“Digi-washing”: The truth about digital transformation
Business Process Management (BPM)

“Digi-washing”: The truth about digital transformation

Digital transformation, like many of the buzzwords and phrases in IT, has a disingenuous feel to it. But while terms such ‘big data’ and ‘cloud computing’ have been used to market existing IT products in new ways, digital transformation isn’t about specific technologies or products, it is about a process of change.  

And this is why it is interesting, because unlike the ‘big data’ and ‘cloud’ products touted by huge technology heavyweights such as Amazon and Microsoft, digital transformation is a term being used by the customer of these technologies, marketing themselves as a company that is still relevant today.

However, while it is acceptable for companies to state that they’re undergoing digital transformation, only a small proportion of companies actually are. This is according to Mike Bracken, Partner at Public Digital, the organisation that transformed digital delivery for the UK government, and is currently working with other governments and organisations to do the same.

Everybody’s talking about digital transformation but what is set in stone and what’s still up for grabs? Check out: What we know and don’t know about digital transformation

“Only a small fraction of companies truly have the desire to change, and most of those that do, have some form of crisis or impending market change,” he says.

“The exception is when we see leadership teams aligned around the desire for change and determined to see it through,” he adds.

David Wyndham-Lewis, the CIO of Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, a UK-based organisation that focuses on mental health, believes that digital transformation is a term is that it is “horrendously misused”.

That means organisations that are replacing existing IT products with slightly newer, improved versions, can’t consider themselves to be undergoing digital transformation.

“Putting in a solid new electronic patient record system and mapping existing processes in there is definitely not digital transformation, but it can help us move on to a number of projects that do help us get there,” Wyndham-Lewis explains.

A company that is really transforming digitally should be applying the practices of the open internet to its internal operations and culture, says Bracken, who was formerly the head of the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS).

“Signs of this include replacing away terrible back-office systems like expenses, HR systems and procurement with simple, open source web services,” he explains, adding that code repositories should be opened up, sharing across siloes, and allowing multi-disciplinary teams to make decisions without recourse to long, bureaucratic processes.

One organisation that believes it can already be considered ‘digital’ is global telecoms giant Telefonica. Its CIO of UK subsidiary O2, Brendan O’Rourke, says the company had moved beyond talking about digital transformation and was already considered a ‘digital telco’.

“Many of our customer-facing processes are digital, we have a number of over-the-top (OTT) digital applications, and we’ve used digital platforms to extend outside of telco services into the homes, and into automotive, so by definition I think we’re a digital telco,” he states.

The key part of this shift, that began several years ago for O2 and Telefonica, is two-fold: using new technologies such as automation, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to create deeper customer experiences that are digital both for the customer and for the business; and ensuring that the transformation itself is business-led, rather than IT-led.

“I don’t believe transformation exists unless it is business-led; I could move a large part of our IT estate into the cloud, it would optimise costs and maybe allow us to deploy solutions more quickly, but unless we change the end-to-end business process it won’t make that big of a difference,” O’Rourke explains.

Instead, the telco’s strategy has been customer-focused.

“We need to focus on what the customer needs and then if we need to transform, there is a question about what technology is around to help enable that,” he states.

Some organisations have taken this a step further and removed the idea of an IT strategy and a digital strategy.

Hackney Council, a local government authority based in London, only has business-led strategies, so that instead of its director of housing having to somehow work out how a new CRM project and business intelligence project relate to him and his team, the IT team works to his needs, giving him the technology needed to provide the best possible services for citizens.

The idea of a ‘digital strategy’ or even the term ‘digital transformation’, is one that Hackney Council’s director of ICT, Rob Miller, is cautious about.

“Digi-washing is something you have to be careful of to avoid,” he states. The term, essentially means using ‘digital’ in front of any phrase, term, or strategy, and believing that it is more forward-thinking as a result.

For example, Miller and his colleagues in HR and finance could quite easily say they’ve digitally enabled the recruitment process because all of the forms they used are no longer paper-based, and instead are on the web.

In actual fact, they created three different forms online which a single manager then needs to complete – making it more difficult and time-consuming.

“This is because we’ve ticked an ‘online’ box without thinking about this as a service and about the user experience. The goal [of being digital] should be to make it easy for users and staff and that brings fundamental questions around how we design our services and processes,” Miller says.

 

Top tips for transformation

Bracken, who is considered a digital supremo for his work at GDS, suggests that organisations do need a leader of some sort – whether it be the CIO or chief digital officer (CDO) – that can point the organisation in the right direction.

This person should be defining outcomes and focussing on teams and culture rather than defining operational metrics and judging by KPIs.

He also suggests that organisations who want to become truly digital should “just start” immediately.

“Don’t strategise and write a lot of documents. Instead, hire developers, engineers and a variety of skilled digital people including designers, product managers and user researchers and give them a big audacious goal.

“Then help them move from your existing culture and process and learn from that journey,” he states.

Digital transformation goes far deeper than changing old IT systems and applications. It requires buy-in from the CEO and everyone involved, and involves changes to processes as well as technology. The products, technology and processes should be tailored towards the customer – they are the beginning of the strategy. The strategy itself shouldn’t be like an IT strategy of old, it should be a business-led strategy, with technology as an enabler.

Those organisations that don’t follow these pieces of advice and yet still suggest that they are undergoing or have undergone digital transformation, will be found out in the long-term, because their customers will realise that their experience isn’t quite as ‘digital’ as they would expect.

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Sooraj Shah

Sooraj Shah is a freelance technology journalist whose key focus is on how IT leaders are transforming their organisations using emerging technology. 

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