For large scale projects, figuring out what's working and what isn't can be a daunting task
Digital transformation has to be one of the biggest tech buzzwords of the moment, but unlike some tech trends, it also has real meaning and benefits for companies that do it correctly. Get it right and your business, however small or large, will know itself and its customer base better, be able to deliver its services more effectively, and plan better for growth.
But completing a digital transformation project successfully isn't easy - it takes time, energy, resources and commitment. Mistakes aren't necessarily a bad thing, though, as they can be a very useful part of the learning process. To quote a cliché of the tech world, it's important to 'fail fast', spotting the problems early, and fixing them quickly, getting the project back on track.
That's a fairly straightforward concept when it comes to smaller projects, particularly when it's obvious what's gone wrong. But when it comes to digital transformation, the consequences of getting something wrong can be much bigger, so how do you spot mistakes and avert disaster?
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The warning signs
First and foremost, you need to be able to spot the warning signs, so that issues can be dealt with as early as possible.
"If a digital transformation programme is going well, you will be getting consistent messages from business representatives, the programme leadership and external partners," says Lisa Heneghan, global head of technology and management consulting at KPMG. These are an essential part of any digital transformation project, she says, and a sudden breakdown in communication should set alarm bells ringing.
These positive messages - or the lack of them - don't have to be focused on the technology itself. If a technology keeps breaking, that's a clear warning sign, but so are failures to deliver promised improved management information, better client relationships or easier access to internal data.
Jim Bowes, CEO and founder of Manifesto, which worked with the National Trust on its own digital transformation, suggests that reluctance to change can derail projects before they begin.
"A level of this is to be expected but seeing lots of this sentiment can be a definite red flag that not enough is being done to take people on the journey and drive behavioural change," he says.
Eye in the sky
It might be a case of stating the obvious, but no organisation is going to be able to spot the signs that a digital transformation project might be going wrong unless they have people looking for them.
Jim Bowes told us that it's important to have someone with what he called a 'helicopter view' so that "whilst you are working on the detail, you are also stepping back and reflecting on how different parts of the programme are going and whether they are aligning with the organisation's overall goals".
Rick Pastore, senior director and IT research advisor at the Hackett Group, also emphasises the need to have someone with overall ownership - that 'human helicopter'. He argues the clearest indication of problems "is when there is no one clear owner of a digital project to drive it forward".
"There are many moving parts to any digital transformation project and they all need to be aligned," he adds.
When and how to act
The best time to act is before things go wrong. That's not a deliberately obtuse point.
The fact is, if the implementation is planned well, the IT team are thoroughly involved from the start, there are clear business objectives, and there is strong leadership with someone in overall control of the project, it can be possible to flag potential issues before they appear, and prevent them from happening.
Rick Pastore told us: "For lead officers, the best action is usually pre-emptive. If you're chasing efficiencies at the expense of stability and resilience, you're not thinking clearly - and your lack of forethought will have a detrimental effect on your project."
It's crucial to do the right things when a problem is identified, and to act quickly, argues Lisa Heneghan of KPMG.
"Once you've established there is a problem, the next thing to do is fully diagnose the underlying root causes. This is not necessarily straightforward, and sometimes the answers may take a while to determine and solve."
For example, if it's identified that the scope of the project is too large or poorly defined, action should be taken at once to fix this, and it may mean scaling back the project or prioritising the benefits it should achieve.
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Avoiding failure may mean starting over
There may also be problems with those individuals assembled to drive the project, explains Heneghan, which, in the worst case scenario, may require you to bring in an entirely new team. "This happens more than you'd imagine," she explains.
The best practice advice around digital transformation is not so different to the best practice for all areas of business development. It revolves around planning, leadership, evaluation, monitoring and mitigation.
It's the technology part, and the fact that transformation is organisation-wide, that makes it seem more daunting than some other aspects of business development. But that's no reason to shy away. Problems don't fix themselves.