Digital transformation describes the process where – in theory – companies change their business practices and models to take advantage of new opportunities and stay ahead of their competitors, writes Bryan Kirschner, Vice President Strategy at DataStax. However, COVID-19 spurred many companies to take a hard look at digital and cloud-native approaches in order to survive during, and fight back after, the pandemic.
Companies instituted mass work from home policies, changed from in-store to online ordering, and made changes to how they operate. Microsoft’s Satya Nadella described this as two years’ worth of work, achieved in the space of two months. These projects were delivered as fast as possible, so they put the emphasis on what would work right now, rather than long term consequences.
The challenge now is that those initial decisions – taken under pressure and with short-term goals in mind – are now becoming long term ones. If we do not examine them now, then they become entrenched patterns for the future. This should always be a conscious decision.
This doesn’t mean that you should not make changes at scale and quickly. In fact, these kinds of big events can mean there is no option, but to make changes and forge ahead. However, there are three mindset requirements that should be in place as you transition from making the most of a bad situation to operating as an increasingly digital, cloud-native organisation.
Traditional change management approaches focus on how to deliver successful outcomes over time. They start with goals, go through process updates and building consensus, and pull teams along so that everyone supports the change.
In the current climate, we don’t have the time to achieve this consensus. Secondly, this incremental approach to change normally faces resistance from those internally that raise objections or point out potential problems. These objections may be valid – for example, using data in a different way that does not currently have customer approval. However, many of these changes can be subjective assertions of “what we think customers want” instead.
In the current climate, encourage decisions based on conviction that customers will embrace new digital experiences that are delivered with their interests and values in mind.
What is needed here is a change in mindset around leadership – rather than a single decision, this approach requires a willingness to experiment, to commit where successes are found, and to embrace failure with learning. It does require an overall plan and vision, but adaptation along the way is part of the overall journey. Most decisions are reversible ones that can be tested with customers and stakeholders and changed, so we have to recognise this in our thought processes too.
The current COVID-19 situation is an example of where conviction is needed due to the situation involved – making changes in this current economic environment means having that vision, sticking to it, but not being afraid to make changes along the way.
Urgency is a good thing – use it
Alongside conviction, it is important to instill a sense of urgency within a team. Taking a slow and steady approach to change can seem reasonable, particularly in larger companies that have employees in multiple business units or locations around the world. However, this can also be a reason why urgency is required.
Making any kind of change can take time, but it also requires that actions take place. Too often, these projects can be put off or delayed simply because they involve longer timescales. The question “Why start today” should be replaced by saying “What is stopping you?”
A good example of this is Target in the US – the retailer had a team of 10,000 mostly outsourced IT professionals that covered a range of internal infrastructure and applications. In 2017, they decided that this approach would not be suitable for the future, and instigated a mass shift to internal software development teams that numbered around 4,800 people.
This earlier change meant the retailer could urgently make any changes when situations demanded. The result when COVID-19 hit? The company was able to flex its IT strategy and support more online ordering and buying – the firm saw purchases spike by 282 percent in April 2020, and that growth has not slowed down since.
Ambition is important
The last digital mindset change needed is around ambition. For many projects, it can be easy to settle for smaller goals that can be converted into wins quickly, which prove the project approach is the right one. Over time, these little victories can count towards a bigger overall objective.
However, these victories can themselves become the focus. Rather than looking at a larger goal that is ambitious and market-changing, smaller projects can become less about making a difference and more about risk avoidance. This is a subtle change that is important to avoid. It makes choosing to aim high and be ambitious feel risky by comparison. This can lead to underinvestment or scoping out services at lower levels over time, rather than being ready for growth or expansion.
Making this work in practice
Alongside getting the right mindset in place, it is also important to look at your technology decisions too. The term cloud-native is often taken to refer to running applications in the cloud, but it also covers a wider approach to data too. There are lots of new approaches that offer scalability and agility, but they all use the same terms and definitions almost interchangeably. It is therefore worth understanding your architecture and your decisions now, so that you can avoid problems in the future.
This is where the real world comes up against the theoretical – for example, we have decisions made where COVID-19 forced teams to move quickly. Equally, we may have seen acquisitions take place where businesses are using different cloud providers to host their systems, or where teams have made architecture choices that are fundamentally different. These decisions can hamper your choices – even if you have a great vision and the will to make it happen, it’s harder to go fast when you have the wrong starting point. It’s difficult to run a sprint in hiking shoes, and equally you would not want to walk miles in trainers.
Rather than looking at cloud-native as a technical shift, it should help all your teams be more efficient in how they work. For example, cloud-native data should mean that all your developers can work with data regardless of what cloud service provider–or providers– you pick. Instead, this is about helping them to be productive and efficient in their work at Internet scale.
It’s therefore worth looking at how to make your strategic vision relatable to the rest of the business, as well as how we can avoid practical hurdles like lock-in. This vision should help your teams take their decisions in relation to the whole digital portfolio, understand their options in context, and ensure they are making the right choices when it comes to supporting your future business model. As we all move to cloud-native approaches, we have to balance mindset and technology together.