Digital transformation transcends technology

The TechFire panel (as per text) discusses digital transformation from journey through to cycle (Image: Mediateam)

25 June 2018


Digital transformation is about much more than technology, and if the right cultural supports are not in place, then technology will make no difference.

This was one of the key points from the recent TechFire on IT’s evolving role in digital transformation (DX), which saw a panel of Forrester analyst Michelle Beeson, John McIntyre, head of analytics and cognitive services, Sogeti Ireland, Ashling Cunningham, a member of the Irish Computer Society (ICS) CIO Advisory Board and CIO of Ervia, Sridhar Iyengar, head of European operations, Zoho Corporation, and Jane Carolan, national director, Health Business Services, HSE, discuss the points and answer questions from the audience.

Beeson of Forrester was answering a question from the audience about the difference between a digital upgrade and true digital transformation. Beeson said that technology was one aspect and that real transformation reached all parts of the organisation.

“You can always be disrupted by a better version of yourself,” John McIntyre, Sogeti

Cunningham of the ICS CIO Advisory Board and CIO of Ervia, added that DX was about more than using digital technologies to make processes more efficient, it was about developing news ways of doing things and facilitating innovation that is right for the organisation and its customers.

On the journey
A show of hands in the room indicated that around two thirds regarded themselves as having begun the DX journey, with around a third of the room indicating that their organisations were already deriving value from the efforts. This tallied broadly with statistics that had been presented earlier from a 2017 Fujitsu report.

A theme of the event on DX was whether IT could begin to guide business from a transformation journey through to a cycle of continuous change and transformation. Event chair and TechPro editor Paul Hearns put the question to the panel as to whether it was a fair assessment of what was necessary.

Beeson agreed, and said that despite some research from her own organisation indicating the 21% of European and North American CIOs regarded their digital transformation state as “complete”, real transformation should be a continuous process of trial, assessment, refinement and development.

McIntyre of Sogeti Ireland, added that organisational transformation should always have an aspect of innovation. Even a digital upgrade, he said, should include some element of innovation, as he warned “You can always be disrupted by a better version of yourself”.

AI and ML
A question from the floor asked the panel if artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) were being used in process automation. The broad consensus was that AI and ML were key elements of digital transformation, as they facilitated the automation that releases people to do what people do best.

McIntyre said that in his experience, these technologies were very much in use but only at the beginning of their adoption. He highlighted a case where an insurance company was trialling a system to allow damage assessment to be completed through machine analysis of photos from car accidents.

A show of hands from the floor confirmed that about 10% of the audience was already using AI and ML for intelligence and data processing.

A further question on the topic asked what if AI and ML technologies began to make decisions which were opaque and difficult to understand.

McIntyre said that despite the race to develop AI, and having himself presented an example of the Go playing self-teaching AI, there were clear principles by which these technologies are governed. He cited the Asilomar Principles which were developed to ensure ethical development of these technologies. The provisions of the General Data Protection Regulations around profiling were also mentioned, which ensure that where any kind of automated profiling or processing is used, any decision made can be examined and made transparent.

Zoho’s Iyengar added that even where AI and ML were being used in the medical environment, such as in the analysis of medical scans, they were merely a support to the human clinicians, and not about replacing them.

IT and delivery
A question submitted at registration was put to the panel about what IT can do if the business asks for something beyond IT’s capability to deliver.

Forrester’s Beeson said that this situation is borne of a separation between IT and the business which should not be there.

“You want to get to that point where someone asks for what IT is not providing, because you want everyone in the room at the point of that concept development and possibilities looking not at a product, not an end state, but at the objectives, the outcomes and the needs,” said Beeson. “And how can we work with what we have to create something that meets that need, and then create the stepping stones beyond for the possibilities.”

Ervia’s Cunningham said this comes back to how organisations prioritise in the business.  “At the start of the year, demand will always outstrip supply, whether that is resources, or time or whatever,” she argued. “It is about what criteria you use to determine what your investments are going to be, whether that is a project or a programme or a change in the organisation. Then it comes down to a bun fight in the organisation to see what gets done.”

Alignment and integration
McIntyre picked up on Beeson’s point about a separation between business and IT and talked about the CIO of the bank ING, who made it a mission to remove such separation. He said that the answer had been to organise people into small, agile Scrum teams to allow IT and business people to work closely on the same goals, expressing the value of each effort, which brought a greater insight and understanding for all.

The HSE’s Carolan had talked about how she, as national director for Health Business Services, and interim CIO, had engaged with groups in IT, sometimes 60 at a time, to communicate the transformation journey necessary for the organisation. Far from resistance, she said that there was a pride there among those IT people that wanted to retain the word “health” in the title of the unit. This extended to a broad willing ness to do what was necessary to transform and facilitate the health service, with some supports around education and training.

These conversations, said Carolan, were vital in ensuring that everyone knew what was going on, but also that everyone was speaking the same language.

Language and collaboration
This echoed a point of Ervia’s Cunningham when she said it is very important, when talking to the CEO and they are talking digital and you, as CIO, are talking digital, that they you mean the same thing.

Zoho’s Iyengar developed the point to add that this broad dialogue facilitates a culture of transformation, and that can be incorporated into the education of incoming people to ensure that it is ingrained from the outset.

He said his organisation had worked widely with education and academic institutions to facilitate and foster learning beyond the purely technical, focusing on innovation and collaboration to ensure that entrants to the workforce would bring these values with them. This would further facilitate the culture of transformation as the people would be accustomed to working in teams and contributing to change as the organisation grows and matures.



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