“Driving Digital” Guides CIOs Through Digital Transformation

By Myles Suer

Isaac Sacolick knows a thing or two about being a CIO. He’s been a CIO himself at businesses like BusinessWeek and McGraw-Hill Construction (now Dodge Data and Analytics). And he runs a consultancy, StarCIO, where he works with CIOs from various industries as they tackle the work of digital transformation.

Sacolick has distilled his knowledge about the changing role of a CIO and best practices for digital transformation into a recently published book, Driving Digital: The Leader’s Guide to Business Transformation Through Technology. The book covers a broad range of topics — everything from how to structure and staff agile development projects to finally getting data integration right after decades of committing “data sins.”

Here’s a quick look at Sacolick’s advice for leading digital transformation initiatives.

Setting the Stage for Digital Transformation

The best place to begin with digital transformation is the role of the CIO itself. That role has changed dramatically in recent years. It’s no longer limited to supporting business units with the operational hardware and software they request.

Now, it’s the CIO’s responsibility to guide those business units through sometimes sweeping transformations that take advantage of new technologies such as the cloud and the Internet of Things (IoT) to radically improve the way they serve customers.

As Sacolick told Forbes Magazine, “Digital transformation is not just about technology and its implementation. It’s about looking at the business strategy through the lens of technical capabilities and [seeing] how that changes how you are operating and generating revenues.”

IT no longer plays a mere supporting role for business strategy. Instead, it reshapes the strategy and perhaps the entire organization as well.

Digital Transformation is Necessary for Survival

Why would IT take on such daunting work? Because digital transformation is now necessary for survival. The lifespan of Fortune 500 companies is shrinking. Disruptive start-ups are appearing in every industry. Enterprises must transform or face obsolescence.

Sacolick’s book is a guidebook for this kind of make-or-break transformation. And while the goals of this transformation are sweeping, Sacolick suggests starting not with lofty mandates from the executive suite, but with a bottom-up journey. That journey begins with getting the IT organization versed in new practices such as agile development and DevOps.

From there, an organization can encourage innovation by developing a pipeline of initiatives based on feedback from customers and employees. Next the company can build its data management capabilities, getting data integration, data governance and data analysis right.

Finally, the company is ready to drive digital and cultural transformation, spurred by the work of early adopters to make the entire organization faster and smarter.

Transformation is the result of bold visions and “baby steps that you can do or influence daily that will take you a couple steps closer to a new destination,” Sacolick says. So what are the tactical steps that move us in the right direction?

Read more from Isaac Sacolick on why CIOs need data governance and agile development to lead digital transformation.

The Importance of Agile Practices

Adopting agile practices comes first. It’s time for organizations to move away from the waterfall model for project management that organizes projects in sequential stages — such as requirements gathering, design, coding, testing, production — each of which might last for months and yet must be completed before the next stage begins.

By the time an IT project managed this way reaches production, market requirements may have changed completely and competitors may have released five or ten iterations of competing products.

Agile practices begin with a small team of experts brainstorming a vision. This team can start working on the most critical features and risky technology areas without overtaxing the business sponsor for information. They can identify key requirements and get a small team developing right away.

The goal is to produce something usable quickly, even if that something is not a complete, ideal implementation. Iterations will follow quickly — typically in a matter of weeks.

To achieve this rapid pace of development and release, many QA functions need to be automated. And release planning needs to start at the same time as the project’s beginning; after all, the initial release is occurring within a few weeks or months, not next year.

Once development sprints and release management are established, the team can begin small development projects and A/B test new ideas.

What sort of projects can be tackled?

Agile practices can be used to work down “technical debt,” IT shortcomings that accrue when IT teams are forced to cut corners to get a project done under a tight deadline. That corner-cutting leads to bad design and bad code. Agile projects can address these shortcomings, re-engineering IT projects for higher quality and better outcomes.

