Digital transformation is for life, not just for go-live

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright November 29, 2018
The full force of digital transformation takes most enterprises by surprise and adjusting to continuous, ongoing change is one of the first requirements

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A lot of people still seem to think that digital transformation is just a technology upgrade. It's not, of course. Done properly, it entails a thorough refresh of all the operations of a business, encompassing both the front office and the back office.

It would be good if most organizations were to start their digital transformation with this in mind — seeing frictionless enterprise as the goal, for example — but instead, it usually dawns on them much later.

One aspect of the change is that the technology itself gets delivered and updated in a different way — as a constant series of continuous small changes rather than occasional wholesale replacement projects. This realization dawns quite early — often before completion of a cloud implementation — since incremental changes keep arriving even before the new application is fully up-and-running.

There's a certain irony that this switch from old-style 'waterfall' projects to a more agile style of incremental change actually takes place during one of those classic multi-year projects. A typical global enterprise implementation of a cloud HCM, procurement or finance application will often take 18-24 months to plan, configure and roll out. Once that's over, you'd be forgiven for wanting to take a break. But there's no time to rest up. Change just keeps on coming at you.

How to manage change

HR is frequently the first back-office function in a large enterprise to move to the cloud. They're often therefore the first to encounter this ongoing change management imperative, as Dave Sohigian, EMEA CTO at cloud HCM and financials vendor Workday, explains:

One of the challenges they often run into is that the transformation they thought they were going to make — maybe they get through successfully — but once they're on the other side of it, where do they go from there?

Because it doesn't stop. There is no ideal process for HR, finance, anything, right? The ideal process just needs to be able to change as your business needs to change.

IT teams that have a lot of prior experience working with cloud applications will have evolved agile processes for handling the constant flow of change. Sohigian cites cloud vendor Salesforce and UK price comparison website Moneysupermarket as two examples of Workday customers that take an agile approach for day-to-day maintenance of their cloud systems:

In the case of Moneysupermarket, it's a more of a sprints, scrum approach. For Salesforce, it's Kanban, which is a continuous approach.

In some ways it doesn't matter [between the two]. As long as you have a team which is typically crossfunctional — [from] the business, HR, IT — they're able to contribute together to say, 'Let's look at the list of requests that we have from the organization, what's the list of things Workday and other cloud applications are delivering, and let's have a continuous process where we're knocking off one thing after another.'

Avoiding digital deadlock

These teams deal with smaller changes rather than rolling out a complete application, he explains:

It's the report, the change in the business process, adding in survey functionality, making it easier for people to upload learning content, rolling out more mobile to the rest of the organization. It's those pieces that otherwise if they turned into a whole project you might not get funding for and/or will take who knows how long.

But they're not so small that they're just a little tiny configuration. They're a couple of weeks of work or in a Kanban continuous work stream.

I was speaking to Sohigian earlier this month at the Unleash conference in Amsterdam, where Workday released research by IDC highlighting a phenomenon the researchers are calling "digital deadlock, as organizations are effectively limited by their own systems." Our conversation focused on the obstacles posed by limitations of process rather than the underlying systems. But Sohigian insists that the wrong technology can also get in the way:

There are legacy systems that will stand in the way of transformation at every turn. And when I say legacy, I don't just mean on-premise. There's other cloud solutions that will actively stand in the way of doing your transformation and make it incredibly difficult.

So I don't think technology plays no role. It plays an important role, but it is a foundational role to a transformation that you want to make as an organization.

My take

Few organizations seem to be prepared for the full impact of digital transformation. The shift to a more agile ethos of continuous change in particular often catches people unawares — not only at a technology level but more importantly in business processes too.

This aspect of the digital enterprise is something that's rarely written about or drawn attention to. I think vendors should do more to educate their customers about what to expect. It's a core part of the cloud application experience, and will become increasingly mainstream as more and more products and services move to an Everything-as-a-Service (XaaS) business model.

Going digital isn't just for go-live. It's an entirely new way of life.

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