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Removing the pause button on digital transformation

Ben Barry, Director, Coeus Consulting explains why the last 12 months highlighted the urgency of prioritising and accelerating programmes that focus directly on increasing revenues, improving customer experience, improving operational continuity, or optimising the current cost base – while pausing or stopping others.  

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, organisations were already under immense pressure to increase the speed at which they deliver digital transformation, but in many cases, progress has been slow. The cost of transformation, uncertain outcomes, plus the perceived risk of disruption to the business have been reason enough for boards to hold back on commitment or investment.

However, in the face of the pandemic, any pause or downsizing of a digital strategy was futile.  Businesses had to effectively navigate a rapidly changing and uncertain environment, managing efficient, flexible teams, and arming them with the necessary digital tools to meet the challenges of a hybrid working model.

Digital maturity

2020 was a turbulent year, and 2021 has started in much the same way. Businesses have had to ensure operational continuity whilst meeting changing consumer demands and managing a remote workforce. Many strategic initiatives were put on hold. In fact, according to our recent annual CIO and IT Leadership Survey 2021, half of organisations were still amid their digital journeys or in the planning stages when they had to re-prioritise and pause non-urgent initiatives to focus on operational continuity during the pandemic.

The digital maturity (or immaturity) of organisations was thrown into sharp focus as those that were digitally immature had to scramble to adapt, whereas digital first organisations typically fared much better. Over half (53 per cent) of respondents were able to implement a strategic shift of their entire business operations to digital and almost three quarters (68 per cent) of respondents either strongly, or generally agreed, that acceleration helped them to digitalise more of their operations. Seventy per cent of organisations surveyed prioritised end user solutions (EUS) such as remote working, 52 per cent prioritised operational stability, closely followed by cost optimisation (50 per cent).

The proficiency that businesses demonstrated in their prioritisation and acceleration of critical initiatives was hugely successful. Being able to re-direct resources and cutting down their time to market in digitalising the organisation was no easy feat, particularly in the throes of a global pandemic.

No quick fix

Given the speed at which organisations were forced to adapt did mean that short term and tactical business decisions had to be made, with over three-quarters (78 per cent) of respondents stating they had implemented ‘quick fix’ solutions largely focused on repurposing and stripping down to the bare activities necessary to keep cash flows and profits healthy.

The speed at which key remote working and operational stability capabilities had to be rolled out meant that inevitably some corners were cut. As a result of deploying ‘quick-fix’ solutions, organisations were confronted with operational, as well as strategic difficulties including agreeing priority changes, implementing the solution and post implementation, each of which encompassed numerous challenges.

These organisations will certainly have experienced the most pain with the majority agreeing that this will likely cause high ongoing business impacts, which are expected to include re-scoping, undoing projects, renegotiating, and stalling contracts, as well as redeploying resources. Clearly, short term and tactical business decisions had to be made as businesses stepped into survival mode.

Businesses will now need to revisit these over the coming months to build on these capabilities with more permanent solutions for the future. They will need to ensure that all changes made in response to the pandemic are assessed to identify any tactical risks accepted and create a plan to mitigate, update or accept all of them.

Hybrid challenges

Moving to new ways of working clearly brought implementation cost challenges which was the biggest hurdle for almost half of respondents, closely followed by delivery bandwidth, integration difficulties and lack of skills. This was to be expected, but does demonstrate that the lack of technology flexibility seems to have created problems for a significant proportion of organisations.

Unsurprisingly, security was also a huge challenge for businesses trying to adapt to a hybrid work model. Over half of the respondents cited security issues/concerns as the key challenges when agreeing the priority changes. This was followed by governance constraints and business risk aversion. With a sprawling network that moves beyond the confines of the office walls, the security and compliance risks are obviously exasperated, and knowing how, and where, data is being accessed creates a myriad of threats.

There is no doubt that very few organisations were ready to scale an entire workforce from an office to remote working. Addressing company culture, processes and policy and a reliance on supplier performance were all factors in delivering a smooth move to remote working. The extra layers of security hardware, connection quality and access to the necessary applications and data further increased the implementation complexity.

The future is agile

Despite this – it was critical for departments to work in partnership in a co-ordinated way to minimise disruption. Business and IT leadership have played a key role in improving ways of working and minimising disruption across the business and were crucial in accelerating large scale deployments in EUC. About a third prioritised initiatives in improving customer experience, increasing revenues, and developing or changing products.

Almost two-thirds of organisations noted they had received additional funding to help accelerate priority projects, but a large majority of those surveyed (63 per cent) agreed that re-scoping, undoing projects, renegotiating, and stalling contracts, as well as redeploying resources, will likely cause ongoing business impacts.

Organisations have shown their ability to be more agile and take greater risk to accelerate initiatives. The key is to ensure that IT’s role and contribution remains central to achieving the future transformation agenda.

Leading through uncertainty can be complex and challenging and IT has really shown its value in driving digital transformation at pace through unprecedented times and is now more than ever expected to influence the strategic agenda.

Operational stability will remain a priority in 2021 with a long-term view to post pandemic growth. Organisations must reflect on these implementations, challenges, and the role of IT as they look to establish a more permanent shift to a new hybrid workforce in the future.

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