Transformation by any other name?

The world of IT is often a tribal one where people frequently have strongly held views which they love to outline on competing technologies, product vendors, service providers and anything else you care to mention.  There are some subjects which can always be relied upon to spark the euphemistic “free and frank exchange of views”.  So it was no surprise recently when I found myself in a group of CIOs with decades of experience (and the associated scars!) that the topic of IT transformation proved somewhat provocative.

The discussion started with the usual tussle over defining the term and distinguishing a technology upgrade/deployment from a business change enabled by technology programme.  The group reassuringly quickly reached agreement that the term implied an undue focus on technology.  The group preference was for the term “IT enabled business transformation”.  There was also rapid agreement on the key characteristics conveyed by that term.  These included the delivery of material business benefits gained by a tightly managed and closely measured technology enabled process change which is implemented with a clear focus on the people change requirements.

However, the debate restarted when it was suggested that the term “digital transformation” was a far better label.   The discussion also covered the term “two speed IT function” used by some analysts or “bimodal IT” as coined by Gartner to recognise the digital age facets.  All agreed that the digital age was driving a far higher focus on people within technology deployments, both in terms of the expectations created by consumerisation of IT services and the technical competence of the people consuming them.

I quite like the concept of “bimodal IT” as I do think it helps describe the duality corporate IT functions now face, namely the incessant demand for innovation at speed balanced against need to ensure appropriate data security and integrity.  We certainly must retain the disciplines of a well-defined, managed and executed business transformation enabled by technology painfully learned over many decades!  However, we do need to find risk managed ways to combine those virtues with that of rapid development, deployment and evolution of products and services.  The mantra of “measure carefully and if you are going to fail, fail early” is a good one in my view.

The importance of ensuring that the delivery remains current, valuable and aligned to requirements is not new.  However, what is new is the speed at which these programmes are now expected to deliver and so the imperative of ensuring relevance becomes more key.  That said if you leverage the right communication tools it is possible to address that requirement by harnessing the power of the population your delivery is to serve.  Doing so requires a high level of agility in every aspect of the transformation programme not to mention in its senior management sponsors.

It has always been tempting for people to label IT initiatives as transformational.  Arguably the inherent characteristics of what is truly an IT transformation programme have not changed over the years.  However, it seems very clear that some of those characteristics have evolved and gained importance in the digital age.  The people engagement imperative has become unavoidable and truly central in every sense.  This collaboration expectation combines with the relentlessly increasing pace at which delivery is demanded to create a new sense of excitement.  Successfully delivering an IT enabled business transformation programme has never been easy and we continue to improve our ability to get them right.

I think using the term digital transformation is helpful.  I much prefer it to IT transformation and it is less cumbersome than the more wordy IT enabled business transformation.  I think the word digital encapsulates business, information and technology.  It recognises for me that it is increasingly hard to distinguish between the “business” and the “IT” in the digital age.

This post was previously published on the Business Value Exchange.

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