Digital transformation is fiction

Although digital transformation is the tech industry’s favorite buzzword, the notion that enterprises can simply “transform” overnight is a fallacy

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Nathan Dumlao (CC0)

This article is likely just one of dozens this week related to “digital transformation.” It’s tech’s biggest buzzword. It’s also the emptiest. Plastered on marketing materials, embedded in mission statements, while devoid of clarity or prescription. Every day, marketing emails and ad campaigns from technology vendors tout the silver bullet that will “instantly transform” your company—but how and when (and by whom) are these changes being implemented?

Digital transformation implies wholesale change—a finite, technology-driven process with clear intent and outcome—this is a fallacy. The often-overlooked truth is that digital transformation isn’t just about technology, it doesn’t have an endpoint, and it doesn’t happen in one swift motion. And further, digital transformation often neglects the current landscape of organizations’ and developers’ technological capabilities.

The conundrum for operators and developers

It’s not that IT teams don’t see value in transformation and are consciously deciding to drag their feet. The benefits of modernization are obvious: flexibility, efficiency, agility. And it’s equally obvious that existing infrastructure and development won’t be able to keep up with the momentous pace of change. Enterprises will need to figure out how to bridge the gap between “legacy” and “modern.” But for the people on the ground tasked with implementation, it’s much more complex.

Organizations are still overwhelmingly dependent on legacy technology, and thus can’t instantly decide to become cloud-native futurists. A recent study from 451 Research revealed that enterprises are deeply rooted in the datacenter: 74 percent of respondents cited more than half of their apps run on-premises, with the bulk of those apps playing mission-critical roles in running the business. Development processes are also holding organizations back; despite the constant hype surrounding agile and devops methodologies, 36 percent of respondents are still using waterfall to deliver software, while 25 percent are using ITIL.

Further obfuscating the situation is the fact that building new applications and attempting cloud-native projects is both time-consuming and complicated. What operations and development teams are currently being tasked with, and the speed at which they must do it, is more complex than what teams were responsible for even half a decade ago. What’s more, they’re being asked to learn and implement an entirely new way of functioning, with all the associated tools and processes, while also keeping what they already have operational without fail.

This is likely why the same survey cited above from 451 Research, an analyst firm that usually focuses on technology and tools, found people at the center of the challenge posed by digital transformation. Its recent survey of 450 senior-level tech leaders in North America and the UK showed that IT teams are struggling on both ends of the transformation spectrum. On one side of the equation, there aren’t enough people around who still know how to manage legacy infrastructure. The most critical need cited in recruiting and retaining technology talent is the ability to migrate existing applications from on-premises to the cloud.

On the other side of the skills equation, the 451 study also found that more than a third of respondents cite a lack of skills for cloud applications as one of the biggest challenges preventing IT modernization in their company. The research found that devops and multicloud skills were among the most mission-critical needs in terms of technology talent recruitment. So, organizations are facing skills issues in their existing estate and in their plans for change.  

Given these practical realities of where enterprises are today, how can IT teams successfully facilitate digital transformation?

The case for iteration  

No matter what any company’s marketing collateral promises, enterprises don’t “transform” overnight. During my years at Nordstrom, I worked with three kinds of people: those unwilling to change, those trying to make grandiose changes without execution, and those in the middle, who understood change happens in small, successive steps, and were committed to seeing that change through. In my experience, real business value lies with the third group. These people are needed across an organization—from the ground-level operations, development, line of business owners, finance and human resources up to the executive suite, to ensure successful iterative digital transformation.

IT ops and developer teams must let go of the impulse for wholesale change and “silver bullet” technology. Each era of technological evolution is built on the breakthroughs of the prior generation. There is still great value in what those before us learned and built. So, before you burn it all down, identify a clear need—one with measurable goals, stakeholders, and time-dependent outcomes—and then start by nurturing, expanding, and using the skills and people you already have. Implementing technological changes in small, realistic steps allows you to reduce the surface area of the system—thus lowering the risk because the cost of failure is less impactful. This iterative approach provides teams with space to learn and focuses them on delivering specific change that creates tangible value. You’re not “transforming” just for the sake of it—you’re progressing at the pace of your business.

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