How your business can succeed in a digital transformation project

Running a successful business digital transformation project should be a key initiative in many organisations.

Some are experiencing great success with their business digital transformation projects, but others are struggling to even get out of the blocks.

Done right, digital transformation can have a metamorphic effect across almost all departments from business intelligence, recruitment, sales and marketing, to engineering and specifically software development.

Every organisation has different needs and requirements, however, the underlying goal is usually the same: improve and modernise how we do things.

How improvements are measured will be different for most organisations; for some, it’s revenue, for others, customer satisfaction, or it could be growth, but it’s vital to understand that this metric is probably going to change over the coming months and even years. Despite these differences, achieving digital transformation, as well as overcoming its potential blockers is, in fact, the same across the board. It relies on key building blocks and personnel who can steer your transformation in the right direction.

While organisations differ on their chosen metric of improvement, this is not where the uncertainty ends, as departments within organisations can drastically vary too. For sales it could be revenue, for developers it’s features, for marketing click-throughs and so on.

Business digital transformation projects can be decentralised into different departments due to the varying goals, though this can have an adverse impact. For example, analysis of an organisation using a decentralised structure showed that they had purchased four separate tools to support the business intelligence efforts of their software stack. All of these tools solved similar problems but were being used in different departments across the business. If they had identified a single tool to utilise across all departments, they would have saved approximately €250,000 a year.

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Best ways to structure a business digital transformation project

Centralised projects are often considered to make sure there is sufficient oversight and to ensure organisation-wide accountability. Although this can work, it often causes friction between the centralised team and individual departments.

It is vital that all departments are educated, engaged and invested in the digital transformation project, to ensure the project is at its most effective and well placed for success. A centralised structure can also lead to an increase in internal delays, alongside misalignment of priorities.

An example of this was another organisation that was constantly missing deadlines for projects due to internal processes, needing near double the time usually required. Furthermore, the centralised structure didn’t allow departmental managers to achieve their own targets as they didn’t align with the individual department goals.

Therefore, the best method through this confusion is a hybrid model for the following reasons:

• Specialised knowledge by department.
• Overarching governance from a central team.
• Allows the team to act as internal consultants who always have in-depth knowledge of each department.
• Enables easy sharing of best practices and common standards.
• Reusability/repurposing of work from one area to another (metrics might be different but the solution can often be very similar).
• Combined responsibility for department and central team.

The above can also help alleviate communication issues. However, communication is broader than just intra-departmental, as the correct communication cascading up and down the management chain is key. Having different goals within a company is common but as long as they align under the one overarching goal and vision, this can be very effective.

Provide leadership and clarity

Along with this, effective leadership at all levels to rally, align and articulate to everyone how it all connects is essential but often understated. This creates clarity and allows employees to be brought into the journey. A company goal of “more sales” or getting another round of investment definitely needs work.

Change is often resisted, and why wouldn’t it be? Routine is comfortable and you are trying to change it. If the vast majority within the company are not bought in, or not even open to the idea, you are fighting an uphill battle.

One of the benefits of clarity and effective communication is that it can cut down on meetings. Meetings are both energy and time consuming – a two hour meeting can sometimes knock out a whole day. So if meetings are necessary they need to be streamlined and succinct.

A long kick-off meeting to a project is fine but regular one to two-hour meetings about the project usually indicate a lack of effective communication, or that the trajectory of the project is unclear. Endless meetings during a project can create this stop-start, adjusted feeling. Agility is excellent, but having to continually pivot or enter lengthy conversations about every issue can cause:

• Stagnation/inertia.
• Lack of clarity about tasks and how to undertake them.
• The feeling of micromanagement.
• Lack of trust from employees — which will eventually result in stagnation/halt to the project’s progress.

If the vision and goal are clear you can remove a lot of these meetings by disseminating decision power, which can have an amazing effect on the velocity and rigour of the project (this is an entire paper in itself).

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Have the right personnel and characters to complete the project

There is one key aspect that hasn’t been mentioned which undeniably is that people are central to this project. The above points can all create the right environment for success but it’s the people who execute. And there is one role that you simply can’t do without, that of the Problem Solver. This is a person who is:

• Driven by a challenge.
• Unapologetically dogged.
• Isn’t afraid to do something they have never done before.
• Requires little direction, just an idea.

These characters can make digital transformation a lot smoother and more effective. When working towards digital transformation you are going to do things that are new and not always easy, just look at the cloud. It brings us so many capabilities, along with endless tutorials. What people are hired for is rarely what they are doing in a few years or even months time. This flexibility and ability to solve an abstract issue presented to you is often overlooked, especially at the interview stage.

Even in technical roles, recruiters test for the current role. Identifying people who have the baseline skills and are natural problem solvers is far more valuable. Interview tests should be abstracted just to observe how people cope with a challenge, because in digital transformation, and in general day-to-day employment at any organisation, change, unprecedented or rapid, is guaranteed.

However, it is paramount that these natural problem solvers are complemented by people who are well organised, task leaders, and those with experience of these large scale projects. Although these types of people are hard to find, people can be trained in this mindset, and if I was starting a project tomorrow, these are the people I would hire or be pulling into an action team.

Digital transformation projects result in a lot of change, namely new hires, improved software and alternate processes. These changes usually result in greater utilization of online services and a surge in interdepartmental collaboration, increasing your risk of suffering a cyberattack and human error. An example of this is a member of your organisation is working on a project to improve your document sharing capabilities.

They engaged with all the top vendors for this service, meaning they are receiving multiple emails from different sources with proposals, links to white papers, or online demonstrations. Due to the increased volume of emails and added pressure, this member accidentally sends sensitive information to the wrong contact with a similar sounding name.

This is just one example of the potential risks that are associated with large scale projects. It is clear that during the process design for the project, the security needs of the business and preferred methods of working all need to be considered to avoid any oversights and potential errors.

‘Why don’t you just hire consultants?’ I’m often asked. This can be a double-edged sword. 20 new consultants marching in and telling the incumbent team what to do rarely works without friction. Creating a team where a couple of consultants are brought in to lead a project alongside the rest of the permanent employees can result in a much more cohesive unit, fostering an environment where skills develop but remain in the company.

Often people want to do everything immediately, but digital transformation is a steady and sometimes lengthy process that both the business and its employees need to take. By transforming in stages and blocks, the process is made more sustainable while simultaneously ensuring that skills and knowledge are kept in house and grow as the business does.

Written by Tariq Zaki, engineering manager, Red Sift

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