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

Your next digital transformation project should look very different

The rapid set up of remote working due to coronavrius has raised expectations around technology. But CIOs will need to make sure their future projects meet the demands of business.

How the CIO is changing again to focus on future growth

The rush to keep organisations operating as smoothly as possible with staff working from home has pushed technology-powered transformation to the top of the agenda for many executives.

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Digital Transformation: A CXO's Guide

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Research by recruitment company Harvey Nash and consultant KPMG shows that almost half of senior tech executives think the pandemic has permanently accelerated digital transformation and the adoption of emergent technologies. Companies spent the equivalent of around $15 billion extra per week on technology during the first three months of the crisis as they scrambled to keep operating.

SEE: The CIO has a new set of priorities and problems: Here's what's on their to-do list

But what happens in the longer term? If even sceptical executives have now seen the benefits of investing in technology to make companies more resilient and able to deal with change, is that likely to continue? What's the next step for companies who are embracing digitisation, and how does the way they deliver these projects change? 

Think about people, not technology 

While business executives might now be willing to acknowledge the power of digitisation, the adoption of innovative technologies -- whether that's projects around big data, artificial intelligence or machine learning -- requires a nuanced approach. Danny Attias, chief digital and information officer at British charity Anthony Nolan, says organisations must be careful not to expect too much from tech-enabled change.

"The phrase 'digital transformation' is slightly overused now," he says. "I think the problem with thinking of digital transformation is you think of it as this big, somewhat unattainable thing -- and 80% of people fail on their journey to try and get there."

Attias says business leaders looking to continue their digital journey must focus on people rather than technology. When he talks about transformation at his charity, he's referring, first and foremost, to transforming his organisation's internal culture to help deliver tech-enabled change projects.

"That's the one thing that we're working on right now: our digital capability framework for the entire organisation – good data-handling skills, good collaboration skills, and the ability to run workshops and ideate the understanding that you need to test things," he says.

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

Lily Haake, head of the CIO Practice at recruiter Harvey Nash, also recognises that while coronavirus necessitated a short-term focus on cloud, security, networks and infrastructure, the longer-term focus will involve a move away from operational concerns and towards continuing digitalisation through a cultural transformation of the internal organisation.

The joined-up thinking that has characterised working practices during the pandemic highlights the likely direction of travel for this cultural transformation. While the crisis has created physical remoteness, the Harvey Nash/KPMG research suggests it has actually had a positive effect on team cohesion, collaboration and inclusivity. 

Almost three-quarters (70%) of CIOs agree or strongly agree that the pandemic has increased the collaboration between the technology team and the business; more than half (52%) say it has created a culture of inclusivity within their teams, too. 

Yet while absence has made the heart grow fonder during the extreme conditions of social distancing, CIOs will have to work hard to ensure the close virtual bonds that have been fostered during lockdown are able to flourish when we return to something like normal working conditions. 

To that end, Haake says her firm's research with KPMG suggests the most important factor for CIOs in the post-COVID age is strong cultural leadership. "That's what a good digital leader is going to have to keep an eye on if they want to be successful," she says.

Pioneering CIOs will lead a cultural transformation that hones the capabilities of the IT team and intertwines these talents with the demands of the business. Digital leaders who build that tight bond will be much more likely to deliver timely tech solutions that really do change the business for the better.

Julie Dodd, director of transformation at Parkinson's UK, has run a range of pioneering tech-led projects and says organisations looking to innovate must ensure their people know the customer challenges they're going to solve. Buying tools should be the final part of the digital transformation equation.

"The most transformational thing that organisations can do -- well before starting to look at changing their technology stack or products -- is to change their perspective," she says. "So many organisations considering their 'digital transformation' are starting with the question of 'which tools do we need?', when they need to be asking 'how does our customers' experience need to change?' and 'how is our culture supporting or blocking our ability to transform?'."

Look to the furthest horizon

Neil Ward-Dutton, vice president at analyst IDC, agrees that it's all too easy to embark on a transformation with a technology goal, but not a business goal. "This is a serious mistake," he says, before outlining IDC's strategy known as 'horizon thinking', which suggests that CIOs embarking on digital transformation should create business roadmaps that consist of three horizons: short, medium and long term.

"At the furthest horizon, detail one bold outcome that you want to achieve," says Ward-Dutton. "Then reverse-engineer the intermediate outcomes that are required to achieve that goal. So for the medium-term horizon, identify a handful of capabilities that are required to support that furthest horizon, and in the short term, identify what's needed to get started."

The simple message seems to be that CIOs must help their organisations walk before they run. The rapid and effective response to the coronavirus pandemic has made businesses understand the value of digitisation and perhaps to be open to more. Now CIOs most focus on thinking about how to achieve these long-term business goals.

"You don't have to plan three years' worth of work," says Anthony Nolan's Attias. "You just need to come up with an idea, get out and test it, and make information based-decisions. So it doesn't really matter whether you're using Amazon, Google or Microsoft, and it doesn't matter whether you're using C# or Java. It's not what the technology is, it's how you use the tools -- that's more important than anything else."