Being agile also mandates integration and automation. No piece of software is an island: software works because it connects to other software and devices. If that software is going to be released on a more frequent basis, the organization needs to adopt a practice of continuous integration, so that new iterations of software can connect successfully.

Automating the entire software build and test pipeline is the way to go here. In a completely automated system, new builds can even be triggered by events.

This close synchronization between development, release and production is what DevOps is all about. DevOps is much more than an org chart change uniting development and operations. It’s really the culture, collaborative practices and automation that align the development and operations teams and support the automated and effective collaboration between both teams.

Asking Questions and Driving Results With Portfolio Management

So far, we’ve talked about agile practices and implementing projects, however quickly and efficiently, one at a time. Now, let’s broaden our perspective. And a good way to do that, Sacolick notes, is by asking the question people ask when a group of managers first meet: “What are you currently working on?”

Getting an answer to that basic question often proves difficult. It can also be misleading: does a detailed accounting of everyone’s hours really tell you that much about what people are working on? Does it tell you the value of what they’re working on, the reason for the work in the first place and how well the project is tracking to schedule?

The next question quickly becomes obvious: “What are people going to be working on?”

To answer these questions and be able to meaningfully evaluate the answers, an organization needs to implement agile portfolio management, a system for tracking initiatives, resources and financials. Portfolios should be evaluated for their impact — growth, operational efficiency, new capabilities, and compliance and risk.

Everything that IT creates needs to tie to business value and move the organization forward. Sacolick’s recent blog post on scaling agile talks about the need for strategic organizational change — and agile portfolio management provides a framework for evaluating IT’s work and measuring its support of the organization’s progress.

Building a Data-Driven Organization

It’s common for IT and business leaders to misconstrue what it means to be a data-driven organization. Too often, they think of big data, data lakes and somehow finding the data scientists talented enough to make sense of all that various data collected at high velocity. But, as Sacolick points out, that’s only one aspect of being data-driven.

Real success in being data-driven means connecting previously disconnected data repositories, making data analytics available to a broader audience than just the people running the processes being analyzed, and connecting data end-to-end from customer to back office systems so that customer experiences can be tuned and optimized in real time.

Integration plays a key role, connecting siloed databases and other data sources. Integration provides a foundation, and then data governance, analytics and visualization need to be implemented on top.

Once data sources are connected, data quality problems that have lingered for years can finally be addressed. IT organizations can implement master data management, establishing “golden records” for all key data types and ensuring, for example, that systems in sales and finance are using the same definition of key terms.

Data governance should define best practices that help the organization avoid the “data sins” of the past, while also ensuring that data can be accessed and leveraged at scale across the organization.

Driving Revenue Through Digital Products

Once an organization has adopted agile practices and become truly data-driven, it can implement significant improvements, such as workflow automation and integrating third-party services, that will yield bottom-line results. For example, the organization will be better able to implement improvements that are requested by customers. It will more easily be able to launch products and services to seize market opportunities and to leverage emerging technologies such as the IoT.

Here, too, the changing role of the CIO becomes evident. Because new business initiatives are essentially IT initiatives and CIOs bear the responsibility for shaping and delivering them, CIOs must in effect become product managers. And their staff must include employees skilled at product management, not just project management.

Succeeding at Digital Transformation

Driving Digital does a great job at walking CIOs through practical steps for transforming their organizations to deliver products and services for the digital age. But Sacolick knows that no IT organization can succeed on its own. CIOs need the support of the rest of the executive team and the board. From the top down, the organization must be committed to moving both smarter and faster.

Then, with visionary support at the top, and an agile, integrated and automated IT architecture spanning departments and divisions, the organization is ready to innovate.

Need to move against new competitors or adjust a new regulation? These challenges are no longer insurmountable. Want to create boldly innovative products and services? Just do it. Driving digital makes it possible.

Driving Digital: The Leader’s Guide to Business Transformation Through Technology is available on Amazon.com.