Businesses chase agility in the new world of digital

Ian Wyrley-Birch, partner, The Birchman Group

Powerful technologies such as cloud computing, big data and artificial intelligence are doubling in capability every one to two years and coming together to help accelerate critical breakthroughs in innovation. These technologies are combining to drive much-needed technical and cultural transformation in industries and businesses at threat of digital disruption.

The pace of change required to transform effectively means businesses are having to significantly increase the speed at which they adopt change initiatives. To thrive in the digital world, companies need to streamline the rigid structures and legacy processes that exist in their organisation, and ultimately change the way their projects are run and decisions are made.

The ability to achieve standard best practice and unique innovation in tandem will provide significant commercial advantage and make it extremely difficult for competitors to replicate

According to Ian Wyrley-Birch, global partner at consulting firm The Birchman Group, companies have no choice but to embark on a digital transformation. “They must keep up with, and exceed, customer expectation,” he says. “The question is how they do this and when. It is only a matter of time before today’s technologies become tomorrow’s standards.”

There is no magic bullet to achieve a successful digital transformation, but businesses should begin by reviewing the skills they have at their disposal. With most of the technologies involved in digital transformation still in an emerging phase, the talent required to deliver these new capabilities is hard to come by. “Even the big consultancies apply outdated project management methodologies and bog organisations down in too much complexity,” says Mr Wyrley-Birch.

However, the biggest mistake a business can make is to wait for the technologies to mature. One of the biggest roadblocks to digital transformation is a risk-averse mindset. Many organisations are too siloed and focused on back-office processes, rather than delivering true customer value. They dismiss digital as an IT issue that only requires a change in technical architecture, resulting in a lack of real buy-in from the top of the business and an unaccommodating culture.

“Organisations need to get into the mindset of adopting best practise and only adapting processes that are unique to them,” says Mr Wyrley-Birch. “The key here is for businesses to truly understand their uniqueness and adopt standard everywhere else. Once this has been established, they must adapt to continuous innovation and change, seeking opportunities to exploit their uniqueness and build new capability rapidly. To do this they must be fast to identify the opportunity and make the decision, and ideally teams should be empowered to do all of this autonomously.”

The result, he says, is a truly agile business that enables continuous transformation. Without this agility, digital initiatives will take too long, exceed budgets and fail to implement deeply enough, ultimately disrupting the company and having a negative impact on business performance. Senior management lose confidence in the strategy, jeopardising the executive sponsorship that is so vital to digital transformation and making resistance to change even greater.

Consultancies play an important part in guiding a company’s digital transformation, but those that take the traditional approach of advising a big programme of cultural change precedes the digital transformation itself have led businesses down a route of failure due to a lack of vision and control. UK-headquartered Birchman Group advocates the approach that these should be done in parallel.

“A successful digital transformation is done in controlled, manageable chunks,” says Mr Wyrley-Birch. “We delivered a digital transformation with a global FTSE 100 company in under a year in this way and after three years their competitors still hadn’t caught up. We brought in an approach to running projects tailored to their organisational capability. It delivered enormous benefit in 18 months, driven by the vital ingredients of strong sponsorship and true agility.”

As digital continues to disrupt industries, the ability to achieve standard best practice and unique innovation in tandem will provide significant commercial advantage and make it extremely difficult for competitors to replicate. “Companies must identify what is truly unique about them and create a platform for growth around that,” Mr Wyrley-Birch concludes.

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