4 key questions for digital transformation

photo of malcolmGuest blog: Mark Aikman


Mark is an award-winning technology executive with extensive experience working for FTSE global companies, leading large IT functions combined with strategic, highly complex change and digital transformation programmes.

His background spans many verticals such as FMCG, finance & insurance, oil & gas and telecommunications, leading major operations and digital transformations at North Group, BP, T-Mobile and the Cadbury Schweppes organisations. Mark is regularly invited to leading digital and IT industry conferences to speak, chair and moderate panels. He writes regular articles that are published on leading IT and digital publications.


I’ve spent my entire career in transformation.

And I’m beginning to notice that in many ways, it’s getting simpler, rather than more complicated – I now recognise the key features on which the success of any programme depends.

So to keep focused, I’m currently running transformation programmes in response to just four very specific questions:

  1. Is our vision one that everyone can believe in?

Bottom line: there’s no success without vision and delivery.

But large bespoke digital transformations take a long time and are incredibly complex. They contain an infinite number of opportunities to become side-tracked. They can be hijacked by ever-changing technologies; they are often subject to organisational regime changes; and they serve colleagues with widely differing priorities.

I’ve learned that it’s critical to solidify the vision of what we want to achieve – and do this very quickly.

It’s then essential to create a simple message about the vision that people can remember; and which makes the benefits of the programme crystal clear.

Then, everyone working on the programme will have an easy-to-remember yardstick that will help them decide on whether something is a necessity or a priority – instead of just a nice-to-have.

When you have intelligent and capable people who understand and rate the vision, they do not need anyone to tell them every day precisely what to do.

These people will feel that they are making a contribution and that they have opportunities for creativity and autonomy. They experience the satisfaction of being both permitted and encouraged to think for themselves.

Therefore, a clear vision and understanding of the benefits of the programme will encourage better and quicker decision making; reduce wasted effort; and create a productive and engaged delivery team.

2. Are we responding quickly to what the customer now wants?

In commercial organisations, the customer needs to be the central point of focus.

Obvious enough. But in digital transformation, this has to be coupled with a rapid response to that customer’s ever-changing needs.

And those needs do change quickly – for example, nobody knew they needed a app to call a cab instead of making a phone call, until Uber showed them how handy it would be…

So the customer needs to be central.

We need accurate information, constantly updated, on what the customers are thinking.

And the transformation activity needs to be buzzing around these views and needs, working very quickly and nimbly.

Clearly then, waterfall development, with the supplier sitting way outside the business and producing phased development that takes weeks or months, is dead. And well and truly buried.

Agile, utilising Scrum or Kanban development are a much better option, as these methods are closer to the customer and quicker to make responsive progress.

This rapid development will be successful, as long as the vision is clear, and everyone is conditioned to repeatedly ask…

3. Is it really right for this business?

Successful innovation isn’t always about the bleeding-edge.

Of course, everyone wants to outrun obsolescence but it’s essential not to be diverted by hot-off-the-press technologies and solutions. They’re sexy, sure – but are they what this business really needs?

I learned early that the newest solution isn’t by definition the best.

Instead, it’s essential to balance the technology specification, design and build against those business benefits we truly need.

So if the business needs bells but not whistles, I’ve always taken care not to get distracted by using whistles, just because they’re there.

The rule for selecting technology has been: does it benefit the customer?  If it doesn’t benefit the customer directly, does it help the smooth running of the business (which in turn will benefit the customer in the long run)?

This question-sequence has always been invaluable in helping select a suite of technologies that perfectly fit the programme’s stated needs.

And I make a point of only changing business processes where this improves customer service and/or operational efficiency – and never because any new technology imposed a process change upon the business.

4. How is everyone feeling about the programme today?

Finally, back to people.

We started by ensuring everyone bought-into the vision. But we can’t just leave them with an understanding of the vision: we have to bring them along through the whole experience too.

As everyone knows, significant change of any kind can be a challenging and often even a threatening experience.  And most people don’t react well to being threatened!

So Question 4 ensures we keep a keen eye on how positive and engaged people are, 24/7. We have to have everyone firmly on the bus to achieve programme success.

In a digital transformation, there is a very important virtuous circle that can very easily become a vicious circle.

It’s the relationship between digital change and cultural change.

Digital change absolutely inevitably forces cultural and behavioural change on the organisation’s people – things are just plain done differently.

But equally, cultural change will be needed if the digitisation is to become wholeheartedly adopted.

So we need continuous work to keep all the people keen on the digital improvements we’re making.

That means every programme needs massive effort directed towards building and maintaining workforce engagement.

And so, speaking as a CIO, I will always believe that from at least one perspective in transformation, communication is more important than technology…

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