Digital transformation starts at the top and requires that companies pull their legacy culture in a digital direction, says Usha Rao, Head of Cloud Services Integration at BT. She will discuss this next week at TM Forum Live! Asia.
Rao started her career years ago as an application programmer, then moved into a service delivery environment where she managed and delivered complex solutions to challenging customers before transitioning into consulting roles. Her breadth of experience, particularly in helping companies bring their digital strategies to life, not just operationally but culturally, means she’s seen the digital journey from different angles and understands that there are practices companies can adopt to excel in their transformations.
I spoke to Rao for some insight on how leaders within a company can affect digital transformation, and how companies’ cultures and resources must adapt to stay relevant in today’s digital landscape.
AM: You’ve had a broad scope of experience when it comes to transformation and development; you’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. Is leadership attitude and buy-in an important part of successful digital transformation?
UR: Certainly. Transformation usually means change at a very fundamental level, but humans naturally tend to be resistant to any kind of change. For such a change to be successful, sponsorship at the top level is necessary.
I’ll give you a very personal example. At home a few years back, I tried to implement an evening no phone policy within my family so that we took the time to actually speak to each other. The biggest roadblock was myself in trying to implement this change. As the parent/leader in this situation, if I couldn’t stick to it, it became extremely difficult to implement it within my whole family. It’s a very simple example/analogy, but likewise, if the leader is not aligned, then any change tends to fall through the cracks.
I have a great example in the business context. About 12 months ago we were engaging with a large bank which was launching new digital services, and we were trying to share how BT can help them to start small and grow their platform as the business grew.
The internal business-as-usual teams wanted to go about implementing and launching this the way they always had done, but because their leader was engaged early, he understood the business benefits of our suggestions, and he got the business aligned to consume digital services in a very different way.
Surprisingly, now, we have other branches within same bank who want to do the same thing. I guess what made that project successful goes back to my home analogy, if a leader is engaged and committed to change, the rest of the business finds a way to make that change happen. Sometimes you have to define the quantum of the change and the pace of the change, but fundamentally, you just need sponsorship and backing at the very top.
AM: That’s a very positive example of leadership enabling transformation. Have you seen examples where a lack of leadership has caused transformation to fail or not go as planned?
UR: For one particular customer who was going through a massive Salesforce implementation, I remember there was not enough executive buy-in for that particular transformation. In fact, there were multiple occasions where even the change agents within the implementation did not behave like change agents, and were not aligned to the project objectives. An application was launched, but not used for six whole months until there was a change in leadership.
To put it in perspective, this was a multi-million dollar investment made by the organization to enable it to better forecasting and planning. Can you imagine that investment not being used for six whole months? It was a fundamental change in leadership that changed that.
There are many more examples of this, but this one really sticks out for me because it was clearly really, really destructive to the whole project.
AM: Do you feel it’s necessary for the IT and business side of things to be aligned a lot more?
UR: I’ve always said business strategy and IT strategy need to work very, very closely together. And, I’ve always likened the strategy to the road that leads the company to its vision, with IT in collaboration with the rest of the company in bringing it to life.
It is extremely important to know your intended destination so as to figure out the right road to travel, what pace to go at, and what type of drivers to use to progress.
AM: In your experience, do firms have a long way to go with this? Are some getting there?
In my opinion, you can actually group the companies into three categories:
1 – Companies that have a good solid strategy, and know how they’re going to achieve it.
2 – Companies who know what their strategy is, but don’t know how to realize it.
3 – Companies that don’t have any strategy whatsoever.
AM: Breaking silos between internal departments, and among external partners still seems to be a huge cultural and operational problem for many organizations wanting to transform digitally. How can they go about breaking these silos?
UR: Breaking silos needs to start at top.
There should be a clear vision that brings ecosystems together, whether we’re talking about internal employees or external partners. This vision needs to bring clarity to the ecosystem and encourage collaboration.
I think a strong, collaborative culture is the best way to break silos and bring these various entities together.
AM: How can they get this strong culture?
UR: What is now becoming more obvious, is that organizations need to be more bold. They have to think differently; they have to challenge themselves constantly, because if they don’t, others will challenge them. Being bold comes with the ability to take risks. They need to have an environment where making mistakes is OK, and where they can learn quickly from them to deliver positive outcomes in the future.
The ability to take risks and make mistakes, that’s again a culture thing and should be at the heart of everything they do.
A key part of being bold is not just focusing on the customer’s experience today, but also their future experiences. Many of Apple’s customer didn’t know they wanted much of its iPhone innovations, innovations that they now find indispensable, with nothing else in the market even similar. It’s important to sometimes go beyond what you think customers need today, to craft innovation. Considering customer experience is at the heart of being bold and taking risks.
AM: Right at the top, at the C-suite level, the CTO and/or CIO is becoming an increasingly prominent role, and there is a lot more talk of digital in the boardroom. What kind of shift have you been seeing at this very top level?
UR: There are definite changes in the way the C-level is organized and how they’re approaching business challenges. In my opinion, a lot of the C-level have embraced this change, but those that have been successful, are those who’ve been able to link their change to a business plan. The unsuccessful ones have failed because they don’t necessarily understand the value of what they are delivering.
In terms of the CTO, 86 percent of companies we surveyed recently have actually appointed a chief digital officer, a role that never used to exist a year ago.
There’s a lot of change happening so this needs to be the case. Fifty percent of our customers in the survey said their business or industry will change whole lot in next six/12/24 months. That’s the kind of pressure some of the larger, traditional organizations are under, while cloud-native organizations are very agile and can do things very dynamically.
CIOs have become more a part of the boardroom now than ever before; consistent with what you’re saying, this is something we see clearly in our customer base.
AM: To make such a digital change and ingrain a digital culture, it’s obviously important to have people with the right insight and abilities. Is it difficult for companies to find the right people with right kinds of skills, at the C-level and in general throughout the organization?
UR: At the end of the day, people understand their own businesses very well. If they are given an opportunity to grow and are forced through the transformation, many of them can embrace the change and move on to the next level. Intimate business knowledge resides with existing employees so giving them the opportunity to develop is a positive step for companies. A good mix of activity is to up-skill existing staff as well as finding new, skilled hires.
AM: And what is your advice for people hesitant or struggling to make any change?
UR: I’ll give you another example: My father who is in his seventies has had to learn to use Whatsapp to connect with my son, his 15-year-old grandson. If he chose not to learn, he would’ve lost that connection with him.
That’s the message people and organizations need to understand. If they don’t try, they’ll get left behind.