Finding genuine value in digital transformation

Major technology projects all too frequently result in disappointment, so how can chief information officers ensure they avoid the common pitfalls and deliver clear business benefits?


The pace of digital transformation in almost every organisation has accelerated hugely over the past 12 months, largely driven by the coronavirus pandemic. But as the shock waves subside, the continuing large-scale transfer of operations and services to digital will only be considered truly successful if it delivers lasting and demonstrable business benefits. 

More than ever, therefore, chief executives are looking at their chief information officers (CIOs) to ensure technology-driven projects do not fall into the trap of becoming costly box-ticking exercises that fail to deliver on their promise.

“The pandemic really shone a light on the critical nature of technology and how it enables every single business process,” says Jots Sehmbi, director of innovation and technology, CIO and chief technology officer at the University of Essex. As the pandemic first struck, a year ago, Sehmbi was faced with the challenge of moving the operations of the entire university, comprising some 13,000 students and 2,000 employees, online in under three weeks. “But we were able to do it and with very little interruption,” she says.

The success of this kind of rapid shift puts into sharp relief the fundamental requirement for every transformation project to ensure from the outset it is solving a genuine problem, says Wendy Clark, chief digital information officer at NHS Blood and Transplant. It is essential to get basics like this right and that, she argues, means focusing on “human-centred design”. 

“There has to be a real need, from the people who use a service, to want to use a service that’s digital,” she says. “There are so many examples of services that organisations have tried to push out over the years which, until the need was actually there, people didn’t take up.”

A powerful illustration of this in the healthcare sector is remote consultations with GPs, says Clark, who was executive director of product development at NHS Digital until moving to her current role just over a year ago. “Many doctors didn’t want it and quite a lot of patients didn’t want it, so it didn’t take off at first,” she says. 

Over the past year, catalysed by the pandemic and the need for social distancing, this digital service has gone mainstream. “Under most circumstances, can you imagine doing it any other way now?” she asks.

Understanding the painpoints

The lesson here is there is a real risk of falling into the trap of “digital transformation for the sake of digital transformation”, says Sehmbi, who also sits on several external advisory boards. “A lot of the time people don’t come to CIOs with business problems,” she says. “They come with the question, ‘what’s the shiny new technology we should be using so we stay up to date?’ But really it’s about understanding the challenge you’re trying to resolve.”

She explains this in the context of a real-world scenario. “I may be told, ‘I’ve seen a marketing artificial intelligence system that will give us better intelligence about our customers’. That might sound great, but I will ask, ‘So is customer insight a current problem for you?’ It’s about shifting the conversation to understand the painpoint we’re actually trying to resolve.”

To move the dial in this direction, it is also important for IT leaders to become great explainers to the business, says Patrick Knight, who was group CIO at builders’ merchants Travis Perkins until January this year and has previously held similar roles at TUI, the University of Nottingham and Rentokil Initial. 

“The thing that differentiates success and failure comes down to the story,” he says. “You must understand the whole business and you must be able to relate what you’re attempting to do in a way that can be best received by other people in the business.”

An essential point to be aware of, he says, is technology is just a tool. “But businesses are in the business of making money, so you must be able to describe what you’re doing in those terms. Technology is the least part and the dullest part of what I do. For me, it’s about identifying problems or opportunities where they exist. And the answer may be technology or it may not,” says Knight.

Role of the transformational CIO

A further major component of success is the specific role played by the CIO, particularly when it comes to balancing day-to-day demands against bigger game-changing projects. “CIOs have a never-ending workbook full of legacy challenges and other projects to deploy and roll out,” says Clark. “Trying to free up time to be focused on the future can be hard.”

The best way to tackle this challenge, she says, is to understand no transformational IT leader can go it alone. “The key is building the right team around you that can put the right amount of focus into the various elements of the role,” she says. “What’s more, connecting the transformational aspects and the day-to-day aspects is not completely separate, the two are inextricably linked.”

Taking a different approach to vendor engagement and risk management can help, argues Christine Ashton, who has held IT leadership roles at Thomson Reuters, Transport for London and oil and gas multinational BG Group now Shell, and is currently a consultant with large organisations on digital strategy. This is particularly the case now that IT is increasingly delivered “as a service” via the cloud, she points out.

“We have to convert digital transformation into an ecosystem that sits around a company, with the CIO at the top, and then create very different relationships with providers,” she says. “It should no longer be, ‘I buy your software and I take the risk of putting it in’, but rather, ‘I use your processes to make a contribution to my business, therefore you, as the supplier, must own the risk that those processes will work’.”

Ashton believes that operating in this way can shift relationships, both with vendors and an organisation’s internal and external stakeholders, beyond simple partnerships. Instead, they can become the key to unlocking enormous value by moving the stakes from mere digital transformation to business model transformation. “Businesses were very quick to have the CIO on speed dial during the pandemic,” she says. “CIOs shouldn’t lose that, but we should be talking about something much richer going forwards.”

This means playing an active and “invasive” role in the organisation, while defining the CIO’s contribution in business terms, rather than purely transactional ones. “It’s about being truly bold with the business and with customers,” Ashton concludes. “And the CIOs who do that will fly.”