Those with robust digital infrastructures thrive as the world gets to grips with the impact of a pandemic

Jarrah Lowe

By Ahmed Kalagy

A global pandemic is testing business’s digital infrastructure to the limit. Only those that have genuinely re-invented themselves as technology-first, have been able to seamlessly transition to this new world.

With well over 1,000,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over a quarter of the global population in enforced isolation, the importance of having a robust digital backbone to your business is more obvious than ever.

With the majority of workers now forced to operate from their own homes, large numbers of organisations are struggling to facilitate this because the digital infrastructure simply isn’t there. Years of kicking the digital change programme down the road and chronic underinvestment in technology infrastructure has left many firms exposed.

Digital transformation has taken its place alongside automation and artificial intelligence as one of the most pervasive terms of the information age. But now, for the first time in history, the true resilience of these ‘transformations’ has been put to the test and it is becoming easy to see those that have not been transformed at all.

Transformation vs optimisation

Digital natives have technology hardwired into their DNA. For them, reacting to a global pandemic, has been a less daunting task. But for more ‘traditional’ organisations, it is not uncommon, for individual departments to have made a seamless switch to remote working, while other departments have found themselves completely under-prepared.

That is because, while many businesses believe they have completed digital transformations, in reality, they have been implementing isolated digital projects. Simply adding technology to a sales function or even migration from on-premises systems to hybrid cloud does not constitute transformative action. Neither does embracing ERPs that incorporate real-time analytics or using digital technologies to improve the customer experience.

Yes, these are valuable initiatives. Indeed, they may often be essential to surviving the barrage of disruption facing many industries, today. But organisations could undertake all of these projects and still be optimising rather than transforming because delivered in isolation, the underlying problems of working effectively in times of major disruption still remain. Digital transformation involves a complete technological, cultural and business model overhaul that drags a dinosaur into the digital era and creates a business capable of operating seamlessly, even in the face of an international lock-down.

Indeed, while 66 percent of CIOs claim to be transforming their businesses, based on their descriptions of their digital programmes, the real figure is closer to ten percent[1].

True transformations are reserved for the likes of Disney CEO Bob Iger who rebuilt the mass media company from its core, acquiring Pixar as an internal disrupter and bringing Steve Jobs on board as a digital consultant. Tellingly, Iger didn’t assign responsibility for the transformation to a CDO or CIO, he led from the front, transforming Disney into a technology-first leader from the ground up.

[1] Gartner 2018 report on digital transformation

A digital revolution

It isn’t surprising that wholesale digital transformations remain a rarity. Genuine transformation is incredibly hard to pull off. Some studies suggest that as little as five percent of digital transformations actually meet or exceed expectations. Often, management simply underestimates the challenges associated with large scale change in complex organisations, or transformation programmes are frequently implemented in silos, with myriad individual projects going on within a company, but no synergy created across those efforts.

Another common failing is to view a digital transformation as a finite exercise with a static end goal. In reality, digital transformation is perpetual, businesses must continually challenge their processes, people, products, operations, culture and organisational structure, if they are not to be left behind or indeed crippled by a global pandemic. Transformation is about revolution, not evolution, certainly.

The opportunity to execute carefully prioritised individual digital projects remains a legitimate and effective source of value creation, certainly. But it is true, long-lasting, digital transformation that can change the course of a company, unlocking limitless growth potential and – crucially, as we now know – ensuring it has the resilience to withstand whatever shocks may come its way.

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