Digital transformation: 4 steps CIOs should take to stay on track

The path to digital transformation presents formidable hurdles. Here’s how to help your organization recognize diverse perspectives, log quick wins, ensure buy-in, and identify scalable technology
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Digital transformation ROI

Given their twin responsibilities in both business and technical leadership, CIOs are in a unique position to facilitate digital transformation. And it’s an important role, given the opportunity and challenges on the road to digital.

Understanding the most common concerns and hurdles to digital transformation, and knowing how to work around them, can speed the journey significantly.

[ The hardest part of digital transformation is culture change. Get the free eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Consider these four essential steps:

Step 1. Embrace different perspectives

For many organizations, the digital transformation starts outside the CIO’s domain, as people running different aspects of the business have a “wouldn’t it be great if we could…” epiphany. But while that may be the catalyst, those theoretical improvements might not match with the reality of business, technical, budgetary, or time constraints.

Many transformations go awry at this most fundamental level, as actual outcomes steadily diverge from the original concept. As the bridge between technical implementation and business objectives, the CIO needs to recognize and address this divergence before it undercuts the actual transformation. This requires clear and consistent communication to foster alignment on the timeline and milestones for achievable results.

[ Read also: When digital transformation stalls: 8 questions to ask. ]

With the CIO’s guidance, transformation teams must work in tandem with business stakeholders to understand what they think the transformation is going to accomplish – and as necessary, shift perceptions to match with reality. Co-opting the rest of the organization into the transformation journey ensures they both recognize the destination and that everyone can get there on time.

Step 2: Focus on incremental wins

Beginning radical change can be a challenge. Many organizations face two competing urges: Start immediately on disparate pilot programs (risking control and scalability) or meticulously craft the perfect comprehensive transformation (risking months or years of delay with limited return).

A better approach is to avoid both scattershot and boil-the-ocean extremes and instead strive for an orchestrated series of incremental wins. Having a broad strategy with clear end-goals is an obvious prerequisite, but so are regular, manageable milestones and quick successes. In fact, it’s difficult to overemphasize the importance of these mini-milestones in guaranteeing there are frequent results to share with various stakeholders, including the board.

Avoid both scattershot and boil-the-ocean extremes and instead strive for an orchestrated series of incremental wins.

One possible approach: Identify processes that stretch across different aspects of the business (for instance, a customer journey or fulfillment of a sale) and digitally automate the key steps in that process. Each step becomes a milestone, and the larger transformation provides an organizational roadmap.

Step 3: Win hearts and minds

The first reaction to change is resistance, and this becomes a key organizational struggle. Few teams or departments will be celebrating when digital transformation initiatives are announced. Reactions generally range from cool-but-not-essential (at best) to “whatever” or even outright hostility.

Yet in a very real sense, digital transformations are often crucial to long-term success. That makes employee participation in the transformation journey not only important organizationally, but a matter of survival.

The key for CIOs is not confusing executive or board-level communication with broader organizational understanding and consensus. Departmental leaders are the critical bridge to the rest of the workforce, and getting them on board will make the transition significantly easier. By sharing the larger vision with managers and showing them the role they have to play, how the transformation will benefit their department, and how their success will contribute to the wider business objective, CIOs can help evangelize the change, ensuring it trickles down to all levels of the organization.

Step 4: Identify a scalable solution

It’s usually a good approach to start small, then go big. But in spearheading a digital transformation, this scale comes with its own set of challenges. It’s one thing to successfully execute a trial transformation initiative in one small team. It’s quite another to roll that change out across the whole organization to all its core systems and critical processes.

There are two equally important considerations here: First, it’s entirely possible to have a series of digital transformation wins at the micro-scale, only to find that each of those transformations remains siloed in a single aspect of the business. Despite all the hype around robotic process automation, for example, this lack of broad organizational scale has proved a key challenge for growing these deployments.

The second trap is found in successful pilot transformations that work well in a small, controlled environment but fail at scale-out in the wild. A key indicator can be a heavy reliance on IT involvement in modifications; digital transformation must evolve to meet changing business realities, and anything that leans too heavily on IT for those adjustments will quickly stall. “Adapt or die” is as true in the digital world as it is in life.

Only CIOs have the broad perspective to ensure that transformation deployments can reach both deeply into organizational silos and broadly across lines of business. And only the leader of the IT organization can recognize when it’s counterproductive for digital initiatives to be too dependent on IT.

CIOs have a unique role that’s pivotal to digital transformation. And the better they can recognize and co-opt different perspectives, assure quick wins, ensure team buy-in, and identify business-friendly technology, the greater the likelihood of long-term success.

[ Get answers to common digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: What is digital transformation? A cheat sheet. ]

Gustavo Gómez is founder and CEO of Bizagi, a leading provider of intelligent process automation software connecting people, robots and information.