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Why evolving businesses need both IT and digital transformation directors

(Image credit: Image Credit: Wright Studio / Shutterstock)

With businesses across all sectors looking at ways to become disruptors, rather than the disrupted, the time for harnessing opportunities and embracing change is now. But, dealing with change and disruption comes with a whole host of challenges. This is perhaps why, while 87 per cent of companies believe digital will disrupt their industry, only 44 per cent claim to be adequately prepared for this digital disruption.

Many businesses will have a director of IT or CIO in place, who is responsible for the digital aspect of the business. However, digital disruption is a big area to tackle, meaning that it can’t just be on the to-do list for an IT director to get to when he has time. This in turn raises the question of whether responsibility for digital innovation should fall as part of their remit, or whether there should be somebody else within the business whose main role is to deal specifically with digital disruption.

For example, the remit of our director of systems is largely what you would expect from that position. He ensures the systems are running and that regular refresh and upgrade requirements are met, modernising the underlying technology infrastructure to ensure it is equipped for whatever the digital team may be working on.

However, after Fletchers recognised the need to become the disruptor and make digital improvements across the organisation, I was appointed as director of digital and disruption to help steer the business into this exciting new phase of growth.

Let’s take a look at the difference between the roles of those in charge of IT and digital disruption, as well as the need for these two roles to work together to drive transformation fully aligned with the business’s needs.

IT vs digital transformation: what’s the difference?

Digital transformation emphasises how a business evolves to thrive in a digital economy – for example, by using smart devices and analysing data to out-innovate, out-think and out-pace competitors.

However, digital transformation isn’t possible without the IT team working to ensure that the infrastructure is able to handle the pace that the disruptors are able to achieve. Digitally maturing organisations are able to adapt and align their strategy, workforce, culture and technology to meet ongoing digital advances in a way that other organisations struggle to achieve; for which IT is key.

This is why any successful digital transformation initiatives, and achieving digital maturity, need to go hand-in-hand with a complementary IT transformation.

IT transformation centres on modernising the underlying technology infrastructure, enabling speed, efficiency, scalability and cost effectiveness – freeing up resources through automating manual tasks and streamlining operations, which in turn fuels digital transformation initiatives.

While the systems team work with the technology infrastructure, the team in charge of digital disruption look at ways to change the business and how to embrace the change. This means positioning people, processes and technology to meet the digital advances head on, ensuring that the business can exploit them for maximum opportunities.

It is therefore key to the success of both the IT and digital directors that they take a co-ordinated approach and work well together. There has to be a common understanding of what new technologies could unlock for the business. This focuses on open communication and bringing IT to the table as a stakeholder in the business (rather than just a scope-driven cost centre), which is probably the key takeaway for avoiding conflict amongst decision makers.

Where does the digital transformation director most need to work with IT?

Updating legacy systems

For those looking to enact transformation initiatives, dealing with legacy systems and processes can be one of the biggest challenges, with the ongoing cost of maintaining old systems sometimes being a limiting factor to development.

Unlike new startups, most existing firms will have IT infrastructure unsuited to the rapid pace of development that comes with disruption - if it can even integrate with the new data-driven platforms that are emerging at all.

Dealing with legacy isn’t all about the systems though. Updating systems means also updating the processes that go with them, and the knowledge of the people supporting them,  with part of the job of those leading digital disruption being to make sure people are engaged and excited enough to embrace this.

This transformation is where the director of systems (in charge of IT) and the director of digital (in charge of disruption) need to come together and take a co-ordinated approach, as digital transformations rarely go entirely to plan and protecting the core of the business is therefore crucial. It is inevitable that there will be some disruption to the existing business, but if stakeholders can be brought on board and convinced of the long-term benefits of the plan, the process should be much easier.

People management

The importance of people in any digital transformation – particularly in the long-term reorientation and upskilling of the existing workforce to realise the benefits of any new technology deployed – cannot be understated. Knowing when to hire and when to contract out for key and complex elements of transformation is crucially important to understand and subsequently budget for – particularly given that the lead time in getting the right people can be long if those skills are in demand.

Decision makers are used to treating IT as a cost-centre, with transformation programmes designed to realise efficiencies or productivity increases, whereas digital disruption is about pivoting the entire business model around what digital technologies can enable, unlocking new revenue streams along the way.

Sometimes, the new systems and processes implemented may actually be more expensive to put in place and run than the incumbent solution, but should more than return on that investment long-term. Because of this, the business case for disruption is often not simply X being cheaper than Y, which is why a nuanced understanding of the potential of new tools to help the business work in new ways or areas is needed.

Ensuring business processes keep pace with evolving systems

Finally, process is an often forgotten, but key, component to transformation. A business could integrate all the new technologies in the world, but without the business processes there to support them, they would fail to realise any meaningful value.

For example, why have a platform that allows rapid development and releases of updates if there is no understanding of a devops mentality that supports CI/CD pipelines? Why have a cloud infrastructure that can scale with the business if the plan is simply to lift-and-shift the businesses’ existing monolithic applications into it?

Ensuring the right level of understanding of the why, and how, not just the what, of digital transformation is key to the overall strategy’s success. This goal, much like the entire process of transformation, cannot be fully realised by one person.

Indeed, for business transformation – digital or otherwise – to be truly aligned with business aims, a team of people with complementary skills and the same goal in mind is key; in turn driving a brighter future for their business, their clients and their sector as a whole.

James Alexander, head of digital and disruption, Fletchers Solicitors (opens in new tab)

James Alexander is head of digital and disruption at Fletchers Solictors, a leading serious injury and medical negligence law firm.