulting in uncompetitive speed to deliver value"
  • "Slow feedback due to large batch sizes, reducing effectiveness of product discovery"
  • "New forms of supplier risk, as services become complex composites spanning the Internet ecosystem"

In the good old days of IT management (before 2015, that is), the typical response to risk was to load up staffs with new responsibilities and mandates, because that's just the way things worked. "Concerns for efficiency might lead a company to overburden its staff, resulting in queuing gridlock, too much work in process, destructive multitasking, and ultimately failure to deliver timely results -- or deliver at all," says Betz. "Such failure to deliver was tolerated because it seemed to be a common problem across most IT departments."

However, in an era in which organizations need to compete and deliver in real time, especially with so much disruption coming from nimble, tech and data-savvy startups and other players, such performance bottlenecks need to be addressed. What happens in the IT backoffice no longer stays in the IT backoffice.

Here are three of the recommendations Betz makes to amp up and assure more superior performance and delivery of digital projects:

Consolidate and automate through DevOps: Betz sees DevOps as a way to keep digital transformation on track and delivering, "Traditionally, application teams have owned their own development and deployment pipelines, at the cost of great, non-value add variability," he says. "Even centralizing source control has been difficult." He recommends consolidating development and deployment "as much as possible into common pipelines," and introducing full-lifecycle pipeline automation to help make this happen.

Service orient: The principles of service oriented architecture come into play here. Amazon is an example of a digital operation that has learned to standardize integration protocols across internal services, Betz points out. "This reduces the need for detailed analysis of system interaction approaches every time two systems need to exchange data." This reduces the costs, latency and redundancy of service-to-service transactions, especially as it is applied to security, accounting, and customer relationship management.

Question everything: Betz invokes the phrase "organizational scar tissue" to describe the tangled web of processes that emerge when things get dysfunctional, and processes are layered over other processes in attempts to fix inefficiencies. Processes need to be ranked in importance to the enterprise, and their purposes questioned. "The point is to keep asking the question. 'Do we really need a separate process? Or can the objectives be achieved as part of an existing process or another enabler?'"